The New York Times
TUESDAY, JANUARY 4, 2000
Juggling: a Career
Tossing Clubs and Carving a Niche in a Male Bastion
By KATHERINE E. FINKELSTEIN
At first glance, Natalia Sarygina doesn’t look like much of a glass-ceiling smasher. She wears a sequined minidress to work, is pleased with her $25,000-a- year salary and has a conventional take on gender roles, in Russian-laced English.
”I think man is a man, he’s more strong,” she says. ”A woman? It’s a woman,” she shrugs, applying thick makeup in her stamp-size trailer in Manhattan.
Five-foot-four and 110 pounds, Ms. Sarygina appears to have more grace than intensity. But at 28, she is among a handful of women worldwide at the top of her profession: juggling. It is a field in which men outnumber women 9 to 1, according to the International Jugglers’ Association, and in which the three other partners in her troupe are men.
Even rarer, she juggles clubs, which are heftier than the batons, rings or soft balls that other female jugglers favor. At her alma mater, Moscow‘s State Circus and Variety College, most women content themselves with hula-hoops.
By numbers alone then, Ms. Sarygina — currently performing with the Big
Apple Circus and living in its trailer encampment behind Lincoln Center at
62nd Street between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues — has accomplished something on a par with the C.E.O. of Hewlett Packard and the secretary of the Air Force, both women.
Her act is almost too fast to track, her concentration muscular. The clubs slam into her hands and fly off, touch down in her partners’ hands and fly off again. The performers circle, climb onto pedestals, traverse a distance of 12 yards, all while passing and plucking clubs, spinning in a blur.
”The circus lights are blinding and the dust can get in your eyes,‘‘ she says.
”You finish a performance and you can‘t feel your hands. You can train and train, but if you miss one thing,‘‘ juggling becomes an ungrateful profession. The roles of most other women beneath the big top are defined by gender.
Women gravitate toward elephant riding, the trapeze and balance acts known as equilibristics, which demand grace and speed. Clowning, with its bruising pratfalls and adolescent goofing, draws more men, as do acts requiring strength, like the four-high acrobatic teams in which one huge member of the troupe stands beneath the others.
But none have remained a male bastion as much as juggling, with its long-term dangers of vision problems and hand numbness, technical demands and grueling practice schedule. ”Traditionally, boys have been more comfortable playing games that involve throwing and catching,‘‘ said Cindy Marvell, who in 1989 was the first woman to win a gold medal at the International Jugglers’ Association competition. Since then, only one other woman has succeeded her. Even the jugglers’ association itself, formed in 1947, evolved from the International Brotherhood of Magicians.
Juggling holds little glamour and sex appeal, Ms. Sarygina explains. ”When little girls start to do something, she doesn‘t want to be a juggle,‘‘ she said, dropping the r in her sketchy English. ”She wants to be a little queen.‘‘
When it comes to hurling bowling pins through the air, however, Ms. Sarygina is king.
Beneath her liquid eyeliner and leopard-print undergarments, her determination is steely, her thin arms like ropes, the result of the 20-pound barbells she curls every day. The troupe‘s practice schedule — four hours a day, one hour nonstop— leaves her with calluses and disappointingly short fingernails.
Her feminism is ”maybe just in some things,‘‘ she concludes: ”For each woman to earn by herself, to work by herself, to exist by herself.‘‘ She has been juggling for only four years.
Mostly, the female phenoms of the juggling world learned the art from their fathers. Katya Ignatov, for example, was trained by her famous father, Sergei. And Dorothy Finnigan, 15 — the next generation‘s talent, Ms. Marvell said — learned on tour with her juggling father, who goes by the stage name of Professor Confidence.
By contrast, Ms. Sarygina knew nothing of the circus, growing up an only child in Moscow with her fighter-pilot father, and her mother, an assistant television producer. She trained at the Moscow Institute of Sports as a rhythmic gymnast and became a two-time European aerobics champion, in 1990 and ‘91. On she went to model Puma sportswear and contemplate a career in journalism. Then one day in 1995, three male jugglers invited her to toss around some clubs.
”It turned out it worked for me,‘‘ she recalls.
She makes no claim to be the world‘s greatest juggler. That honorific may belong to Sergei Ignatov, the first person to juggle 13 rings. He is known for saying that juggling lies in the soul, not the wrist. Others argue for Michael Moschen, who received a MacArthur Foundation genius grant in 1991 for his manipulation of crystal spheres.
Francoise Rochais grabbed the gold from the International Jugglers’ Association in 1995 by tossing seven clubs simultaneously — slim homemade ones, albeit, with little flower decorations at the ends.
Though Ms. Sarygina prefers three clubs, there is little doubt that her strength, dexterity, and flawless grasp of whizzing objects put her near the top of the tent. Her male partners, somewhat miffed to be passing clubs in her shadow, concede that of 3,000 Russian circus artists — 48 reputable juggling troupes among them — only one or two ”girls‘‘ juggle at her level.
Backstage in the sawdust, the ringmaster‘s stunt double, Dinny McGuire, said that in twenty years of circus experience, he has never seen a woman as good as she is in an act ”like this.‘‘
Bello Nock, the star clown, with vertical orange hair and a baggy tuxedo, said that Ms. Sarygina had mastered upper-body isolation, mixing strength and force with elegance. ”It‘s hard to look as graceful as she does,‘‘ he said, watching her troupe, The Original Jugglers, warm up.
The subject quickly turned to her striking looks, akin to those of one of James Bond‘s girlfriends. ”I don‘t think she has to juggle,‘‘ Mr. Nock reflected. ”She could just drop them and pick them up.‘‘
”During this act, she’s about all you see,” Mr. McGuire chimed in.
But ask Ms. Sarygina whether it’s hard to be young and single in a man’s world, with smitten audience members sometimes offering dinner or drinks. Her sole complaint is a practical one. ”If a woman is single, it’s a little bit hard, driving,” she says, explaining that she must drive her own trailer, hours on end, to circus gigs across the country.
But there are also benefits to being the only woman in a male troupe: ”They are good guys,” she says of her partners. ”They could help if something happens to the trailer.”
The encampment behind Lincoln Center could be like any outpost in Eastern Europe, where six of the acts originate. The female performers carry tubs of laundry from their small trailers to the washroom and the men — in their jumpsuits — stand behind the tent, smoking unfiltered cigarettes. The horses, including a plump miniature, stamp impatiently in the cold.
Inside her tidy but dim trailer, kept so to rest her eyes, Ms. Sarygina prepares for a 6:30 p.m. show, with her triple-decker makeup bag beside her. ”First of all, foundation,‘‘ she says. ”After this, pressed powder.‘‘ Then eye shadow, black liner and mascara. ”Lipstick must be very bright,‘‘ she adds, drawing on a vibrant pink. The finishing touch, a spritz of Chanel perfume, will sweeten the tent odor of sweat and elephant dung.
She prefers some restraint — ”When it‘s too much, it‘s more like for a dancing bear,‘‘ she says — but admits delight in her dress, a sparkling halter back of sea green. ”Even if it‘s a man‘s job, I try to be a woman in the ring,‘‘ she says, slipping into high-heeled sandals and beginning her icy chasse to the tent.
Her wants are few. She longs for a big motor home. She reveals that she is working on a secret and ”unique‘‘ act with hula-hoops: five around the middle, two on each arm.