Pendulum Juggling Enters its Third Decade

The genesis of pendulum juggling can be traced to a singular source in 1993. That year, Jörg Müller was studying at the Centre National des Arts du Cirque (CNAC), and making some club swinging research with Mads Rosenbeck. At the same time, Jörg was building wind chimes with his father and found the sound and rhythm to be a source of inspiration for his juggling. He was at the Cirque d’Hiver in Paris when the idea for pendulum juggling struck him. The building itself can almost be seen as a catalyst for this since its shape, with steep sloping sides and extreme raked seating, give a good perspective on the volume of vertical space in the venue. Jörg imagined five metal tubes, akin to wind chimes, hanging from a central rigging point and thought some form of juggling could be done with such a contraption. Tim Roberts was Jörg’s teacher at CNAC, and remembers the process of creating the apparatus- untangling fishing line, fixing broken swivels, figuring out where to drill holes in pipes so they would ring out when hanging, and how long to cut the metal tubes to achieve certain notes. Tim also created a solution for making the pipes ring out after they were released from the hand into their orbits. He suggested wooden clothespin extensions taped on Jörg’s fingers which would come in contact with the metal as the tubes were thrown. Tim invited Jörg to perform this iconic piece at the 1997 IJA Festival in Pittsburgh, PA. Those who saw this performance live at that very first European Showcase still talk about it to this day, and marvel at its unforgettable imagery. A version of this work from three years later can be seen here:

Jörg has also performed with pendulums that replaced the metal tubes with flaming torches and even French baguettes! No other information or documentation about anyone juggling pendulums prior to Jörg has been found. However, the search did turn up an astounding amount of information, including many independent discoveries of this type of manipulation, many direct extensions of Jörg’s piece, and many blatant thefts of the original material. Consulting with juggling historian David Cain failed to reveal an earlier starting point for this genre, but it did help greatly in refining the definition of pendulum juggling. For the sake of clarity, I limited my research to defining pendulum juggling as a physical prop, separate from the juggler’s body, which has either rigid or flexible hanging parts that are manipulated, with vertical support coming from an independent suspension system. Such a detailed definition is needed because, as David points out, many types of juggling include various aspects of pendulum juggling technique like club swinging, poi, meteors, kendama, and yo-yo. Even more directly related types of juggling are Tim Dresser’s Trigons, Greg Kennedy’s Triads, or perhaps this act from Kiev:

David also cited the old trick where you attach a black thread to a tennis ball and tie the other end to your belt. The effect being that when the tennis ball is juggled and then dropped, it will swing back up into your pattern, surprising the audience. James Ernst, the author of the Contact Juggling book, took this a step further by connecting two tennis balls directly to each other and juggling them with a third one, enabling many moves of seemingly throwing away one of the balls far to the side, only to have it swing back up and around into the pattern (controlled by the other ball held in the hand). While all these types of juggling have been excluded for now, I also had to abandon documenting all of the single pendulum juggling that I came across. Details about the number of jugglers who have used one ball hanging down from the ceiling on a string were simply too many to mention here, and in fact I gave up keeping personal notes about any of them. There is however one exception I must mention, and that is the Gandini Juggling Project show titled “CAUGHT – STILL /HANGING,” from 1994. This show featured one swinging pendulum consisting of a stage ball at the end of a rope. Club passing patterns and multiple person movement interacted with the path which the rope cut through the performance space on each oscillation. Though none of this specific work can be seen in this excerpt, the pendulum itself can be seen being pulled and held to the side of the stage at the start of this part:

I have a lot of experience working with pendulums in my own shows over the years and I have purposefully not validated the following stories. This is because I want to believe my own version of events is true. Even if the facts don’t line up, once everyone who is involved is consulted, what I remember happening is such a good concept that I don’t want to know otherwise! This may not be 100% accurate, but I will recall it to the best of my ability. Talking to Greg Kennedy back in the mid ’90’s, he said that part of the inspiration for his 1996 IJA gold medal act of rolling balls in a large acrylic bowl was inspired by Jörg Müller’s pendulums. What I remember is Greg explaining he had tried to at least mentally recreate the mechanism which Jörg has used for his lines to not get hopelessly twisted. Greg ended up with a theoretical system of his own, which used magnets to anchor the top ends of the strings to a metal plate attached to the ceiling, and as the pendulums would be swung, the magnets could slide around on the plate, uncrossing any potentially hazardous knot. After realizing this would probably not be realistic to construct, he observed that the bottom arc of each ball if tied to the ends of the strings, traced a parabola which could then be replicated by a bowl shape. Using a bowl to form the movement of the balls would mean the strings and magnet construction could be done away with completely, leaving the balls free to roll on their own:

Greg then of course composed juggling especially for the bowl, but I never forgot about his genius idea to transform the swing of a pendulum into rolling a ball in a bowl. One day I had the impulse to try and translate some of his original patterns in the bowl back into swinging, hanging objects. This led me to my first pendulum exploration, which I staged in a show called “WANTED, ” at Bowling Green State University (the site of the 2013 IJA Festival) in 1998. My favorite pattern Greg had devised in the bowl created a square or diamond shape of four balls rolling around in relation to each other while holding a seemingly static shape. The magic of the pattern continued in that this square, composed of four independently moving balls, would circle the bowl in one direction, while it was rotating around its local central axis in the opposite direction! It was the first example I can remember seeing of what is now called anti-spin. Hanging four pendulums on a square grid made it possible to create the same anti-spin square in the air. This pendulum piece was resurrected again in Helsinki, Finland, in 2001 and the balls were replaced with flashlights as the finale to a glow in the dark juggling act.

Now, if you are keeping track, you will notice that Jörg Müller did not make it to America until 1997, and yet Greg won the individual’s competition in 1996 with his innovative ball rolling bowl act, possibly begging the question of how Greg had encountered Jörg’s work. However, this particular question is easily resolved as Greg had attended a special workshop period at CNAC along with Luke Wilson and Ilka Licht, therefore giving Greg the chance to see Jörg before the rest of America. The only problem is that I don’t remember what year that special workshop was! To distract you from this, let’s watch Jörg play with fire:

My other work with pendulums includes a unique prop built by Jerry Martin for my show “Building Weight,” in 2002. The “5” in the siteswap pattern 534 was replaced by a specially lit stage ball affixed to a light rope which wrapped around a support pole off stage, almost like a tetherball. The timing of the pattern could be controlled by how many revolutions were allowed, as the pole consumed the length of the rope on each pass in either direction. At a 531 Festival in the early ’00’s, I rigged some Tickle Me Elmo’s strung up by nooses, and then swung in parallel arcs while continuously singing the “ABC’s” in a round (by pressing their tummies at the right times). Incidentally, this is a great trick to try in any store which carries any sort of noise making Elmo doll- skip the string and swinging part and just orchestrate them into musical harmony right there on the shelves!

Rigid length pendulums replace the string or rope from a rigging point with a straight stick or other stiff material. For the 2004 IJA Public Show act “The Flying Wallendas Family,” my father constructed one of these solid state pendulums with three appendages and a freestanding base. The unanchored end of each stick turned into a metal pipe which had been bent to give physical shape to the arc the path of a swinging stick would draw in the air. When Emil Carrey manipulated all three sticks in a cascade rhythm, the illusion from the front was the creation of a solid half circle holding a constant shape, as the pipes swung past each other fast enough to replace each position on the semicircle. Another famous IJA alumnus, created a similar but much more effective version of a solid state freestanding pendulum. He was kind enough to provide a detailed documentation of this achievement. Michael Karas writes:

“Around 2006, I remember experimenting a lot with new club ideas, possibly inspired by the work of Peapot’s Radical Club News footage. I remember thinking that it might be possible to “cascade” three clubs back and forth with one’s hands while the knob of all three clubs were ALWAYS touching the floor. While kneeling, I would rest two clubs in my right hand and one club in my left hand but all three knobs were touching the ground in a line going away from me. I would try to cascade these clubs one at a time– I could pretty easily flash it but getting in longer runs was impossible because I was dealing with clubs that could move in multiple directions which made it harder.”

“I had built a bunch of stuff with Tinkertoys and K’Nex during college so I had a lot of building materials lying around. I decided to solve this problem with a Tinkertoy contraption. What most people don’t know is that the first version of “pipes” that I built with Tinkertoys did NOT swing under the horizon. Imagine a clock and the level ground goes from 9 to 3. The Tinkertoy rods I built went from 9 to 3 and then would stop by hitting the ground. I was able to do what I call the “up cascade” with this device but that’s about it.”

“I believe it might have been my brother Samuel who suggested I raise the whole device so that the three swinging rods could not only go from 9 to 3 over the top but from 9 to 3 under the bottom as well. Aside from now being able to do an “up cascade” and a “down cascade”, I could also do showers and, most importantly, even numbered siteswaps. I documented this rudimentary invention in the summer of 2006 in a YouTube video: ”

“Greg Kennedy once gave me simple, wise advice– bigger is better. He had a point– the idea was good and sound but it was a tiny little toy. In 2008, I built a MUCH bigger version using the adult version of Tinkertoys– PVC pipe from Home Depot. The result was a version which I could stand behind and which had 5 pipes. I documented that device and most of the tricks I still do with it in my 2010 film Spark. In honor of writing this little article, I’ll release that section publicly online as of today:”

Michael had great success with this piece, and like Jörg, encountered another side to having a popular routine: thieves! Hidenori Yukawa posted this video in 2009 of Michael’s invention:

A debate about the difference of being inspired, and direct copying can be had. There is a “thank you” and Michael’s name is mentioned in the information for the YouTube video, but perhaps this is a poor substitute for contacting Michael directly and asking for his opinion on the matter beforehand (something Mr. Yukawa failed to do). Ironically, Jörg was personally contacted by Markus Pabst, a German director notorious for plagiarizing entire works. Markus offered to buy Jörg’s piece to be performed in the show the “Vivace Project” by juggler Andreas Wessels. When Jörg politely declined the offer, Markus copied the piece anyway and Andreas performed Jörg’s act for the duration of that production. This show was featured at the IJA Festival in Madison in 2001, albeit minus the pendulum scene for unknown reasons. Markus continues to steal Jörg’s pendulum material even today, in his latest production titled “Dummy.” At one point in the show, mannequin body parts are lowered from the roof on ropes and juggled by Eike Von Stuckenbrok in a brief reprise of Jörg’s act, presumably cobbled together from Markus’ experience with the “Vivace Project.”

However, two encouraging instances find Jörg’s work honored and developed into something entirely different and new. Viktor Kee has created a unique act for Viktor Moiseev which uses up to seven rhythmic gymnastic balls rigged to a central point over a “Spiegel Tent” stage. These tents (translated as “mirror tent”) are quite intimate and seat audiences spread across its main floor. The center of the floor usually contains a tiny stage, at most 2.5 meters in diameter. Viktor’s act makes great use of the space, with the balls literally flying over the heads of the audience to dramatic effect:

The Passing Zone wanted to find a finale for their show which would be bigger and better in their minds than their chainsaw juggling duet. They were toying with the abstract idea of how to juggle three members of the audience, and by coincidence saw Jörg’s performance. Even before seeing Jörg they had at one point considered using some form of a pendulum system but dismissed the idea because they felt it might not look enough like normal toss juggling. Jörg’s piece proved to them that pendulums could represent juggling in a powerful and effective way. They proceeded to contact Jörg, explaining their intention to develop his concept even further, and in an entirely different direction. Jörg gave his approval and the team began to investigate ways to pull off this stunt. They invested the time, effort, and money to design a rig which would safely suspend three members of the audience, while at the same time still allowing dynamic movement and entertaining passages. The result creates interlocking patterns with the three manipulated bodies, and three huge balls are added into the final pattern for a superb climax:

As hard as it might seem for some jugglers to believe, it does appear to be true that other jugglers have independently developed the same system as Jörg’s original creation. A juggler named Yuri Yuri won second place in the 2012 IJA Regional Competition in Chile by performing an act with a physical prop almost identical to Jörg’s system, only exchanging juggling clubs for metal tubes. Yuri was kind enough to explain to me how he came across this style of juggling. He had decorated his home in 2002 by hanging some juggling clubs up on short strings. He was playing around with these and had the idea to try hanging the clubs in a circus tent so he could get more height to investigate with. The biggest technical challenge was to find ways to twist and open the braids which formed. At first he was using different colored ropes to keep track of the patterns and it took him over one year of rehearsal before he was ready with the premiere of the piece which uses three to seven clubs. A short extract of the work can be seen here:

HILOS “Infusion de Mate” from infusion de mate on Vimeo.

A Swedish juggler, Johan Welton, recently constructed a similar contraption but from a different starting point. A few years ago he was in a relationship with an aerialist and he wanted to find a way they could work together. He decided to build a rig which would hold ropes on which she could climb and he could swing in patterns. After more than three years of work, the result now also includes custom made light bulbs on the end of each rope. A trailer for the show can be found here:

Additionally, his show includes an interpretation of a viral YouTube clip which shows many small pendulums of various lengths swinging in and out of phase with each other:

The Swiss new circus company RIGOLO also features a scaled up version of this image in their latest production (at 2:45 in the video):

Wings in My Heart from Jean-Marc Abela on Vimeo.

Noting the diversity of historical examples for the use of pendulums, there does seem to be a particularly strong relationship between swinging things and music. Björk commissioned what she called gravity harps to feature on her last world tour. Developed by Andy Cavatorta, these devices had a barrel drum on their lower end on which tuned strings were stretched vertically and wrapped around the perimeter. As the arm holding the barrel passed the freestanding rig leg, a strategically placed guitar pick attached to the leg would pluck whichever string was facing it. The barrel could be rotated on each pass at its point of zero mass, changing the note with each swing as desired:

American minimalist composer Tom Johnson strikes metal bars hung at certain lengths, measured to phase with the musical score in his piece “Galileo.” An in-depth look at the piece can be found here: And a German interpretation of this piece can be seen here:

The juggling connection between music and pendulums can already be found, again in Jörg Müller’s original piece. But one other juggling company has also managed to utilize pendulums in their repertoire of juggling songs. The Flying Karamozov Brothers are famous for their clever combinations of juggling technique and acoustic sounds arranged into complex musical structures. The team created a musical pendulum piece for their show “L’Universe,” in 2000. The piece is a cross between the styles of Tom Johnson’s “Galileo” and Michael Karas’ pipes construction. FKB member Roderick Kimball gave some insight on the origins of this piece:

“That piece was for L’Universe, which was a show about physics, so pendulums were chosen because of the way they react to gravity, etc. It also had to be a piece of music, hence the bells. The bells were actually pressure tanks cut off to various lengths. The pitches were hard to predict before cutting so they just cut and we got what we got. Our composer, Doug Weiselman was told what five notes he had to work with and he wrote the piece (which ended up having one part that sounded a bit like “Blame Canada”). Then we had to figure out how to play it while the pendula were swinging and we were moving among them, preferably without getting blind-sided by one because they were REALLY heavy and could seriously put you down. The truss they had to be rigged to was a monster. The piece ended up being one of my favourite parts of the show to do. Despite the risk of getting shellacked by a fifty-pound piece of metal on a twelve-foot pole, it was really quite relaxing.”

A brief glimpse of the piece can be seen in the middle of this video (at 1:20):

Please leave a comment below if you have any knowledge or evidence of jugglers using pendulums previous to 1993. Pendulum juggling will continue to evolve into the future. Here’s one final video, showing one possible direction for what comes next:

– Jay Gilligan
March 6, 2014
Stockholm, Sweden

Jay Gilligan

Imagine being alive when color photography was first presented, email was available to everyone, or when siteswap was first discovered!? Juggling today is the modern dance of 100 years ago. Juggling is exploding and history is being written this very moment. WELCOME TO THE NEW BREED

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  1. Greg Kennedy attended CNAC’s professional course in autumn 1997, just after Jörg Müller came to IJA.
    Thanks for this incredible article.

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