Keeping it in the Air

SPECTACLE

A Quarterly Journal of the Circus Arts

FALL 2003

 

KEEPING IT IN THE AIR

By Cindy Marvell

 

From high atop the conductor’s podium, Ofek Shilton raised his baton. On stage before him, the orchestra, dressed in black, waited for the downbeat. The piece began: surprise! Maestro Shilton is an eight-year-old juggler from Israel. The ensemble included his older brother and juggling partner, Segev Shilton of Raanana, near Tel Aviv. This was no ordinary ensemble, but the IJO, which stands for “International Juggling Orchestra.” The cast included 22 jugglers from 13 countries. This musical melee— cleverly coordinated and humorously conceived by juggler Antonio Benitez of Spain—could only strike up at a juggling convention.

“IJO” is a bit of word play on the IJA (International Juggler’s Association), which invented the concept of juggling conventions (now called festivals) in 1947, hosting annual events in North America or Canada. Eventually, the idea spread to Europe, and the European Juggling Convention, known as the EJC, evolved into a weeklong event attracting as many as 3500 jugglers. This year, the IJA held its event at Circus Circus in Reno, Nevada, for a week in July; the EJC migrated to Svendborg, a seaside village in on the island of Fyn in Denmark, for eight days in August.

These events capped off a good season for jugglers within the wider world of circus. A record number of juggling acts (seven) entered and won awards at Cirque de Demain this year. Timo Wopp of Germany, who juggled hats, balls and clubs, won a bronze medal. Taras, a Ukrainian graduate of the Circus School of Kiev who juggled rings within a German Wheel, diaboloists “Les 7 Doigts de la Main” and Yannick Javaudin, and ball-bouncer extraordinaire Zdenek Supka of Czechoslovakia all won special prizes.


From the United States, the LaSalle Brothers, an acrobatic-juggling duo par excellence, also won a bronze medal at Cirque de Demain. Their act was also one of the highlights of the Public Show in Reno. Marty and Jake LaSalle happen to be identical twins. They are also disciples of the renowned juggler/coach Benji Hill. In a move created for the twins, Jake leaps over Marty’s head, traveling through a five-club pattern without disrupting it (the classic move, performed with three clubs, involves stealing the clubs). 10-club passing was accomplished with the ease that used to be reserved for seven. The LaSalles have been showing great teamwork, flair and technique from a very young age. While the duo has had many offers since their performance, the brothers have temporarily postponed their international career to attend Columbia University in New York; undoubtedly, they will graduate summa can juggle.

The English-German team of Luke Wilson and Ilka Licht, winners of the Moulin Rouge Prize in Paris, closed the Public Show in Denmark. Their trademark duet club-passing piece combines original choreography, costuming and charisma. Wilson, a willowy and intense performer who also holds close-up magic titles, dresses in a classy electric blue; Ilka wears a flamboyant orange dress from which she produces more clubs as the act progresses. Their intricate club “steals” and “replacements” have become legendary among jugglers; one trade-off involves a head-to-head balance transfer. Lukaluka manages to perform such complex moves as passing seven clubs back-to-back without losing their character presence or physical flow. Licht began as a teenager in a youth circus in Germany, where she also trained as an aerialist. In one of her trademark moves, she juggles three clubs, picks up a forth with her toes, and takes it from a high extension into the juggling pattern. Wilson is a notoriously quick and agile juggler who also brings a unique style and presence to his innovative tricks. With a soundtrack combining contemporary jazz and Celtic music, lukaluka presents a highly polished performance in which every catch, glance, and toss plays to the audience and enhances the emotional content of the piece. They are regulars on the variety theater circuit in Europe, including a long run at the Krystallpalast in Leipzig. Lukaluka’s blend of artistry and athleticism makes theirs one of the acts that can effectively cross over from variety to circus. They are graduates of The Circus Space in London, where their collaboration began, and the National Center for Circus Arts in Chalons.

In addition to showcasing some of the stars, the events in Reno and Svendborg gave attendees a chance to observe up-and-coming talent. A promising and accomplished young duo with technical skills that would carry well in circus has caught the attention of jugglers worldwide. The brother-sister team of Vova and Olga Galchenko, now based in New England, trained at Russian circus school near Moscow. When their family moved to America, it did not take long for the stellar siblings to infiltrate the juggling scene with their ever-growing repertoire of club-passing skills. Olga, at 13 the only girl to qualify for the Juniors competition in Reno, can juggle five clubs on a unicycle. She also performed five in a split off the edge of the stage, and won the Flamingo award for up-and-coming female jugglers. Vova, 15, won the bronze medal in the senior competition with his difficult solo club skills. Together, the Galchenkos won the silver medal in the team competition. They pass eleven clubs in practice, and can do ten back-to-back (starting by juggling five each) in addition to a variety of five- club steals and takeaways. The duo has performed at the Crawley Circus Festival and presented a piano-playing-while-juggling piece for the bronze medal at the European Youth Circus Festival in Wiesbaden in 2002. Their practice sessions drew large crowds of jugglers, both in Reno and Denmark.

But the IJA’s Reno festival belonged to Circus Circus jugglers Bill Berry and Jonathan Root. The California duo, known as Team Rootberry, won the IJA’s team competition. Using their fluid club-passing variations, the past silver medallists created an entertaining spoof on the sports world. Bill Berry accomplished a rare feat by also winning the solo event the same night (the last person to do so was Peter Davison of the trio Airjazz). Team Rootberry’s club passing courts incessant difficulty without ever courting disaster; Root and Berry are the type of jugglers whose tricks are always on, always flowing in textbook form without ever seeming tense or belabored. Their performance style exudes great energy and passion for the craft. In his solo work, Berry’s long-limbed physique extenuates his impressive and original tricks; his novel three-ball routine attracted particular attention and won yet another award. Berry also added a rarely performed combination trick: juggling five clubs while sword swallowing. Team Rootberry nabbed the People’s Choice award from the crowd of attending jugglers; the duo then continued their run at Circus Circus.

Also competing as a solo act was Alex Chimal of Circus Chimera. Chimal, from the Yukatan, choreographs his own acts with balls and clubs. A true circus professional, Chimal pushes himself to set high standards in both technique and theatricality. One innovative club move was a kick-up into a forward roll—before catching the club. Chimal bounces seven balls on a raised platform.

Several other world-renowned Circus Circus performers appeared in the IJA’s public show at the Golden Phoenix Theater. Anthony Gatto, the towering juggling talent who first wowed convention-goers as a child prodigy, was on hand to close the show with his stunningly difficult tricks with numerous balls, clubs and rings, including a seven-club finish (until Anthony arrived on the scene, five was considered the max in club juggling).

Circuses Gatto has appeared with include Circus Knie, Australia’s Michael Edgley Circus, and Germany’s Circus Krone. He is also the only juggler ever to win the Golden Clown Award in Monte Carlo. In 2004, Gatto can be seen at the Venetian in Las Vegas, Le Faitbout in Paris, and the TigerPalast in Frankfurt. Gatto and his father, Nick, a former member of the vaudeville trio Los Gatos, taught a 4-day master class called “IDP,” designed to take participants to the next technical level. Anthony and fellow phenom Albert Lucas teamed up to present the IJA’s Bobby May Award to their fathers for their work in Los Gatos.

Another past IJA champion, Francoise Rochais of France, opened the show. Dressed in a long white gown, she performed original umbrella and ring combinations. Her trademark “flower sticks,” which resemble batons with handles, serve as clubs. Rochais is one of the few in the world capable of performing seven clubs solo, a feat she can also accomplish with fire torches. Rochais uses her elegant style to create acts with a variety of atmospheres and costuming. In Reno, her performance featured a mix of French romance and Vegas pizzazz. Rochais is a past silver medallist at Cirque l’Avenir has trained at an acrobatics school in Guangzhou, China, and with circus director Valentin Gneouchev in Moscow.

Viktor Kee, appearing at a juggling convention for the first time, lost no time in making the stage his own. Thanks to his much admired work with Cirque du Soleil, Kee has many fans in the juggling world, and they were not disappointed as he launched into action.

Kee is known for the way his fluid style of acro-dance seamlessly complements his ball juggling, rolling, and bouncing.

With so many international jugglers in Reno, what would be left to see in Denmark? Fortunately, circus has really taken off in Scandinavia, and over 2,500 jugglers attended. One of the top jugglers currently working in circus and variety theater, Shirley Dean, winner of the Princess of Circus prize, hails from Sweden. The maestro of hat and box acts, Kris Kremo of Switzerland, performed at Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, not far from the convention site in Svendborg.

Plenty of Nordic jugglers showcased their acts in this fairytale city on the island of Fyn, birthplace of Hans Christian Anderson. Samuel Gustavsson from Stockholm began with three large rings, performing some classic moves and some of his own invention. Moving very smoothly, he worked up to five with great style and atmosphere. He has been touring internationally with Cirkus Cirkor, performing as an actor, comedian and juggler. A student of the Circus pilots school, he will attend the Suborb Circus Festival in Sweden before returning to school to work on a solo show.

Two Copenhagen jugglers, Nils Poll and Steen Offersen, showcased their solo acts. Nils Poll combined physical comedy and hat and box juggling with his comedy character. Poll, a veteran of the festival circuit, is currently on a return engagement in Japan. Offersen performed with two silver diabolos and, in an act rarely attempted, with two devil sticks. The Danish clown/juggler Tape juggled rings while balancing cigar boxes. The circus spoofers Loyal Club rode horse-unicycles and Aerius of Copenhagen performed on fabric. Ville Walo of Helsinki, Finland, performed with “square rings,” rings which really are square.

Connie Leaverton, a juggler, unicyclist and filmmaker from Austin, TX, attended the festival on her way to some European engagements at festivals and corporate events. While at the EJC, Leaverton recruited Karen Bourre of France, another graduate of London’s Circus Space, to participate in an independent film, “Trailblazers: Women Who Juggle.” Bourre had been touring with Cirque Baroque since the previous September and is also a past collaborator with the Gandini Jugglers of London.

As Leaverton filmed, Bourre ran through an incredible six and seven ball bounce sequence taken from her circus act. The variety of patterns and dancerly interaction with a high level of technique makes this another rare and intriguing example of difficult juggling extended into the realm of character and movement.

It seemed that almost all the jugglers achieving this effect had circus school backgrounds. Urs Rohrer, a Swiss juggling clown from the Basil area, attended the circus school in Weisbaden. He has also performed with circus Harlekin Liliput. Rohrer juggled up to five giant tennis balls with a clown character that radiated delight. Dafne Merijn from Holland studied dance and choreography as a student at “Etage” in West Berlin. She explained that the East Berlin school tends to focus more on skill, the West more on theater and art. Merijn rolled an orange ball around her body while performing acrobatic combinations. She also taught workshops in “contact juggling.”

This field carries a lot of controversy in the juggling world. These techniques were brought into juggling by Michael Moschen, and a number of jugglers on the professional circuit have lifted his crystal ball and bouncing acts without permission; books teaching his techniques have been published without his consent. However there are jugglers who have used the concept of ball rolling, also associated with rhythmic gymnastics, to come up with their own skills, and Merijn is one of these. Tony Duncan, a past performer with the Copenhagen Circus, is another master of this technique. As Merijn says, “contact jugglers tend to get in contact,” and for every batch of imitators there are a few who have found their own path with this zen-like art.

Another example of creative inspiration could be found in ball bouncer Stefan Zimmerman’s collaboration with Lithuanian violinist Leva Zygaite (note: with accent). In addition to integrating tap-dancing and rola bola balancing with his juggling skills, Zimmerman performed atop a platform with different shapes and levels for the bounces to play off. While some of these multi-level bounces can be found in Moschen’s work, the concept and technique appear to be largely Zimmerman’s own.The duo’s stage rapport enhanced their intriguing presentation.

Three performers who have trained together at L’Ecole san Filet, the circus school in Brussels, performed their work at the EJC. Daniel Megnet and Dirk Meyev of Germany collaborated with American Paul Anderson in a high-energy juggling and acrobatic montage. This crowd-pleasing trio will pursue circus work in the U. S. next winter, when they will be in training at Anderson’s ABC Circus Center in Hollywood, Florida. Anderson has become a fixture at juggling and circus events, setting up trampolines and tumbling equipment and teaching duet acro with his wife, a professional dancer and teacher. Other circus-oriented stand-outs in Svendborg included Tony Freburg of France, who spun up to three (and even four) diabolos on a string while performing splits and back aerials; Toby Walker, a juggler from Wales whose club technique has reached outrageous heights; and renowned diaboloist Donald Grant, who has been featured in Pomp, Duck and Circumstance.

The international exchanges will continue next July and August as these events move to Buffalo, NY, and Lille, France. High turnouts are expected in these regions, promising a mind-blowing spectacle of coordination and cacophony. To find out more, check the web site Juggle.org. And watch out for juggling conductors!

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