YukkiYoYo

It is with great sadness that I bring the news of Yukihiro Suzuki (known onstage as YukkiYoYo) passing away on the 27th June 2012. My heart goes out to his friends and family and I thought it might be fitting to share a few thoughts here…

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Around 2000 when internet videos were starting to really open my eyes to the wider yo-yo community I came across a few videos of a ridiculously talented boy doing things with two yo-yos that I didn’t know we’re possible. I’d watch them over and over hoping some of it might rub off.

In 2002 I watched Yukkis worlds freestyle, it floored me. It was the most raw freestyles I’d ever seen (and possibly will ever see). Such style and energy.

A few years later in France I had the pleasure to meet Yukki in person, I remember being genuinely nervous meeting someone who I had admired and watched for years. Yukki struck me as a humble, kind and generous person. I spoke to him about circus school and performing, at the time I was in a similar position to him, although I was just starting out at circus school.

I remember Yukki talking about originality, being true to yourself on stage and finding your personality in the technique. Sometimes a slightly abstract concept but with Yukki you could really see this ideal on stage.

Yukki had the rare insight and abilities to combine a supreme understanding of technique with a truly unique aesthetic, provoking emotion like any great piece of art. Yukki was a true Yo-Yo Artist.

The world is a worse off place without Yukki, so many audiences robbed of seeing such a talent, ideas the world will never see, such style…. Gone.

Video of the week – Wall of Death

Just like you we love a bit of danger.

This beautifully made video by Benedict Campbell features The Ken Fox Troupe, one of a very few families still performing “The Wall of Death” in Europe.

I wonder if anyone is performing the bicycle version anymore? If not perhaps it would be a fun project for someone to do*?!

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*Lions optional

Thanks to Howie for pointing this one out!

5 things that suck about Circus Artist’s websites

Here are 5 (of many) things that suck about the average circus artist website…

  • Flash. It’s amazing that in 2012 there are still people posting links to new websites that have Flash embedded. Flash doesn’t work on any iOS devices (iPhone, iPad), is buggy and is unnecessary. If you really want spinning animations or even some tasteful crossfading photos then HTML-5 is where you need to head. Leave the Flash in the 90s!
  • Splash pages. No one wants to land on a page that is just a photo of you with ‘click here to enter’ (BOOM,BOOM!) written underneath. It’s pointless and ups the chances of someone giving up on you before they get to see what you’re really about.
  • Homepages. Circus is a visual, live medium. Obvious I know but clearly some of you need reminding of this because you don’t have a video on your homepage. Why not?! Having great images on your site is important but not as important as showing what you actually do! Embeding a YouTube or Vimeo video is super simple, if you don’t want their logos involved they pay for a Vimeo Pro or VideoPress account (personally I think it’s fine, people trust YouTube and therefore more likely to click play). Don’t make a potential booker have to search for your video, it should be one of the first things they come across.
  • Use of lingo. Your site is probably not aimed at people who understand circus lingo so avoid specialised words and phrases.
  • Ego (I’m learning this one the hard way). You don’t want ego on a site that is about you. Sounds odd but it’s true. Your design, layout, copy, video, blog and social media should be aimed at a particular type of customer. You need to address their worries and wants rather than use your site as a chance to show just how really great you are. That’s not to say you won’t show your strengths, it’s just you want to do it in a manner that connects and engages rather than shows off. It’s possibly the most important thing to learn in marketing and particularly important for artists who have to promote themselves. If your sites going to be effective at driving you business then you need to study this stuff and more!

Video of the Week – Philippe Petit: The journey across the high wire

There was a time when the Twin Towers tight wire walk was an insider circus story, forgotten by New York and the rest of the world. Then Man on a Wire was released and the world listened, Petit back in fashion.

In this video Petit condenses his solo show to a 18min Ted talk.

*Warning* the juggling is a little painful….

Teachers Week

Right now I am sitting in the backseat of a small van / large car: sandwiched comfortably between a yoga teacher and an aerialist. In the front seats are a burlesque performer and, driving, one of our two producers. We are en route to our second venue as part of the Cwtch Cabaret tour in Wales.
www.cwtchcabaret.co.uk

But I want to write now not about touring in the UK (which is a great and wonderful novelty for me!), but about a project which shows once more that jugglers are the geekiest of the circus community.

Earlier this month I was in Berlin for a week, participating in the first Juggling Teachers Meeting, held at the Berlin Juggling Center. Arranged by the centres owner, Alan Blim (the original founder of Berlin’s Juggling Katakomben), this five day workshop was supported by a European initiative for teaching, and had participants from Hungary, the Czech Republic, the UK, Italy, Spain, and of course Germany.
Berlin Juggling Center

So in all we had around a dozen students, and four teachers completed the group: myself, Alan Blim, Marco Paoletti, and Tim Roberts (long-time juggling teacher at the Chalôns school, now head of Higher Education at the Circus Space in London, and president of FEDEC).

Each of us was to teach a day (and to participate as students in the other days), and a target of the week was not only to teach our usual workshops or themes, but also to go deeper into the actual teaching theory behind our work. Each teacher had their own style and manner of course, which also meant that different teachers went at different levels, and in differing depths, into the theoretical aspects behind their teaching.

It became clear by the third day that teaching juggling in general can be divided into two large and different themes: long-term teaching (such as at a professional circus school, with the same students over a period of years), and short-term (like an hour workshop at a juggling convention). Knowing the context that the teaching is happening in informs the content and the detail of the work that is appropriate. Long-term teaching allows more personal research, and the teacher-student relationship can be more equal, with the teacher taking on something of a professor or mentor-like role. In short-term teaching, quicker results are usually desired by the students, and it can be more important to place focus on quick results – cool tricks or simple sequences.

Each of the four teachers material and teaching styles were very different from each other, but common themes showed themselves each days: suggesting that there is some common or shared vocabulary amongst us all. Building a strong foundation of technique and content, creating neutral space for new creation, exploring existing elements as deeply as possible, and noticing (and then breaking) habits we have formed.

Another major topic of discussion was a theme which I have talked about in previous blogs here: the reasons for, and the consequences of, the lack of permanent juggling teachers in comparison to those of other disciplines. As I have also postulated, I believe this is part of the reason for jugglers, historically speaking, pushing further creatively than other artists. But that has always seemed to be an accident of the situation (caused by students having a multitude of visiting, performing teachers), rather than the schools explicitly choosing to provide teaching in that manner.

The desire was always to create something more tangible from the weeks research, and through Tim’s involvement came the decision to write a juggling teachers manual for FEDEC. FEDEC has an ongoing project to create training manuals (free to download from the FEDEC website) for the circus disciplines, to promote exchange between the schools and a good level of teaching across all subjects. There are ten “chapters” so far, and two further (single wheel and straps) already in production. They start with the most basic of technique and preparatory work, before moving onto more advanced material. It became clear that the juggling manual doesn’t need low-level teaching material (the juggling students at the professional circus schools already enter with a high technique level), and so the focus shall be more directly centred on the artistic and theoretical aspects of the work.
www.fedec.eu

Perhaps that approach can then feed back into the other disciplines, just as we jugglers can learn from them. It is also hoped that the work that was begun over the week can be continued and added to: to arrange another meeting, perhaps in London, with a greater mix of teachers with a greater range of experience and styles. Although the week was inspiring and felt very important, it also felt very much like a first step – a step towards a bigger and clearer project.

Circus Sideshow “Geek”

GEEK: \’gēk\, noun
From the low German geck, meaning “fool” (1914).
1: A carnival performer often billed as a wild man whose act usually includes biting the head off of a live chicken or snake.
2: A person often of an intellectual bent who is disliked.
3: An enthusiast or expert especially in a technological field or activity (computer geek).
— geek•dome, noun
— geek•i•ness, noun
— geeky, adjective
— geek, verb

Merriam Webster On-Line

I am actually considered a geek because I eat, or geek, fire. Any time we eat random items nowadays (lightbulbs, bugs, etc.) it is considered geeking. Though originally this term was reserved for biting (geeking) the heads off of chickens with great show, usually dressed is white.

Shiny, Dangerous, New Toys

I got new toys Thursday. Shiny new toys. Sharp, dangerous, shiny, new toys. And I’m so giddy I may throw up 🙂

I bought the swords I need for my Ladder of Blades act. I’m building the ladder from scratch. I like this idea because in the process of building it not only will I learn a lot, about the blades and the construct of the ladder, but I will gain a stronger connection to my gear. I’m hoping it’ll end up feeling like an extension of myself. This is really important because I’m stepping it up with this act, it’ll officially be the most dangerous act we do. Let me reprise a part of an earlier blog where I mentioned injuries I normally only associate with shark attacks. And then Thursday I was additionally cautioned against loosing my acheles tendon. So this is where I say “Don’t Try This At Home,” there is no please about it. As if filleting my calf wasn’t caution enough, or repeatedly cutting my feet; but for some reason I am still gung-ho about this act. Thank you Mom for the ballet lessons, they are about to come in very handy. I need to work out, build my muscle strength up so I don’t wibble wobble. My center of balance has to be true. I can’t make a mistake. Which is why I was insistent about spending my own money to build the ladder so it would be mine, so I could connect with it. Any blood will be my own. Slightly grotesque, maybe, I prefer to think of it more as ritualistic. Like tearing down and rebuilding your first motorcycle engine.

First thing I did was to go to someone who knew what the hell they were talking about, our trusted Mike Todd. Sideshow, sword-swallower, weapons-master extraordinaire, he has even defied death in the name of Circus Sideshow. A wealth of facts and a library of history, he takes our art with an air of respect and glee. Needless to say I trust him. So I called him up, 6 months ago, just to get info and the specs of the ladder, what I would need and the like. He took the time to expand on the info and give me more information I would need, cautions, etc. He even went so far as to say that when I was ready he would go with me to help pick out the blades. Disco! Because you know I don’t know what I’m doing with it comes to swords you step on. Besides, I’m a knife girl, short blades I understand, but long blades escape me.

Thank you Dad! He’s the one who insisted on giving me an American Express gift card for my X-mas present. He said that if he gave me cash it wouldn’t feel like a present and besides I’d just spend it on bills anyway. Dang you Father and your generosity! (shaking fist in the air) What am I going to do with a gift card? Bing! My dad totally solved a problem for me, because all those blades were not going to come cheap and I had been saving up – sorta. I called up Mike and he was a bright ray of sunshine on the phone, I nearly fell off my chair. Hey I live in LA, no one is that happy on the telephone here, we think you want something. But it’s Mike, so I was okay. We went last night to a couple of shops, turns out military supply shops are a good place to start, but apparently they had a run on their machetes – which makes me concerned on a few levels – so we went to the mall. You know those Oriental stores in the mall full of things you can get in Little Tokyo for cheaper? Well as it turns out in the back there’s weaponry, who knew? Oh what a plethora of swords, knives, axes, and blades they had; but I had criteria to stick to. The blades had to be of stainless or carbon-steel, preferably shiny and wide because it reads better from stage. Some blades are harder to walk on than others while they might seem easier to the audience, and other turns of thought. But no matter what it’s still a blade that can cripple me, there’s no faking it, so no matter how giddy I was I had to take this seriously. Fake or cast metal ran the chance of breaking under my weight and that’s when I lose a body part. I took a few deep breaths while I was there. I was nervous no matter what.

But I found four beautiful blades, I want one more. I think an odd number is more pleasing to the eye. I am happy. I picked out four different shapes and looks to go with an aspect in the show we are working on. Since the ladder itself is being custom-made this is not as big an issue as we can design the recesses in the ladder to match the blades to make them as level as possible. I’m going to help with the design and the building so that I know my ladder that much better. The way I figure it, the better I know it the better off I will be. But for now I’m enjoying being giddy over my new swords. The simitar is awesome, I finally have a pirate sword, one is super ornate – which I think is good for stage, and one is a down and dirty machete – though it may need to be prettied up just a bit. You gotta just love new toys!

Holding Friends Hostage Proves Useful

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Oh, it proves ever so useful. Just strap them down. I prefer to use straightjackets, double reinforced cotton duck. Or if you find yourself without, and following a theme (I love themes) use duct tape. In this case tape them to their chairs. I am also fond of packaging twine. Thin yet strong these little wonders are very deceptive. Bonus – got some old dentist chairs lying around? They allow you to strap their heads back so they’re always facing towards your stage. They won’t be going anywhere. Now you have yourself a captive audience. If you feed them and promise to release them unharmed they also might provide you with some (honest?) feedback.

Ladies and Gentlemen, enjoy the show!

This gives you a chance to improve, to work out an idea you’ve had, to stretch out something to an extreme to see if it works. It’s like a mini workshop. You want to try out a new character you been batting around your head for a month, whip it out. Want to see if that extra flip or stunt will fly or flop with the audience, let ‘er rip. How about that secret new act you’ve honed on your own, shine baby shine!

Performing in front of your friends isn’t just a great workshop it’s also great chance for simple practice in front of an audience. Cirque and Sideshow performing is still performing and some still have stage fright. Wonderful point here is that with your bondaged audience members they really are captive and they aren’t going anywhere, so you have no fear of someone getting up and leaving for any reason. Potty breaks are just going to have to wait. You can relax, breathe. Take an extra moment and then start. Adrenalin will be pumping and half working against you in this respect, so just breathe.

Friends are wonderful, so giving, so accommodating, so selfless in giving up their time without hardly having to be asked. Their gift to you is your extra preparation and workout with your art, act, and self. *Just allow an hour of lead time to catch and tie down said friends.

(*this blog is assuming an audience of 5-10 friends, depending on how fast they all are)

Oh, This Old Thing?

I am amazed, in awe, truly dumbfounded that anything we do could possibly become old hat; but sometimes to us it does. I have to wonder if my fellow acrobats go through this as well? Let me explain.

Sideshow by definition is based on the different, the oogie, and the thing that gets a visceral reaction out of people. A common pitfall in performing these stunts is that we become used to doing them, compare it to a long run of a theatre production if you like but on a longer scale. We get so used to the stunt we start to become numb to that which makes it special. What may be even tinged with a little sadness is we forget what it was like the first time we did the stunt, all those emotions rolled up into a tight little ball inside us. I dare say we may even become just a tiny bit jaded in this amnesia.

I recently had the luxury of watching my troupe’s latest round of trainees, whome I’ve termed our ‘Debutants’, train in fire eating – my specialty. Now I would hope I have not become jaded in the least with my love, but you never know. I just so happened to catch them on the night, after all the nights of lecturing and safety rules and prep, that they were going to put fire to torch and do their first eat. I was giddy.

I was amazed and in awe. I couldn’t take my eyes of off them, it was rivetted. It was as if I was seeing fire eating again for the first time, so raw. They were fighting with themselves. Well, actually to be more precise they were fighting with the human ingrained fear of fire hard-wired into the amegdala – it resides at the center of the brain and is the oldest and one of the first parts of our brains to evolve. It’s like stepping in the ring with Ali him-own-self. Believe me the first time you eat fire that torch looks for all the world like a flaming meteor coming towards your face. Every fiber in your being is screaming at you, “DO NOT DO THIS.” But we have a great coach, our Yoda, and we trust him enough to think for us in this moment – if need be – as our own thinking might be overwrought by the all too human fear of fire. These Debutants fought with themselves, which is a unique sight to see. A one-handed fight, torch in hand the other hand on hip; bicep, trice and carpi all in dynamic tension not knowing if it’s coming or going. She is trying to lower the flaming torch into her mouth and her amegdala is trying to save her from herself. Some balk and don’t finish the eat without shame. It is a difficult struggle undoing milliniai of genetic programming; but those who do succeed are forever changed. Those who conquer their ingrained fear of fire and finish an eat, even if they never eat another torch in their life, come away from the experience a different person. For at the very least, whether they know it or not, if they can do that they can do anything.

My eyes are wide, and my jaw is dropped, there’s a chance I might be drooling I’ve been frozen in this position for so long. But that is how drawn in I am by what my girls are going through. Their experience is captivating, so literal. I remember my first eat, the nervousness, the sweat, my flinch, the elation after the eat. I was Wonder Woman and I felt so free.

I don’t ever want to forget what that feels like, the fear, the fight and the triumph. Teaching and watching the lessons is a wonderful way to remember and keep the old feelings fresh. Even something as simple as remembering what the stunt looks like to the lay man helps. In glass walking I kid about “make the noise, we live for the noise” from the audience. But it’s also about the noise of each pop and crack of the glass that is singular and unique to the audience like their gasps are to us. So if they aren’t making the noise we’ll pick and pop through the glass until they do, and then we smile 🙂

Grotesque Like Me

Elly del Sarto; from a c. 1910 postcard.
Image via Wikipedia

I was well over two years into sideshow before it even occurred to me that a woman performing circus sideshow stunts might be viewed as “grotesque.” I don’t think of these things, the weird, the freaky, the odd. I see something I’d like to do and I do it. Not until much later does it enter my mind that any of it might veer a little to the left of the norm. But then I guess that’s what sideshow specifically chooses for, doesn’t it?

My troupe is made up of a lot of very beautiful women, most of whom you would never think did this sort of thing, the oddity, the absurd. We even have one Lady who would pass for a Disney princess. Really, I swear! And we all have had this talk a bunch of times that we’ve never felt quite a part of normal society. Oh sure, we can pass with the best of them; Beverly Hill events, high intellect societies, professional businesses and the like, the whole kit and kaboodal. But none of us ever really felt like we fit — I’d like to think of it as a really long run of junior high. And then the clouds parted and the universe gave us SIDESHOW! and we found a home and a family with each other. Strange, no? In reality not so much. In truth, I would think this story is much more familiar to everyone than we all would think. It’s just that in those who are a little “left of center” it is more apparent. If we listen to each other we begin to understand that not only did we probably have that outside time when we were younger, but we still have something now that may make us feel like we are not a part of the collective. Sometimes it can be so much so that we might very well feel like we have a glowing incandescent sign with a big red arrow pointing at us screaming “one of these things is not like the others, one of these things is just not the same!” Or is it just me?

My Ladies and I get up on stage with our Yoda each night we perform our mind bending stunts of outrageous human feats revelling in this strangeness. We long to hear those noises of gasps and eeks and inhales – Make the noise, we live for the noise. In the process of being the freak working acts we have concered our most primitive fears of fire, creepy crawlies and pain, and we offer it up to you. At the same time we stand virtually naked in front of our audience in all of our grotesque and freakish glory and unarm you of your own insecurities – if only for a moment – without you even knowing it. And we ask you to be “one of us.”

Personal Pt. II: Reunion

I emerge from the cavernous depths that have been the last miles of my journey: a journey that has taken me from the frozen steppes of the northern frontier to this, the very edge of this sprawling continent. I blink uneasily in the harsh early light, and allow the warm rain to embrace my face as I turn to the east and the winding unkept path that marks the route I must take. As I step forward, my bag heavy on my back, filled only with the essentials I dare not leave alone, I espie it in the distance. My final destination can be glimpsed between the heavy and fortified walls that punctuate this barren and detail-less realm.

The behemoth.

It rises menacingly from the water. Even from this distance, it dwarves the figures and temple-like constructions around it. It’s scale causes me to freeze for one long moment. It is still a good forty-eighth of a days hike from me, but already it dominates the skyline. In that moment I know that my destination is, despite all adversity, now close at hand, and that it will be watching me as I approach: teasing me with cul-de-sacs and detours.

A long moment of hesitation. And then I stride on to meet the creature. For I know that in it’s hidden depths, deep in its hideous belly, is the woman I seek. Swept away nearly one half year ago from her home and her country, cursed to be hoisted thrice-weekly above the thousands strong throng that choose to live their cursed lives within the creatures belly. Lifted high into the air, to be tossed and pulled this way and that by ropes and other cunning devices, clad only in the thinnest of garbs imaginable, swept this way and that for the voyeuristic pleasures of the heaving multitude.

It is for her that I have made this journey. Knowing that the hardships I have endured are meaningless compared to those she must have faced. As I strode the world freely, she was pulled hither and thither upon it. Spat up upon foreign shores, to be allowed but the barest glimpse of the world outside the great creature, a glimpse that brought with it the illusion, the promise even, of freedom and choice, before being dragged remorselessfully back into its depths.

I hurry along the path. I ignore the lashing of the downfall. I am already soaked, a heady mingling of sweat and rain in this humid place. I haven’t washed for days, the floods and the acid-spitting wildlife precluded it.

As I move purposefully forward, a sudden vibration seems to enter my body. She has bent agents to her will, and sometimes she can use these minions to pass messages. I know how to decode these missives, arriving as they do not in the claws of ravens, nor on the flights of arrows, but as carefully typed words on the front of my journal and map.

She writes of The Drill. A cruel ritual that the creature seems to find a heady delight in. The most delight seems to be gained by springing it most unexpectedly upon it’s victims, and it seems that The Drill may be starting very soon. My beloved is required (or rather, is enforced, as the scent of punishment for the most minor of sins hangs heavy in that place) to spend hours in some display of penitence to her masters, to be paraded before them once more, in a cruel parody of power and hierarchy. She fears that The Drill may be starting very soon, a fact which would reduce the scant hours our reunion has been favoured with to substantially fewer. What cruel Gods or Demons are these, that toy with me even now, so close to my goal after so many months?

I walk faster. Picking my way through the detritus.

The behemoth grows larger, and my anticipation with it.

————

(I managed to visit Petra in Lisbon for a few hours during her cruiseship contract. The drill was cancelled, and the quest was successful.)

Circus Futures

For those of you who may not be aware there’s a large (for UK standards) circus event happening at the end of November which could prove to be very interesting….

Circus futures is a showcase/conference taking place on the 30th of November and 1st of December in Bristol designed to bring policy makers, producers and artists together.

The event will consist of keynotes, showcases and panel decisions centring around,

“…the creation and distribution of contemporary circus work in this country and beyond.”

I shall be there, probably sharing my thoughts on Twitter as I go. Hopefully there will be more artists in attendance at the discussions than there were at circus open spaces earlier this year.

http://www.circusfutures.org/

Creative Technique

Tap Portugal flight 511, en route from Stockholm, Sweden, to Lisbon, Portugal. I am travelling to my sisters home in the north of Portugal, with the intention of catching my last sun of the year before heading back to Germany and shows through ’til January.

The last four weeks have been spent teaching full time. A week at the circus school in Rotterdam, a week in Tilburg, and then the last two weeks in Stockholm. I wrote the first draft of this essay back at the start of that tour, and now I have tried to clarify some things that became more clear to me over the following weeks. Much is still unclear, and although I can now state a solid intention, it may not be clear if it is a good one, or indeed a possible one!

It all started when I was sitting in the teachers room at the circus department of Codarts, the University for the Arts in Rotterdam.

Alongside me at the large table, eating their sandwiches and drinking tea, were four teachers from Russia, one from China, and one from Bulgaria.

Three of the four Russians came purely from traditional circus, the Bulgarian from Sport Acrobatics. I am not sure of the Chinese gentleman, but I believe him to be traditionally based (he was teaching Chinese pole and hoop diving, so I feel quite safe to make that blatant assumption). Classical circus backgrounds. In contrast, the theatre teacher was German, the dance teacher American. I was the only circus discipline teacher there with a non-classical background.

This situation highlights one of the longest running discussions of modern circus education. Technique vs. creation. Skill vs. art. Old vs. new. Who teaches what? Is it better to have strict old-school technique teachers (circus artists, gymnasts), and have the “art” come from external sources (theatre class, dance class), or should the combination be more fluid and involve more overlap? It’s an old issue, but being there reminded me that it is still not completely solved in a practical way.

Jugglers have historically had more of a combined technique/creation education than other disciplines. I don’t think it’s pure (or at least, not only) juggler arrogance on my part if I say that jugglers have tended to be slightly ahead on the “modern circus” curve. Partly because we can take more risks without actually dying, and perhaps partly, in an ironic twist, because of this lack of full-time juggling teachers compared to acrobatics or aerial coaches.

There is a continually refreshed pool of retired circus acrobats, of professional gymnastic coaches. Potential circus teachers. Jugglers have a longer performing shelf life: we can keep going ’till we drop, literally, dead on stage of natural causes, which means less full-time juggling teachers in the world.

Having a changing pool of guest teachers at a school, rather than or in addition to one full-time teacher, has advantages and disadvantages. The disadvantages I will ignore for now, perhaps for a later post. One of the advantages of the situation is receiving many different approaches and beliefs towards juggling, and thus being forced to search for ones own opinions and artistic feelings.

So, these guest juggling teachers tend to be active performing jugglers, and thus have a current understanding of that world, and most of them are of a generation where they are concerned with “new juggling”: with creation and choreography within the technique.

When I have but a scant week to spend with some students, I don’t wish to use all our precious class time doing pure technique classes. If I am only there for a brief time I see more value in sharing what I care about within juggling and beyond pure technique, to talk about the stuff that excites and inspires me, and to hope to give some of that energy to my students. If it seems necessary to spend some hours standing around talking about body position and making fine corrections to arm movements, then fine. But that is not my normal priority. I have to assume that they get that from other sources (that assumption is, of course, one of the disadvantages of the situation!).

Yes, it is absolutely vital to learn good technique. To learn it in a safe and clear manner, from first principles and onwards. But can we teach it in a creative manner from those first principles? If we learn the proper technique to climb a rope, then obviously we should learn leading with the other foot, with the other hand. But maybe rather than doing that because it is “good technique”, we could do it because it is an exploration of all the possibilities offered by that technique. So that already in those first steps we are dissecting tricks not only for technical reasons, but for creative ones. You’ve learnt your rope climb? OK, show me the variations, and tell me what they change internally as well as externally. Show me a rope climb I’ve never seen before, and build me a sequence that highlights each element within it. Good technique doesn’t need to be at the cost of creativity, or of exploration and play. And that play could be introduced at the same time as the technique, rather than as a separate factor, in a separate class, with a separate teacher.

I experienced an example of this technique/creation separation recently when I found myself in the slightly surreal situation of working for 45 minutes on someone’s finished act: a graduation piece after a four year circus education, which was already six months old and oft-performed. Despite it’s “finished” status I was expected to bring something new to it, and was being watched by two performance teachers. The act was a solo using the Chinese pole, and before the session I was asked “Have you worked with someone on Chinese pole before?”. My answer was “no.” If I had been more brutal and honest, then after the session I should have added “and I still haven’t.”

There was a major disconnect between the technique and the theatrical setting. It was to me a clear example of the wrong way to make modern circus. It was “I do this technique set, what theatrical story can I drop on top of that to make it more interesting?” Rather than making some kind of statement using circus technique, here was someone using the circus technique purely as punctuation. It was something in parentheses, something which was referred to rather than being the main event.

I believe this to be the direct result of separating technique from creation. Of learning the words, rather than coining new ones for the required intention. Of theatre teachers dropping circus into theatrical situations, rather than delving into the situation that is the circus discipline itself. And if the students say “yes”, if that is their final statement after a long and intense education? I find that to be a shame.

I don’t believe that there are no more tricks to find on the Chinese pole. Or on the Corde Lisse or the cradle or any other apparatus. Why don’t we see as much new technique from those disciplines as we do from the jugglers? Yes, the risk is a factor, but so is the psychology of the teachers and the students, and that is something we can take responsibility for. If there really are no more tricks to find, then let’s give up all those other disciplines and all be jugglers together!

But in the mean time, and after so many years of talking about how to create creative circus performers, let’s start by being creative circus teachers: teachers who can kick their students to learn pure technique, but who can also communicate the need for new technique. For technique that tells it’s own story, that is specific and personal and high level. Technique that contains it’s own theatricality, in addition to risk and spectacle and difficulty.

Theatre should deepen and clarify reality: so let’s start with our reality, circus techniques, and see if we can tell some new stories using that language.

Good Design

I’ve had this on standby for a while: the death of Steve Jobs seems to make now a good moment to post it.

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Feel free to imagine this is about choreography rather than design. And I know I can trust you to replace phrases like “use the iPad” with phrases like “watch the performance”, and so on.

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Stephen Fry TIME article
http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1977113-1,00.html

What Ive and his team understand is that if you have an object in your pocket or hand for hours every day, then your relationship with it is profound, human and emotional. Apple’s success has been founded on consumer products that address this side of us: their products make users smile as they reach forward to manipulate, touch, fondle, slide, tweak, pinch, prod and stroke.

“It’s not for us to predict what others will do,” Ive says. “We have to concentrate on what we think is right and offer it up.” Ive’s focus and perfectionism are legendary. Any conversation with him is about hours of work, about refusing to be satisfied until the tiniest things are absolutely right. He’s most pleased with what consumers will never notice. He wants them to use the iPad without considering the thousands of decisions and innovations that have gone into what seems a natural and unmediated interaction.

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