The Kansas City Juggling Festival (KCJF) found itself at Rockhurst Highschool this year, marking its fifth year as a landmark event for jugglers from across the country. I was fortunate to be invited as a guest performer for the school’s Juggling Festival Preview event which took place the Tuesday before the festival, so I was able to not only meet several student jugglers before the festival, but also attend a Kansas City Juggling Club meeting and witness firsthand the impressive machine that is the KCJF’s event planning team.
The Kansas City Juggling Club’s weekly meetings are incredible events in and of themselves. With average attendance exceeding forty people – and a record of over eighty at a single “regular” night – club members get to experience the magic and warmth of the juggling community every Wednesday night. Its remarkable membership numbers are no accident, as the club’s leaders align the organization’s programs and activities with a mission:
“…to create the leading and defining juggling community in the United States by positively impacting all people who come to our gatherings and events, hosting the best juggling festival in the country, and deeply and extensively engaging with the larger Kansas City community. In this way, we aspire to redefine ‘juggler’ to be as much about an engaged lifestyle as the act of juggling itself.”
Through their festival, performances, events, and other activities, they hope to “create a world of jugglers, open and engaged in life.”
And by all accounts, it’s working.
The Festival started on Friday afternoon and folks started trickling in from all across the Midwest. The gym was getting full by the early evening, just in time for the big fire show. The fire show started immediately after the highschool football game finished. A throng of jugglers, students, parents, and members of the Rockhurst community gathered in the parking lot to watch some of the best performers in the Midwest do their thing. Ryan Nogle’s fire contact juggling was a major highlight for many, as was Jason Divad’s brilliant interpretation of the classic torch juggling routine on a giraffe unicycle.
The gym closed late – at 2am, after a few intense rounds of combat. I somehow managed to get some sleep with visions of Saturday afternoon eagerly dancing in my head.
If there’s one day to come to any juggling festival, it’s Saturday – and the Kansas City Juggling Festival planners filled it right up. The afternoon was packed with games (Sam Malcolm and Noah Schmeissner dominated the endurance competitions, to noone’s surprise), a special viewing of local juggler’s video-and-performance-art project “Dangerous Games” (which you can watch here!), and dozens of workshops. For me, Peter Nestler’s jumprope basics workshop was a real highlight – it’s not often that a world champion roper comes to a festival. His course was extremely well put together and left all of us sweaty, breathless, and excited to work on our skills. There was an aerial silks workshop put on by Robin Rosenberger, head of Kansas City’s MoonDrop Circus, which was well-attended to a fault. With one aerial rig, it’s hard to teach a class of thirty. MoonDrop’s goal is to accomplish the impossible, and this challenge proved no match for their excellent teachers.
In the evening, jugglers filed into Rockhurst’s Rose Theater for the gala show and were welcomed by a video showing the Kansas City Juggling Club’s year in review. The club’s involvement in community events, shows, workshops, and outreach programs were all proudly displayed to a round of applause from the audience. (If you’re interested, you can see the video here!) This video really drove home the idea that the Kansas City Juggling Club isn’t just a place to cultivate skills – it’s a place to cultivate strong friendships.
The show started off with a monologue from Scott Burton, 1986 IJA Silver Medalist, who then introduced the Rockhurst Highschool Juggling Club. The highschoolers performed an ensemble routine where jugglers threw balls at their comrades, who bounced them back into the pattern off of balloons held in their hands. These difficult and creative moves were executed with youthful enthusiasm and were met by an equally enthusiastic crowd. I had the privilege of seeing them create the routine at the school the Tuesday beforehand and have to say – though it was put together quickly, you’d never know it!
Savannah Miller, a 16-year-old world champion baton twirler took the stage after the local club, and she ran through an incredibly technical series of tricks perfectly. Though all of her moves were sensational, the quadruple-pirouette underneath a spinning baton was a crowd favorite.
Antoine Terrieux, one of the French headliners, performed a modern club routine without music. He performed manipulation sequences with grace and stylized movement, breaking the silence with a few noises and sound effects. One particularly interesting throw was met with a loud “Nice!” from an audience member, to which Antoine responded “Thank you!” while obviously very preoccupied with the next sequence. The crowd exploded with cheers and laughter and settled in for the rest of the exceptional routine. Scott, the emcee, remarked that this routine was “chain-smokingly French,” which garnered some laughs and a murmur of agreement – this isn’t the kind of juggling you regularly see at an American convention.
Next up was Jeremy Johnson, a juggler from Madison, Wisconsin. He performed a routine featuring his signature balancing tricks with unicycles, PVC tubes, and a metal stool. For his finale, he stood balanced on the tube on top of the stool, then jumped with the tube underneath him, somehow landing on the tube, balanced prettily on the floor after a three-foot drop. Though many in the audience had seen a version of his act before, we were all on the edges of our seats.
For me, the real highlight of the show was Julien Mandier’s ball juggling and clown piece. Julien is Antoine’s partner in the “Blizzard Concept Company,” the headlining act of the show. In this act, Julien juggled three balls gracefully on top of a chair – until gravity and coordination got the best of him and he lost his balance on the chair and splayed across the floor. His pratfalls and comedic timing were astounding, and the audience fell in love with him as he fell down time and time again.
Eric Tranton rounded out the first half of the show with an incredible yo-yo piece. Performing to soul music, he handled one yo-yo with incredible speed and precision. The audience gave him a warm response for the first section, but went absolutely mental for his routine with two yo-yos. Lacing the strings through his fingers, the yo-yos whipped through the complicated web, from one string to the other. I know nothing about yo-yos, and know nothing about what I saw. All I can say is that it was the coolest thing I saw at the festival all weekend.
During intermission, another documentary video of the Kansas City Club aired, highlighting more of their year. This one was as inspiring as the first, and you can see that one here!
The second act started off with a series of comedic vignettes performed by Blizzard Concept Company (Antoine and Julien’s duo), their bottom halves obscured by a pipe and drape. They explored the mimetic potential of hair-dryers, vacuum cleaners, mulchers, and leaf-blowers as Antoine blew Julien across the stage behind the curtain. This was followed with an incredible magic trick with a balloon and a delightful routine where they personified hungry fish eager to eat floating ping-pong balls. If this description is lacking, it’s because the routine was simply indescribable. My friend Julia sat beside me and exclaimed when the curtain closed: “My sides hurt from laughing! That was amazing.” Suffice to say – these two are master clowns.
Chris Neff was up next, with a spinning top routine that started off slowly. He finished with a sequence of incredible string tricks with a large blue top that was simply inspirational.
After Chris came Peter Nestler, the jumprope and unicycle whiz. He offered a demonstration of basic and advanced jumprope and unicycle skills that showed why he is often referred to as one of the “jumprope masters.” Towards the end of his routine, he executed a triple-under while bunnyhopping on a unicycle, then went into a freestyle single-rope routine that can only be described as rock and roll.
The Midwest’s darling club juggler, Nick Laffey, took the stage next and performed a thoughtful three-club routine full of balances and rolls. This was his out-of-state performance premiere (barring a presentation in Japan this Summer), a fact that confounded everyone who learned the fact. Laffey was a crowd favorite, and his shoulderpad box and balance-placement sequences received much applause.
The show closed with another appearance by Antoine and Julien, this time with a peculiar take on the straight-man / funny-man concept. Here, Julien’s body was covered in hair-dryers taped to his appendages. Julien turned them on and suspended large syrofoam balls in their currents. Both the routine and the show ended with Julien shooting a stage light out with an air rifle. Blizzard Concept’s routines were all the more entertaining, giving the panic leading up to the show – some miscommunications culminated in their discovering that the hairdryers used in the show could not run on an American AC current. Some clever engineering by the Kansas City Juggling Club’s resident electrician made their acts possible, as did a 220v generator running just outside of the theater.
The Kansas City Juggling Festival’s show rivaled that produced by any other North American festival – including the IJA’s own Cascade of Stars or Turbo 418’s gala show. This is thanks largely to the input and efforts of Greg Owsley, one of the cornerstone members of the Kansas City Juggling Club.
After the main show came the renegade show. Ryan and Robin deserve credit for not only opening their house to 200+ jugglers, but also for constructing a stage for the show to take place on. That’s right. Ryan and Robin built a permanent stage in their backyard just so they could host the KCJF’s late-night event.
The renegade itself had mixed reviews, though the event was widely considered a success. Some jugglers wanted to revel in the afterglow of the gala show, so they went inside to socialize. Others sat in the humidity outside to enjoy the keg of beer and the late-night antics. The highlights, as I experienced the evening, were the aerial acts suspended from a tree, Eric Jackson’s improvisational club juggling piece, and Galen Harp’s mixed prop routine. I performed a new bit where I jumped rope while balancing a bowling ball on top of a wine bottle on my face, too. I made it back to my host’s house at around three in the morning and fell asleep, satisfied I didn’t splatter my brains on Ryan’s new stage.
After such a late night, it’s usually a struggle to get jugglers to the gym before noon. But at 11:30am, a line of jugglers was groggily forming outside the Rose Theater, ready for a Sunday matinee show with the MoonDrop Circus. This hour-long production featured aerials, juggling, and acrobalance. MoonDrop takes an interesting approach to choreography, incorporating many different disciplines in what would otherwise be solo acts. One woman’s silk act was joined with a trio acrobalance piece, for example, playing with them before returning to her apparatus. MoonDrop shows incorporate live musicians interacting with circus acts as they play the soundtrack. For example, Greg Owsley performed a club juggling tribute to several classic movies with an accordion player, and he ended up in an exciting weight-sharing position with the musician as they did a finale trick. Greg was later joined by juggler Justin Sheldon as they performed a lighthearted routine with bells, sound effects, and juggling clubs. The show ended with the performers and musicians jumping rope together – have you ever seen an accordion player skip rope? If you were at the show on Sunday, you have!
Sunday afternoon was filled with friendly goodbyes – hugs and handshakes interrupting practice sessions and workshops as the day wore on. Come 5pm, the remaining jugglers helped the Kansas City crew sweep the floors and turn out the lights, another festival rolling to a close.
The local jugglers went back to Ryan and Robin’s house to tidy up the remnants of the renegade show, then eat pizza, share stories, and sing songs together.
By Monday morning, four hundred jugglers had left the city, taking home with them a collection of new experiences and friendships, primed to help the Kansas City club “create a world of jugglers.”
Not many regional clubs have the capacity to put on such an extensive festival – four shows, twenty-five workshops, vendors, a huge raffle, and games over three days. The Kansas City Juggling Club not only has the membership and volunteer power to make it possible, they have a vision that guides their efforts to a tangible end.
I speak for many when I give my thanks to the amazing team of organizers and volunteers who made this event possible, and when I say I can’t wait for next year’s festival.