Notes and queries and a case full of clubs: Concepts

As has hopefully become clear over the course of my writings here, it is vitally important to me to tie conceptual ideas (theory) to actual physical work (practice). This link from theory to practice is easy to demonstrate in a workshop or classroom situation, but somewhat harder to visualise when writing about the process. I have already discussed factors of creation and discovery within juggling technique, and have also introduced the idea of how best to let that technique speak for itself. Now I want to explore some other possibilities: based on what we may choose to use our juggling to represent.

In the past, juggling represented juggling. Plain and simple! Tricks were presented simply as, for want of a better word, tricks. As well-practiced stunts to amaze and amuse, to baffle and bewilder. In the same way that the techniques of draftsmanship (shading, perspective, blending and so on) were studied so as to more accurately represent reality, so were juggling tricks refined and created so as to lead to greater applause and more consistent bookings.

Gradually, and in many places and at many times, pictorial art relinquished its monopoly on pure representation (“what is”) and embraced and grew to show also what “could be.” Perhaps it is exactly this branching of intention that allows us to define any particular skill set as “art” rather than “craft” (or “skill”, or “sport”). It is certainly true (as Jay Gilligan has referenced on several occasions, often in comparison to the developmental history of dance) that juggling is a very young art form, and I believe it is still defining what possibilities it has to show (what I am here terming) “what could be.”

But juggling as art, although perhaps barely in the throes of adolescence, has already grown immensely in its short life. So let’s start with the basics, and explore the question of “what can we use juggling to represent?” We will find that we have three basic possibilities, starting with the most obvious and then growing out into more conceptual, or abstract, realms.

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1. JUGGLING TRICKS / PROPS

Our first option is the most obvious, and it’s the one already referenced in the introduction. We can use juggling to represent juggling itself, in a non-conceptual, very down to earth way. In this most simple interpretation, that means using juggling to talk about (to describe, or to represent, or to explore) either juggling tricks, or juggling props.

For example, we could create a juggling routine that explores backcrosses to their full potential. Rather than simply demonstrating the single trick, we could build a complete act based around showcasing all the fine details and impressive variations that we can think of. Even within this rather slim proposal, we will find plenty of chances to make personal, aesthetic choices of content and style. Such a routine needn’t be a boring demonstration of minor variations (although it certainly could be, and I personally would probably enjoy such a routine as much as any other), and indeed, such “juggling technique explorations” exist, and run the full gamut of styles from traditional circus act to contemporary theatre performance, exploring elements of technique such as club kick-ups, stick balances or hoop isolations.

The other option mentioned above is the exploration of the prop itself, rather than a specific trick. This has perhaps already been developed more fully, and since at least the 1980s there have certainly been a multitude of beautiful and rich three ball juggling acts that seem to follow this route, along with perhaps more recent works concerning themselves with the properties and qualities of clubs, rings and other juggling props. But again, although bland sounding, we make our own choices of stylistic and artistic content. We are not obliged to explore rings through the medium of a four minute ring juggling act! One could use cigar boxes and diabolos, or yo-yos and shaker cups: create an hour long seven-person opera, or a 20 second YouTube video. Banality is always a choice, not a pre-requisite of the material we choose to explore!

2. JUGGLING CONCEPTS

Moving away from first principles, we begin to approach more conceptual (non-physical) possibilities for our juggling. The second theme we can talk about is juggling concepts. These are more abstract themes, existing outside of the physical tricks and the solid props, but nevertheless are concepts which are integral to juggling itself.

One simple example of a juggling concept could be throwing. Throwing is integral to juggling, yet it is a non-physical concept which also exists outside the world of juggling. And therefore a juggling routine based around the concept of the throw is one conceptual step further from a juggling routine based around the concept of e.g. backcrosses. One can create lists of juggling concepts (catching, throwing, balance, rhythm are all possibilities) and argue about which are really integral juggling concepts (of those four examples, only two are on my personal list!). It is worth trying to make such a list, even if one doesn’t then take the next step of creating a juggling piece that tries to communicate any of the concepts. Just the task of collecting the possibilities, and of convincing oneself or ones friends which are “correct” or not, can really help further ones understanding of juggling.

3. ABSTRACT CONCEPTS

And so we come to the final possibility, the most “high-art” one, furthest from the core centre of juggling itself. Abstract concepts are simply “anything outside the world of juggling.” “Art” itself is a rather abstract concept! So is “love.” So is “the colour blue,” or “grey skies over Cologne with a ukulele being played in the next room.” Or “cheese.” But although these ideas all come from somewhere far away from juggling, we may always choose, if we wish, to use our juggling as the medium to talk about them. I suspect that this is the hardest of the three possibilities to take, especially as the risk of failure (of not successfully communicating our intention) is perhaps greatest here. But of course, even that risk is conceptual, and there is a whole other argument to be had about how important it is or isn’t for an audience to exactly understand an artist’s intention, and to what degree an artist can fail or succeed in that task (or even if they have any responsibility at all in the matter!). But the fact remains that, should we wish to, we can open our juggling to the wide, scary, world of abstract concepts, and use juggling as a painter may use her paint, or a poet his words: to talk about anything we feel is important to us or to the world.

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Within these three realms we find everything that we could ever talk about with our juggling: yet we started with the most basic, obvious and seemingly banal possibilities. I am always amazed again at how quickly we can reach out into new directions and concepts when we start with first principles: principles that we often simply take for granted, if not overlook entirely. It is the consideration of first principles that helps me the most when looking to find connections from theory to practice, from the gym to the stage, and it is returning to them when lost in higher concepts that helps me to re-map the path I took to get there, and to find more clarity and intention within my juggling. No matter how abstract we choose to be, knowing how we got there can help us be sure that our juggling remains true and principled.

Juggler and magician Luke Wilson, an Englishman in Continental exile. When not on the road he calls Germany home, and his work has developed into a mixture of performing, teaching and directing: roles which have allowed him to claim such diverse titles as prize winner at the Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain in Paris, sometime Head of Department (Juggling & Manipulation) at the London Conservatoire of Dance and Drama, visiting Professor of Juggling at Stockholm's University College of Dance and Circus, and Magical Advisor to FISM World Magic Champion Ken Bardowicks. When not travelling or working, he is probably trying to read the entire internet, drinking tea, and wondering if he will ever print his "tricks make me happy" T-shirt.

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