By Cindy Marvell
It was a magical night at the IJA’s 50 Festival in Pittsburgh, PA, when lukaluka burst onto the American juggling scene with their innovative and stylish club-passing act. The big white tent was packed with jugglers who gaped and marveled in amazement at an unprecedented display of creative juggling talent in the all-European showcase organized by Tim Roberts and Todd Strong. When lukaluka took the stage, Luke Wilson, a quirky, super- dexterous juggler’s juggler from England, and Ilka Licht, a versatile manipulator with a fiery stage presence from Germany, presented the act they had performed in their graduation show at The Circus Space in London.
Since that memorable performance in Pittsburgh, the two have had quite a ride in their quest to take experimental juggling into mainstream show business. In addition to playing at some of the most renowned variety theatres in Europe, they recently took their act and life to another level by celebrating their marriage in a circus tent in Cologne, Ilka’s hometown where the duo resides together when not touring.
Both performers credit the Gandini Juggling Project (now called Gandini Juggling) for the early beginnings of their collaborative efforts. As students during the first season of The Circus Space, they quickly became protégés of teachers Sean Gandini and Kati Yla-Hokkola. It was here under the Gandini’s daily tutelage that Luke and Ilka developed their famous “body placements,” take-aways, and modern movements techniques. They adopted the name lukaluka when English coaches had trouble saying their names, usually when the duo was caught whispering in the early days of their friendship/juggling romance. Today there is a web site bearing the name “lukaluka”, which they spell in lower case. The site has text in both English and German.
When one considers their individual backgrounds and skills, it seems unlikely that they would ever team up in the first place. Charlie Holland’s brainchild The Circus Space is to be commended for facilitating many such meetings, as artists can receive academic credits at neighboring colleges. At the start of their careers, however, Luke and Ilka seem to have been hatched on different planets before crossing orbits at The Space.
Ilka Licht was born in Cologne, or Koeln, in German, in 1973. She got hooked on circus arts at age 8 through a local program similar to Circus Smirkus, in which students tour in a tent show after studying the craft with professionals. Her first love was trapeze, and she spent many hours practicing to be an aerialist. It would have seemed very farfetched, then, to conclude that she would choose to become a professional juggler.
“What changed my view of juggling was a trip our youth circus troupe took to the European Juggling Festival in Maastricht, Holland. It was 1989, and Cindy Marvell performed her award-winning act to Rhapsody in Blue in the Public Show. I was also very impressed by Michiel Hesseling of the Flying Dutchman. I had never seen such juggling, and I think they had about 3000 jugglers there. After that I started practicing a lot more.” The next year, the festival was in Germany and she saw Airjazz perform. “Airjazz completely changed the way I imagined juggling, it was such a different style, not just juggling but movement and theatre. I especially enjoyed talking with Jon Held, and Kezia was one of the few female jugglers I had seen.”
She quickly noticed that there are not too many female jugglers worldwide: “Many of the famous ones, like Lottie Brunn, Jenny Jeager, or Trixie La Rue from Austria, left for America during the war. If I’d been alive then, I would have left, too. So I was not influenced by them and it was not until much later that I saw them on video.”
While there seem to be a larger number of female participants at the EJC then the IJA festivals, Ilka believes that European women are more likely to be hobbyists, while America has more professionals. So, Ilka was encouraged by a certain lack of encouragment to develop her own style and technical approach early on. In one of her trademark moves, she grips a club with her toes, the lifts it shoulder height with her leg fully extended while juggling three clubs, and grabs the fourth into the pattern. She wears special footwear and a wacky hairstyle helps her balance clubs on her head and slide them off to her partner.
Luke Wilson was born in London in 1976 but grew up in Portsmouth on the south coast of England. He started practicing and performing close-up magic at age 11, later winning the title, “Close-Up Magic Champion of Southern England”. But it was not until he discovered a secondhand copy of “Juggling for the Complete Klutz” at age 14 that he began his transformation into a fanatical juggler. His first step consisted of finding the missing beanbags. From there it was a few short years before he started performing with partner Jamie Fletcher. The two performed a comedy street show at the Winchester Hat Fair and at many other events. It consisted of 6-7-8 club passing, unicycle, and free-standing ladder.
Luke’s juggling was going so well that he decided to leave his A-Levels (the British High School equivalent) one year before graduation. In addition to shows, he practiced solo for 7-8 hours a day during this time. He claims that IJA videos were a great inspiration. At age 18, he became one of the first students to enroll in the new Circus Space, which was still being constructed at an old power station in East London. The students were eligible for the “Btec National Diploma in Performing Arts (circus),” awarded in conjunction with studies at East Berkshire College. The academic program consisted of technical craft, lighting design, and theatre history, while the simultaneous circus courses covered aerial skills, clown, acrobatics, dance, and theatre skills.
Ilka was also enrolled in the program, and the two moved in together after the first month. “It was clear that we had a similar level in terms of skill and knowledge,” Luke recalls. They spent two years working together at The Circus Space, culminating in a group show which contained a trio version of their original club duet. After the Pittsburgh performance, their first “real” show as a duet, Ilka returned to Aachen to complete her architectural degree. Luke worked on his German language skills and continued his solo practice in Brighton, visiting whenever he could. The first word he learned was ‘die Keule,’ which means ‘the club.’
After Ilka finished her degree, the two began work in earnest. Their first big gig as professional variete artistes came in 1999, when they won second place in a young variete competition called “ShowstArt”. The prize included a one-month run at Friedrichsbau, a variete theatre in Stuttgart. They had worked on their act whilst attending Chalons-en-Champagne’s Professional Training Course the previous year. They had some great teachers in the 4-month course, including Mads Rosenbeck, who performed in the IJA Public Show in Primm, and Didier Andre, a French juggler from the Pittsburgh showcase. Luke and Ilka recognized both as great jugglers who could help them towards their goal of “working in a variete setting but creating acts that go further than a self–contained spot on the program”.
Recently, the duo had such an opportunity as guest artists on Lazer Vaudeville’s North American tour. They rehearsed five-person numbers with drums, balls, bolas, and a 17-club finale, rehearsing for 3 weeks in preparation for the final show at the Carpenter Center in Long Beach, CA. The cast, which consisted of Carter Brown, Cindy Marvell, Bee Jay Joyer, and lukaluka, hope to perform excerpts of this work at the Reading IJA Fest this summer.
On the horizon for lukaluka is a November stint at the GOP (that’s the Georgspalast in Hannover, Germany, not the Republican convention). Last spring they landed a two-month contract at the Krystallpalast in Leipzig. Why so much in Germany? Aside from Ilka’s origins, Germany happens to have more variete theatres in full-time operation than any other European county, ironic when you consider that many were bombed during the war. When they met Lottie Brunn in Las Vegas, she recalled seeing Jenny Jeager perform in Berlin on just such an occasion.
Despite their success on the professional circuit, the duo feels that their style is still too experimental for mainstream presenters. “We want to keep pushing the variete circuit and doing our 7-minute act. But it’s still not conservative enough for many venues because the music requires the viewer to think too much and our costumes are unusual. Jugglers’ reactions are fantastic but bookers have a problem with it sometimes. They try to make us use other music. The system is changing slowly, and it would be great if we were a part of that change.”
The striking music and costumes play a big part in lukaluka’s current act. The soundtrack is actually a composite of two pieces by different composers. The first piece, recorded by the Kronos Quartet, was written by the American jazz composer Raymond Scott. Luke was actually using it for a club solo at the time. The second is a product of Phil Coulter, an Irish musician that Ilka heard on the radio and later tracked down for a hat solo.
“It was kind of hard to abandon the solos in order to use this music for the duet,” Luke commented. Ilka now wears a feathered cap and flamboyant orange and red dress from which she produces more clubs as the act progresses, and Luke dons a bright blue matador-style suit. The act begins with a long three-club interaction, including a rapid sequence of six club passing tricks, a crowd-pleasing display of “lazies” (backhand catches with the arm extended behind the body) and “slap-takes” (exchanging clubs on every toss from above), leading to a surprise huggling moment. It moves on to a 5 club assisted site swap pattern with Ilka throwing through Luke’s arms going into multiplex, followed by a four-club take-away segment. After some balancing trade-Offs, the atmosphere builds towards a 7-club back-to-back pattern and 8-club passing. Throughout the performance, every catch and glance is minutely choreographed to match the dynamics of the music in a way that takes full advantage of Luke’s “wizziness” and Ilka’s imaginative techniques.
As Luke explains, “we hope the tricks show a character just in the way they’re constructed, but we believe that as soon as you do a 3-club cascade, the character is less present, so every technical level up you go, the presence goes down to a degree. We want to give people an emotional experience, not just a technical one. The greatest clowns just stand there with nothing.” Such is the juggler’s task when it comes to blending athleticism and artistry, a dilemma for which lukaluka is destined to find brilliant solutions.