Cindy Marvell: The IJA’s Golden Girl, Ten Years Later

Cindy Marvell

The IJA’s Golden Girl, Ten Years Later

By Katje Sabin

When Cindy Marvell took the stage as the final competitor for the 1989 International Jugglers’ Association Competitions in Baltimore, the audience didn’t know they were about to witness history. But history was indeed made that night, to the strains of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, as Marvell’s shy smile and astounding accuracy propelled her to victory as the first female gold medallist of the IJA.

Ten years later, Cindy and fiancé Carter Brown are taking a long-overdue vacation from their road show, Lazer Vaudeville. Sitting at a kitchen table in their host’s suburban home on the west coast, she enjoys the local coffee. She’s barely changed, save for slightly longer hair. She’s still swift with her smile, but after years of stage performing she’s not nearly as nervous as she once was. Her movements are quick and she is remarkably animated as she discusses her passions.

As one of the few jugglers who have made a full-time living from her craft (and one of even fewer women), Cindy Marvell is a study of motivation, intuition, hard work, and creativity. JUGGLE caught up with her this summer — she told the stories, and we supplied the caffeine.

The Early Years

As a child, Cindy Friedberg’s first love was ballet. She came from a musical family and played the cello. Her grandmother, father, and aunt all juggled; her aunt eventually could do five balls. Cindy grew up assuming that all adults knew how to juggle, and she began making her mark on New York ceilings at the tender age of 12. Her first juggling performance was during a talent show in eighth grade, in the spring of 1980, while her mother accompanied her with an original mix of Scott Joplin and circus music on the piano.

That summer, while attending Camp Treetops, she saw adult counselor Steve Baggish juggling four balls on the baseball field. “My second show ever was with Steve at the end of the summer,” she said. “The crowd went wild.”

Two years later, she attended the Antic Arts Academy of SUNY Purchase, taught by Bob Berky, Fred Garbo, Michael Moschen, and Daniel Stein. In the spring of 1983, Cindy made her small-screen debut. Elizabeth Swados, who penned the Broadway musical Runaways, received a grant from PBS to interview teens on the nuclear age. What Do Children Think of When They Think of the Bomb? featured talented kids using their art to comment politically. Cindy presented a five-ball routine about the pros and cons of nuclear energy.

In the summer of that same year, she was back at Antic Arts. Others in that class included Robert Nelson, Michael Menes, Paul Anderson, and Diane Wasnak (Pino with the Pickle Family Circus). That summer was also her first IJA convention — Purchase, New York. Cindy showed up already solidly juggling five balls and four clubs at the age of 16.

“I couldn’t believe all these people were juggling like fanatics and staying up all night!” she recalled. “Obviously I wasn’t the best juggler around, but I felt sure that I loved juggling the most. I would look at somebody juggling five clubs and think, ‘God, if he can do five clubs, I can do it!’ I wish it worked that way today, but now it’s more like, ‘Gee, if she can do seven clubs, maybe that’s the way it was meant to be.’”

Cindy’s early training in music and ballet helped her significantly later in her juggling career. “I knew how to teach myself, how to move through things progressively. I would use a metronome while practicing tricks with clubs and time myself. It was important to get the timing down, as well as to learn things with both my left and right hands. Nobody said this to me as I was learning to juggle. These were just things I knew from music and dance.”

She feels that she’s overly cautious in some areas, such as in waiting a long time before she starting to learn nine balls. “I see people going onto the next thing in numbers before they’re quite good enough with the previous level. I’m very conservative that way. I still haven’t learned nine balls, even though when my seven is on, it’s really good — I can do 350 catches. It’s good enough for me to go onto nine. I’m just getting ready to try it.”

The Path to the Gold

In the summer of 1984, after coaching from her mentors Tony Duncan and Steve Bernard, Cindy competed in Juniors at the age of 17. Other participants included John Gilkey, Jeffrey Daymont, Noelle Francis (Dick Franco’s daughter), Robbie Weinstein (who placed third), Dana Tison (second), and David Lee (Albert Lucas’ younger brother, and first-place winner). “I was sure I’d finish last. I almost dropped out when I saw the talent there, but stayed in and finished fourth by half a point.”

She also attended the Women’s Forum (now the Flamingo Club) and met many female jugglers for the first time, including Lottie Brunn, Sue Kirby, Laura Green, Karen Quest, and Bob Galileo. Everyone was talking about whether a woman would ever win the Nationals: “They all kept saying it had to be some mythical 14-year-old girl. I figured that if we all went home and practiced a lot, it might be one of us!”

It was the first time Cindy had ever been made aware of any disparity between male and female jugglers. “I’d never noticed it before, even though all my teachers were men. I’d seen some great female jugglers… I remember seeing a woman in Central Park juggling five balls of different sizes, very low. I didn’t get her name, and I’m dying to know who she was. I wasn’t aware of this attitude until I got to the convention and heard people say, ‘Hey, that’s pretty good for a girl!’ When I was practicing at Antic Arts, I thought of it more as, ‘That’s good for someone your age.’”

“It’s a fact of life in the field now. I figure that it works out about evenly — at times it works in your favor, other times it doesn’t — for every aspect, from getting jobs to your relationship with your audience.”

But she always felt welcomed as a competitor. “It didn’t feel like they didn’t want you there. As the only girl playing baseball when I was growing up, it was obvious they didn’t want me. In juggling, it wasn’t like that at all. It was very positive.”

That fall, she started college at Oberlin. “English was my major and great love in life. If I hadn’t done juggling, I would have been a professor.” She decided to follow Anthony Gatto’s example and practice for two hours each day. Often it was from nine to eleven at night, but the plus side was that she got a whole squash court to herself.

It was around this time that she became determined to be a full-time performing juggler upon graduating. After that first year of concentrated practice, she could do a hundred catches with five clubs and about the same with seven balls. “A lot of the consistency I had later on came from that year of practice. That year, my progress was the most noticeable.”

The Flying Karamazovs played Oberlin twice and, as the president of the juggling club, she got to be on their running crew both times. This involved climbing a precarious ladder to a dizzying height in order to drop various objects from a catwalk on cue.

Afterwards, as they loaded everything into their truck, she noticed a woman with a list supervising the whole thing over headset. “I wanted so badly to be doing what they were doing, to perform in theaters and tour the way they did, but thought I would never have the focus, energy, and patience for it — not to mention the luck of being chosen.”

In her junior and senior years of college, she had the opportunity to travel to Ireland and England. “I feel very privileged to have witnessed what I think of as a blossoming time for juggling in England. It was the first time they hit a thousand people at their convention (in Santes). I met many jugglers and performed in Covent Garden.”

Her senior-year project was called The Magic in the Web, 30 poems choreographed to juggling. The poems were from the Romantic era. “In my mind, a lot of people come to juggling through math and computers, and that’s their intellectual connection… they understand site swap (which I still don’t have the hang of). But I really saw a connection between the substance of literature and juggling, with what I was feeling and trying to accomplish as a juggler and an artist.”

Then came a series of roller-coaster disappointments and achievements. After graduating from Oberlin in 1988, she auditioned for the Pickle Family Circus, but didn’t get the position. “I guess it was somewhat of a compliment that they didn’t hire me, because they wanted someone to play the role of a prima donna,” she jokes. She also auditioned for Lazer Vaudeville, and was turned down.

Cindy was working at Holland Village, an amusement park in Japan, when she started her next run at the IJA gold. She had lots of time to practice when she wasn’t performing, and took advantage of it. “The hardest thing was to get it down to seven minutes. Keeping the integrity of the music, while cutting it, was hard. Was I mature enough to do less so I could do a better performance?”

Earlier in her career, she had had to perform at the edge of her skill level, and then as she got to a higher skill level, she was able to do a more confident show. “You can bet that Kris Kremo isn’t pushing the edge of what he can do on stage, even though it might look like it to us mere mortals. He knows how many tricks he’s leaving in the closet. It makes it possible to perform competently, but it is tempting to push it to the limits.”

Another of her goals in developing her competition act was to reach the audience. “The year before, Jeff Mason won with a beautiful, technical, and creative act. Just seeing somebody my own age, and that I knew from conventions, inspired me. He really touched the audience. I wanted to do that, and tried to wait until I was capable of doing that.”

Making History

The following summer, in 1989, Cindy competed at the Baltimore festival. Fest coordinator Laura Green had been encouraging her to enter for years, as did Kezia Tenenbaum (of Airjazz), Nick Gatto, and many others. “Eventually, I just lost track and went for it. I’ll admit that I wanted to live up to the expectations that people might have had about me.”

Just before the competition, she chose Marvell as her stage name. “I was casting around for a stage name, and my father suggested the poet Andrew Marvell, since I had juggled to his poetry. The name certainly stuck! It’s always struck me as odd that you can just start using a name and then see it in print all over. I’m still legally Cindy Friedberg.”

Cindy was the last performer in a long evening, by the luck of the draw. Teams were first, and it was pitch black backstage. “There was nowhere to go. I couldn’t touch my props, couldn’t see anything. I did, however, get to see most of the other competitors in the prelims. And being last, I listened to the audience respond to how well everyone else was doing. I felt almost a theatrical responsibility to finish the show well after everyone was having such a great time. I felt I couldn’t go out there and mess it up.”

She didn’t mess up at all. Soon, she was being awarded her gold medal. “When I went to get the award, they asked me to say a few words. I was in a total state of shock. I wasn’t even thinking about being the first woman. Later, I thought I should have said something about it.”

New Opportunities

That autumn, Cindy began work with Howard Fireheart, a dancer and choreographer in the East Village. Juggler William Lee had recently retired from the troupe to pursue his solo career, and Howard was looking for more jugglers he could collaborate with on dance pieces.

She re-auditioned for the Pickles when Larry Pisoni, a founding member, returned as director. “I wrote him a letter explaining that he really should hire me because I had a very bizarre sense of humor underneath my evidently obvious reserve. He bought it, and I was in!” She moved to San Francisco for a “very exhausting and exhilarating” season.

At the 1992 Montreal IJA Convention, show-organizer Dan Holzman asked Cindy to perform in the public show. One piece was a three-minute five-ball piece choreographed to Chopin’s Harp Etude — “The routine had some difficult tricks and I practiced it a lot. I’d been taking classes with Lori Belilove’s company, dancers training in the style of Isadora Duncan. I was trying to find ways to initiate movement that worked with juggling.” The other was a one-three-four-five club piece, Heaven, she had worked on during her stay in Japan. It was set to Fred Astaire’s recording of Cheek to Cheek.

Another highlight for Cindy during this period was the opportunity to work with choreographer Wendy Osserman at Dance Theatre Workshop in New York in a performance called Bouncing Back. “We got reviewed by The New York Times, which was exciting. Lottie Brunn came to our opening night, which was even more exciting,” Cindy said. “Wouldn’t you know, our trio piece was drop-dead perfect. On the tape, you can hear Lottie herself give a cheer and a sigh of relief as soon as we made the final catch. I think she appreciated the Fred Astaire music and period style behind it.”

Cindy also coordinated a show called Ladyfingers, a production for Lincoln Center Out-of-Doors and the Museum of Natural History. “I was asked to put together an all-woman juggling show. Rachel Hennelly was in it and Kezia Tenenbaum came in from Colorado. We worked together for a week beforehand. It was very theatrical, with three women in dresses performing to Gershwin’s Cuban Overture; it was also very lighthearted. I got to pass clubs with Kezia at Lincoln Center… it really doesn’t get much better than that!”

Another Competition

After a stint teaching children at the Big Apple Circus School in East Harlem, Cindy temporarily relocated to Oklahoma. There she performed for the State Arts Council and the Tulsa Performing Arts Center with two thirds of the 1990 team champs, Darn Good & Funny (Paul Phariss and Kevin Holman); the third member had left a couple of years earlier to pursue solo work and other life interests.

She traveled extensively with DG&F, including the Oranjieboom Festival in Rotterdam, Holland. They also competed as a team at the 1994 Burlington IJA festival. “We had an entertaining and creative routine with many new technical elements,” recalls Cindy. “We might have been close to the winners, David Cain and Jay Gilligan. They had a lot of side-by-side passing with numbers. Our drum routine went surprisingly well but somehow we got off on the wrong foot in the club juggling. If I had been a judge, I’d have made the same decision. The day after that, we had a gig at Camp Treetops in Lake Placid. Any jugglers in the audience? No! It was a bunch of kids, and we did it perfectly. Just perfectly.”

Around this time, she took a production class with Benny Reehl at the Celebration Barn Theater in Maine. Lazer Vaudeville had been clandestinely rehearsing nearby in Fred Garbo’s studio, and she met Lazer Vaudeville founder Carter Brown in person after the class’ student recital.

Making the Dream Come True

While in Oklahoma with DG&F, Cindy started to get regular phone calls from Carter. “I was delighted that he was calling, but I had no idea why. It was just fun to talk with him. One day I started wondering if he was trying to see if I was still interested in joining Lazer Vaudeville, and sure enough…” It turned out that he was hoping to find a female juggler, but Cindy wasn’t interested. DG&F’s schedule was heavy through summer and fall, and she gave him a list of other female jugglers to call. A week later, he started to call again.

When she looked at the dates, it turned out that if she really tried, she could work the two schedules together. It was tight from that point on, and very few people knew she was doing doubleduty on the two teams. “I didn’t want to take the wind out of Darn, Good & Funny’s sails. I was going out of my way to make sure my previous commitments were a priority. I always wanted to fulfill my obligations, and we had worked so hard to develop the show.”

Before she had made up her mind, Carter and Randy Johnson (the other member of Lazer Vaudeville) came to visit her in Oklahoma. Cindy felt that there was good chemistry and humor between the three, but then one last thing cemented her decision to join the troupe. “They had this truck they were sleeping in. I saw how they had to climb over all the boxes to get to the sleeping area, and I thought ‘Oh my gosh! It’s just like the Karamazovs!’ — my touring role models from years before. I owe a lot to them… if I hadn’t seen them in Oberlin, with the truck and the boxes and everything, I might not have even recognized what this was… but I knew it was what I wanted to do. I just never thought it would come my way. It was like an epiphany when I saw that truck, and I wasn’t scared away by it.” She joined that day.

Life on the Road

Within a week of starting the road tour, Carter and Cindy discovered that they were going to be a little closer than they originally intended. “Carter had said that he would never be able to work with someone he was involved with, and I had made similar statements. I’d had a lot of collaborations with men and never had a relationship with any of them. It didnt start until we were on the road. It was a total surprise, just like winning the competition.” Five years later, they are still two very driven performers, and they are still driving in the same direction, together.

After one year on the road, they became engaged. “A lot of people assume that we already got married and didn’t invite them. But neither one of us want to get married at the expense of the show. We could do a truck stop wedding or go to Vegas, but we’d like to invite some friends and relatives.” No date is set yet.

The group has been very compatible, in terms of personalities and backgrounds, and Cindy feels fortunate to have been with the people she’s worked with. “We have a great appreciation for how hard it is to find somebody you can be around 24 hours a day and not go nuts. I’ve noticed that if a disagreement arises, it’s dealt with immediately. With most couples, there’s an argument, then they go off to work. It builds up and by the time it’s settled, it’s a big deal. But working in a trio, things don’t simmer. They get dealt with quickly.”

A Woman of Words

Being an English major, literature and words have always been a part of Cindy’s personal and professional life. She started writing about juggling for Suspended Animation magazine, edited by Dale Peterson, while she was still in college. She remained a regular contributor until it folded.

Bill Giduz asked her to write for Jugglers World and this helped her become a vaudeville chronicler for The New York Times. Some of her favorite subjects as a Jugglers World writer include Mel Ody, The Gandini Project, Tbilisi Festival, Jeff Raz, Tony Duncan and Jaki Reis. Her New York Times articles include features on Lottie Brunn, Fred Garbo, Cirque Eloize, Michael Moschen, The Flying Karamazov Brothers, and the Gizmo Guys.

To this day, she carries a briefcase filled to bursting around everywhere. “I’ve got all my writing things in there. Something I’ve been working on for many years is a somewhat realistic fantasy novel, but there’s still a lot of work to go. It has to do with jugglers, and it’s complicated. It’s sort of autobiographical.”

At the 50th IJA festival, she read excerpts from another work-in-progress at Club Renegade and suffered some serious heckling. “I never predicted it was going to go that way, and I’m not going to say I’m sorry I did it. If somebody else had done it, I would have been totally glued to it. Obviously not everybody feels that way. Half the people were encouraging me to continue and the other half were quite strongly encouraging me to go jump in the nearest body of water. So what do you do? I decided I liked the people who were encouraging me more. I’ve never had a difficult audience like that.” She is quick to note, however, that the vast majority of her many Renegade stage experiences were good ones.

What’s Next?

After visiting the 52nd IJA festival in Niagara, Cindy returned to the Lazer Vaudeville headquarters in Florida to start working on the troupe’s upcoming tour in 2000. Jeffrey Daymont has recently been announced as the new third member of Lazer Vaudeville, and he’ll debut with them as they begin their new season on New Year’s Eve at First Night Boston.

They’ve recently worked with a composer to develop new original music for the show, and they are also working on a potential PBS documentary about the troupe. The show’s blend of classic skills, both solo and ensemble, and day-glo techno-toys has proven to be quite popular.

Cindy hasn’t ruled out another run at a teams medal, but doesn’t have any immediate plans to go for one, either. She’s content with her life on the road, traveling all over the world, working side-by-side with her sweetheart, exploring the limits of her skills and creating new ideas for the show.

Cindy Marvell’s future look golden, indeed.