People of Choice: Gandini Juggling Project
By Cindy Marvell
The Gandini Project traveled from London to Niagara Falls to attend their first IJA festival. Though their primary goal was to perform an “event” of their own creation in the gym and teach workshops on juggling and movement, the four-person troupe completely immersed itself in the convention and ended up winning the People’s Choice Award.
They could easily be spotted throughout the week: Sean Gandini, the troupe’s founder, gracefully feathering his way through intricate ensemble maneuvers; Kati Yla-Hokkala, a former Finnish national champion in rhythmic gymnastics, competing as an individual with ring combinations and acrobatic poise; American Jay Gilligan, winning a bronze medal for his solo act between rehearsals on the side of the gym; and the latest recruit, petit 18-year-old Cecil, enchanting competition audiences with her inventive club juggling and using her dexterous, elusive powers to win numerous rounds of combat at the games.
Though veterans of the European convention scene, Niagara was the first IJA festival for the English troupers.
“We thought it would be very different, but in many ways it hasn‘t been,” Gandini said. “We have found the age range to be wonderfully bigger. Things are more organized, but one pays for that as well. It costs ten times more. But it’s worth it… one gets a lot of inspiration here.”
When not in residence at London’s Circus Space, the Gandinis tour in Europe, performing at dance and theatre festivals, including numerous concerts at Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland.
Sean first met Kati, who was visiting from Finland, during one of his street shows at Covent Garden. They joined forces soon after Ra Ra Zoo’s 1989 tour, which featured an early version of their intricate duet work with 5 balls, four hands, and lots of movement. Upon their return to London, they began taking dance classes together. They studied release technique similar to the style of American choreographer Tricia Brown, in which the body’s weight shifts and momentum take the dancer from one position to another with natural grace and fluidity.
“I have heard people say we are making ‘shapes in space,’ but that’s more like ballet or Cunningham,” Gandini said at the 1993 European convention in Leeds. “Our movement is all about getting from one point to another.” Since that time, the ensemble has only improved in complexity, rhythm and dynamics. Body percussion, in which Renegade club-whacking mingles with the sounds of stamping feet, is a new addition, and the troupe plans to spend the month of November exploring this with various teachers of the craft back in England.
In the Niagara “event performance,” as Gandini described it, one piece wove into the next purposefully yet without fanfare, drawing the spectators in as the variations took on an endless life of their own. Precise timing and concentration mingled with freedom of movement and incredibly sustained group interaction.
The bleachers were packed with attentive spectators throughout the hour-long piece, which was also flanked by curious onlookers, while the usual convention activity continued behind a blue backdrop. Given their post-modern style of dance, in which favorite T-shirts and dance pants are worn with natural elegance and aplomb, this set-up blends elements of street and stage work into an experimental whole.
It seems that juggling conventions, rather than just theatrical ones, have themselves played a part in the evolution of the Gandini Project.
A few hapless children wandered through, but without causing any disruption; in fact, they could become future members, or at least enthusiasts. After all, it happened to Jay Gilligan, who started training intensely with the Gandinis about a year ago and was thrilled to act as their American tour guide. With his incredible technique and ability to experiment with new styles of movement, Gilligan has been a welcome addition to the troupe.
Said Gandini, now in his thirties, “We have an American boy working with us now, and that‘s been very nice. It’s been a real treat working with him, he‘s very creative. Jay‘s prolific, he‘s fantastic.” Gilligan, an Ohio native whose work was a highlight of the European festival in Scotland last year, seems to be in his natural habitat here.
“We feel our work is seen better in the gym, where there’s no fake theatricality,” Gandini commented. “In the theatre, there are all these extra conventions that come in, which is a different ballgame.”
The Gandinis are also known among conventioneers for their movement workshops, which teach people to get from one point to another in the least obvious fashion. “I was particularly impressed by the people who came to the movement workshop,” said Kati, who was delighted to see so much movement in the youth showcase. “Everybody was so keen on moving and sometimes we have difficulty getting people into that idea, that it‘s okay to move around.”
The evolution of a Gandini project has followed a similar pattern; in fact it is one of the few styles of juggling to have absorbed new members and almost become a school of its own. No matter how chaotic and busy a convention floor seems, the mild-mannered quartet on the side of the hall always stands out for its posture, clarity of throws, and that distinctive ensemble flow. There always seems to be a bit more space hovering around their most complex variations because space is valued as a precious entity.
A recent change has been the addition of a second 4-limbed woman. Of course, most female jugglers have 4 limbs, but in this case the objects seem just as at home when circling around the ankles. Cecil Poncet was actually a pinch hitter for another Gandiniette who unfortunately broke her thumb and was unable to make the trip.
It seems incredible that Poncet had only been an official member of the troupe for one month before embarking upon her Niagara adventure. She has been training with the Gandinis as a student at Circus Space for one year. A native of Grenoble, site of this year’s European convention and coincidentally Gandini’s childhood home, Poncet studied intensely at circus schools in France for about 6 years before moving to London to continue at Circus Space.
In Niagara, Poncet and Yla-Hokkala both distinguished themselves in the solo competitions yet seemed to complement each other perfectly in the ensemble work. Yla-Hokkala, dressed in a white unitard, juggled rings in her competition act, which was actually a specially tailored version of a longer work. Like an egret that has found inner peace, she looped her pliant body around her innovative work with rings. Warning to potential imitators: use caution in attempting these moves unless you are a rhythmic gymnast, in which case take some classes from Michael Menes to bone up on ring twirling, tossing and interchanging of all kinds.
Poncet also captured kudos with her club work in the competition. Wearing a blue Chinese-style jacket, she exuded serenity and charm while performing gutsy tricks like 4 club flats, multiplex flings from the side, and a 5-club triple flash. In the Gandini tradition, props start on the floor and are worked in and out of the patterns.
One of Poncet’s most intriguing moves is her kick-up waltz, which suits the Gandini style to a tee, if not a T-shirt. Poncet adds a new spatial dimension to the upwardly mobile troupe, adding vertically linear possibilities. The music was a live mix, by turns meditative and percussive, with random text thrown in. Clips of Whitmanesque poetry enhanced the spatially oriented work.
“We had no idea what was coming,” said Gandini of the improvisational elements in the sound. From the juggling angle, however, it seemed little was left to chance. From “Window,” which Gandini described as “a simple weave with balls,” to the grand finale entitled “Loops,” which he calls “simple sharing patterns that constantly shift 90 degrees in space,” the collective hand and footwork kept the audience in a constant state of suspense and wonderment.
“Remembering Rastelli,” a ring quartet, was an audience favorite, as was Sean and Kati’s duet entitled “Ballroom,” in which their grace and elegance as a couple was allowed to shine through the most intricate combinations. Gandinis can come and go, but these two form the deep heart’s core of the Project, and it’s energy and radiance projects from them.
To have formed a style of “classical juggling” which carries over from balls to clubs and rings and accommodates the individualistic talents of diverse manipulators is quite an achievement, and obviously takes hours and hours of thought and practice. Gandini can site swap with the best of them; he also has a strong interest in mathematics as an art form unto itself, and this helps him create complex and untested passing patterns.
In his quest to combine art and science, Gandini found much to contemplate in Niagara. “I’ve particularly enjoyed meeting the Madison jugglers (the team of six that won the teams gold).
Gandini credits American jugglers such as Airjazz for influencing his work over the years: It‘s interesting that many of the people we looked to for inspiration, six or seven years ago, were watching us last night. That was a nice feeding-back into the machine.” Said Yla-Hokkala of her trip—not that she ever would—“I’ve enjoyed the festival. There’s lots of lovely people…I was impressed that there were all these very choreographed pieces, very nice
Perhaps the ultimate review of the Gandini Project’s Niagara collage can be gleaned from Gandini’s own comments about the IJA’s 52nd Annual Festival: “What‘s wonderful is the sheer number of events happening. Unless you didn‘t like juggling, it would be very hard to be bored.”