Duncan Looks Inside His Head For Audience Pleasing Routines
BY CINDY MARVELL
The lights fade out upon an empty stage and the expectant murmur of the audience dwindles to silence. A mysterious figure can be observed gliding down the stairs. In the few moments which follow, the spectators are transported to a place where time and gravity hold no dominion and effort and skill are masked by the darkness.
Three luminescent balls take center stage, slowly floating in unpredictable trajectories and then gradually speeding up until even the jugglers give up trying to analyze the patterns and resign themselves to the beauty and mystery of the images.
Soon the lights come up, and we are back at Mostly Magic, a New York night club where magicians and their followers commune to witness the impossible. People are a bit surprised when they behold the creator of the light show. Somehow, he looks a little younger, or maybe a little shorter, or maybe just a little more human than what they had imagined.
The ordinary blends with the mystical as a methodical clicking sound emanates from five penny-filled tennis balls. They cascade through all the major patterns—and a few more obscure ones—as if glued to the air, followed by an exuberant club routine so precise that the front row gasps as clubs narrowly miss their heads, while the jugglers marvel at such unusual variations as “reverse back-crosses.” This is not a light and airy style; one can feel the twisting of the wrists and the reaching of the fingers as they carve a path for the objects, molding rather than expanding the space around them.
The complexities seem to dissolve as the juggler pulls a red stage ball from his prop bag, explaining, “This represents the essence of my work.” As the music becomes more meditative, the ball rolls up and down his forearms, changing direction at the elbows, onto the head, around the face, drops to the feet where it becomes engaged in a game of catch between them, only to be kicked up into an unbelievable balance on the tip of the nose. Still it is the final sequence which seems most beguiling: the ball balances on the back of the juggler’s wrist, which gradually rises as he spirals around faster and faster until his arm is almost vertical, when both sphere and juggler sink to the floor in a gesture of obeisance to the forces which bind them together. An ordinary red ball has suddenly taken on global dimensions for those who are touched by it.
Those who can tell a juggler by his claws might have guessed the performer to be Tony Duncan (no relation to Isadora or the yo-yo), who proclaims as his motto, “Why do something merely simple and spectacular when you can do something so beautiful and subtle and complex that people don’t even notice?”
When asked how such a vocation took hold of his life, Duncan recalls its fairy- tale beginnings. Two friends were invited to spend the evening with King Faisal of Saudi Arabia and his niece in Washington, D.C. After the dinner the niece requested each of them to demonstrate a skill typical of their culture. While Duncan’s friend gave a modest presentation of some juggling skills, Duncan cooked his best French toast. Evidently the damsel preferred the pointless to the practical, but our toast-maker had the last laugh two years later when he earned the reputation of “top juggler” in Dupont Circle, then the DC jugglers’ hangout, and was featured on PM Magazine.
He said, “When I first started practicing there I saw someone juggling four balls and it totally blew me away, but by the time I left for San Francisco to street perform I was pretty jaded.”
Still, he was not prepared for the competitive atmosphere he encountered in some parts of the juggling community. He recalled, “I expected to find more camaraderie among the performers, but too often they put each other down. I had a pretty high skill level but was new to performing, and after my first show they told me I was untalented and would never make it. I tried not to listen, but I still remember it and it didn’t help my confidence at the time.”
One of the professionals who did offer encouragement was Will Show, who met Duncan in New York and introduced him to the No Elephant Circus. Duncan became the main juggler in the troupe, performing some solo routines, some with passing, and doing a bit of clowning. “That was where I learned the basics of being a performer,” he remembered. “Before that I didn’t really have a style of presentation.”
His next major experience came about as a result of his work with Steve Bernard, a talented juggler and ventriloquist. While doing street shows in Copenhagen, the two were spotted by the director of the Benneweis Circus, who invited them to audition. Once hired, they caused some controversy because “in Denmark the circus is seen as a national institution, and we were not from a circus family, we were street performers. They had never worked with anyone like us before.”
They performed daily for five months, and Duncan remembers it for the consistent practice it afforded and for the chance to work with a good lighting designer and original band music. “After a month of ignoring us, a guy from the cradle act came over and said, ‘You’re O.K. You practice, you’re professional.’ Finally, we felt accepted!”
Their work with the circus led to an engagement at the renowned Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen.
After his return, it took Duncan a while to find his niche in the American entertainment industry. He noticed that many jugglers had a tendency to give up their skills and become comics. Would there be room for a juggler whose intense practice sessions used to be followed by attempts to peel raw eggs without breaking the skin to improve his concentration? Duncan observed, “There is a great deal of pressure among agents to fit acts into a stand-up comedy mold. That’s one reason that Michael Moschen’s work is so important—he made a new category in the profession.”
Duncan credits Moschen with inspiring him to pursue his ball rolling skills to a higher level of technique and artistry. “Before I met Moschen I was working on some similar moves with subtle differences, but my style was not as crisp and defined. I might never have developed a few skills to this extent if I had not seen the kind of effect that could eventually be achieved.”
Although he was not at the IJA Montreal festival, Duncan agrees with the gist of Moschen’s workshop. “Sometimes I am reluctant to share what I do because lots of jugglers are opportunists—they just take this and that without really giving themselves. It hurts creatively to take other people’s ideas, but we also need each other’s ideas to inspire us to pursue our own.”
Duncan estimates that he has spent more time perfecting his rolling technique, in which up to five balls circle around his hands in numerous patterns with occasional detours up to his elbow, than he has in any other area, despite the fact that he finds its commercial possibilities limited. “It’s worse than juggling seven balls because it’s not as impressive to the untrained eye. But I’ve worked ten years to get this far, and I still get a rush out of balancing a ball on my nose. My goal is still to learn as much as possible for it’s own sake.”
While his global travels have kept him away from IJA festivals in recent years, Duncan has fond memories of the ones he did attend. “I never really made it to the Cleveland Convention because I got a lift with someone who turned back and left me stranded in Boulder when he found out Barrett Felker wasn’t going to be there.”
He did make it to Santa Barbara, where he won the seven-ball competition, a feat he repeated the following year at Purchase (a disappointed Gatto finished third). “The new format for numbers doesn’t make sense,” he commented. “They should have a different standard for each number to encourage better patterns and longer runs.”
Watching Tony juggle seven changes your perception of the skill. Instead of a fleeting image tending towards collapse, it reveals itself as a tenacious force, as half- showers and reverses. Foot and neck catches come into play. He has also been known to juggle seven balls while balancing on a slack-rope. But the road is not always smooth even at this level—there are still good days and days when it just doesn’t work. “Seven is a lot of disappointments and a lot of surprises,” he once said. “You have to decide whether the surprises are worth the disappointments.”
Although he has worked hard perfecting seven balls and five clubs, Duncan pursues three ball variations with unflagging creativity, and his supply of unusual tricks seems inexhaustible. During a visit to Philadelphia last year—his first convention in nine years—he demonstrated many of these with his eyes closed. “For me, the process of inventing tricks is completely internal. I think about how it feels, rather than how it looks from the outside.”
This process of learning is what fascinated Duncan most about juggling. In college at Rochester, he switched his major from astrophysics to evolutionary biology, subjects that encouraged logical thinking and may have influenced his analytical approach to juggling. “I find it amazing that a year ago I couldn’t do this, and now I can,” he frequently observes. “There’s just so much that goes into really mastering something, and then being able to do it in performance. Why it doesn’t work every time once you know it is a mystery to me.”
Duncan shares a point in common with the 1992 Silver Medallist Miguel Herrara: Duncan’s parents lived in Cuba when he was born, and he spent his early childhood there. The family also lived in Mexico and Brazil. Since his days as a long-haired juggler’s juggler practicing in the park and teaching classes to help pay for a loft, Duncan’s image as a performer has changed. But his passion for learning new skills and his willingness to teach and encourage others have not.
While Duncan has successfully made the transition from his days as a street juggler to a blossoming career aboard cruise ships and in theatrical shows, his long-time collaborator Jaki Reis has become an innovative and polished partner in the act. Together the two have a more outgoing rapport with the audience, and they have evolved some unconventional duet techniques which require precise timing and illustrate their cooperation and coordination.
One of their first jobs as a duet was in the touring company of the Broadway show “Sugar Babies,” a situation they considered ideal because the audience was already enjoying the show and was in a receptive mood for the act. Jaki’s interest in juggling began when the two shared a small room in Japan while performing at the Hiroshima EXPO, and whoever was practicing got the most space. She admits that it is “sometimes a bit discouraging practicing with someone who does all the tricks you are trying to learn—with his eyes closed!”
Duncan attributes their success on stage to their lack of pretension and evident enjoyment of what they do. He said, “People enjoy being impressed more if they like you I think Gatto is successful because he has a good time and he shares that experience with the audience. They appreciate difficult tricks even if they don’t understand them.”
The latest Duncan-Reis project is a collaboration with the “Quintet of the Americas,” a wind ensemble specializing in upbeat, Latino music which combines well with a spirited style of juggling. At a recent benefit performance for the Quintet, Tony and Jaki delighted the audience with a new version of their six-ball duet, their intricate exchanges perfectly executed despite the proximity of a crystal chandelier. After the show they talked about an up-coming cruise to South America and Antarctica, one of the few routes they have not yet traveled.
While frequent cruises sometimes mean giving up other projects, they find the experience a welcome “vacation from the world,” as Tony puts it. “A good ship is one with room to practice, and finding a place to hang my slack rope is always difficult—but when the ship rocks, I’m the only one who can stand up straight!”
While Tony packs up, Jaki tosses various items of increasing value to him from (address book…whoosh…here comes the tape recorder…why not…camera…may as well). “This is how we unload our groceries at home,” says Jaki. We’re used to it, but sometimes it makes people nervous.” Soon everything is packed except five brightly colored silicone balls, which always seem to evade confinement. They linger in Duncan’s palms as if they intend to weave their way to Antarctica with him and keep chasing undiscovered patterns until he comes back.
Author’s Note: This seemed like a picture-perfect ending at the time, but things are never that simple in the juggling world. After an icy, penguin-filled excursion to Antarctica, Tony and Jaki’s ship took a detour through the Amazon River, where the ship ran amok and sank. All passengers and crew escaped, briefly becoming celebrities in the Amazon news. Among the survivors were Tony’s five silicone balls and a waterlogged computer. When questioned by a reporter, one of the balls commented, “I heard a crash and thought one of the hatchets must have fallen again, but then the floor started coming up at us much faster than normal, so I realized this was no ordinary cascade. Now we’re just glad to be back in Tony’s hands. After this, head rolls should be easy!” The computer had no comment.
Undaunted by the experience, Tony and Jaki spent a few weeks recouping in New York City and then headed out on another ship in early May, this one bound for China. May they return safely to tell the tale!