22 jugglers and 2 musicians took the stage on November 12, 2013, to perform a show called “Center of Gravity” in Stockholm, Sweden. The event, playing to a sold out audience, was under the guise of celebrating a birthday. However, the process, creation, and result was much more than that. The project actually started three years earlier after the last Manipulation Research Laboratory (MRL #3) had finished. At that time, Ivar Heckscher was already calling for an artistic representation of the research to be put on stage. Ivar once ran the circus school in Stockholm, and has been a long time supporter of juggling endeavors in the area. It also happened to be his birthday on November 12.
The MRL concept brought together large groups of jugglers from the local community. Each session carried out juggling experiments around a central theme. Ivar noted that while documentation of these events were produced (in the form of films and articles), all of the participants were performers in their everyday lives. He pushed for a performance which incorporated the communal aspect and curiosity of MRL, but framed the juggling for a live audience. Thus was born the artistic and logistic challenge- how to make a group of jugglers who don’t normally work together into a team? As ever, the practical concerns dictated what would be possible and what form the result would take.
Planning began in earnest in 2011. Luke Wilson and I sat down with Ivar and interviewed him to find both a starting point and an end goal. That conversation resulted in two overarching questions on which to base the show:
“What do we all have in common?”
“Why do we all like juggling?”
Much of the appeal of juggling comes from its many diverse forms. Finding out what a diabolist has in common with a club juggler and with a ball bouncer (and an antipodist, cigar box juggler, devil sticker, etc. etc.) seemed like a fun and productive task. Most team juggling is normally based upon each participant having the same starting technique and prop, for example club juggling which can then be used for club passing. We were never going to unite under a common technique, so discovering the similarities in our diverse styles was a concrete way to move forward with the ambition to be on stage together. The other common quality we shared was that we all like juggling. But we rarely vocalize or examine the reason why. If we could find out these reasons, we could compare and contrast them to help build the show.
With the subject matter of the show underway, we immediately had to figure out how (who, where, when) this was all going to happen. Of course this conversation centered around money. We quickly realized that our wish to pay fair salaries to the participants was conflicting with the growing number of jugglers who could join us. Compounding this problem, we also had the artistic wish that the event would be free for all audience members, so ticket sales could not subsidize the work. A venue had to be rented, costumes, props, publicity, and an infinite number of details had to be paid for as well. Leaving the solution to these problems for a later date, the challenge became even more clear- How to make a show with a group of jugglers who normally don’t work together… with no budget? The financial constraints also meant we could not pay to have lengthy rehearsals, or perhaps any rehearsals at all.
The situation grew even more impossible as our schedule kept getting pushed back a few months at a time. The need for a free venue put us at the mercy (and kindness) of theaters donating their spaces, but slots were falling through and being constantly rearranged. Then, the unthinkable happened- Luke was diagnosed with cancer in 2012, and passed away a few short months later. This tragedy put the event on hiatus indefinitely. The show was actually supposed to happen in October of that year, but was again rumored to be delayed until January of 2013. I remember telling this to Luke in the summer and seeing the sadness in his eyes. He had been looking forward to the possibility of attending, and January seemed too far away.
Without Luke we were completely lost. But the community pulled together and through the help of several of our closest friends- especially Ilka Licht, Ben Richter, and my wife Mirja- I decided to finish the project that Luke and I had started so all his hard work would not be wasted. Instead of depending on the venue’s schedule, we decided to simply pick a date when the show would be, no matter what! Due to other commitments, and other jugglers’ schedules, the date of November 12 was decided upon. When I visited Ivar at his home to tell him we would finish the show and do it on that day he just smiled… and then laughed, and kept laughing. I had no idea that was his birthday but once he told me, everything started to fall in place.
Having a concrete date to work with made everything else possible. Jugglers could commit to being there and plan their schedules accordingly. We worked it out so the circus school in Stockholm would have two consecutive guest teachers for juggling, and the show date would coincide with one of them leaving and the other arriving. In this way we could get their travel paid (along with a salary from the school) and snag both of them for the performance. Other jugglers started to fall into the project almost accidentally- they happened to be planning a visit to Stockholm at the time, so why not join us? Ivar’s birthday was also the perfect excuse to ask jugglers to donate their time. As Ivar had once run the circus school, he knew most of the jugglers in the area and they had fond memories of working with him. We could combine both our original project with his birthday celebration to make the event possible. Ivar also figured out a solution for the venue- a theater he had helped build with his own hands! Previously we had been concentrating on finding a purely theatrical space, until Ivar suggested we ask a local school for help. A long time figurehead in the Steiner school community, Ivar had been involved in helping build Sweden’s largest Steiner school in the north of Stockholm. It turned out to be the perfect place, one of only a few in the city with a stage physically large enough to host so many jugglers! Andil Dahl graciously donated the space for us, and in return we made a special performance for the student body the day before the big show.
Finally there was a time, place, date, and growing cast list! We quickly solved the problem of how to pay for costumes by deciding everyone should wear what they normally wear in a show. We would all look different, but we would have distinct personalities and at least look like we belonged on stage. The next step was to finish the script. A total of only 8 hours were allotted for rehearsals, with jugglers coming and going at various times, and the complete cast wouldn’t be assembled until we all took the stage! On the one year anniversary of Luke’s death, I flew to Berlin to complete the ideas for the show with Ben Richter. A plan was devised where the participants would be emailed a list of material to prepare before arriving to rehearsal. We wanted to incorporate as many group scenes and images as possible, given the circumstances. Ivar was turning 70 and we decided to make the finale of the show different ways to juggle 70 objects at the same time. At first we wondered if the impact of the picture would be diminished if we had several formations with 70 objects instead of just a single powerful burst. But in the end we decided to do as many as we could since the opportunity to see 70 balls, rings, or clubs in the air at once is quite rare!
The other obvious choice was to work with some sort of improvisation inside the group. Since detailed choreography could not be created and learned in the short time we had, it was logical and necessary to try and devise a group improvisation which could be carried out with minimal preparation. I started to investigate adapting scores from John Cage or John Zorn, especially Zorn’s piece “Cobra.” The book “How Music Works” by David Byrne also led me to find avant-garde graphical scores which might be relevant to group juggling improv. However, all of these musical ideas became too difficult to translate into juggling, given our limited resources. A new system had to be made and once again Ivar had the answer. He told a story of going to see Miles Davis and his band in the 60’s. Everyone in the audience was dying to hear Miles Davis play, and when he took the stage they all went wild. But then Davis pointed to his bass player to take a solo, and then told his keyboard player to start a certain riff. The evening progressed like this… with Miles Davis never playing his own instrument but instead instructing the others to play what he thought was needed. The idea would be to have an “orchestra conductor” leading the improvisation with all the jugglers, never juggling himself but trying to compose a picture. A list of tasks, each given a numeric code, was given to the jugglers ahead of time to prepare. The conductor could then approach a juggler in the moment and request a certain number be performed, sometimes with additional instructions such as “Go do (task) number three 10 times when Wes sits down, and when you’re done tell Tony to do (task) five 1 time.” Ben somehow managed to convince me to be the conductor, something I found completely terrifying, especially given the list of jugglers I was to command!
The improvisation required each juggler to prepare:
1. A sequence or routine, lasting up to several minutes or as desired, with any prop or style you wish. The routine should be quite secure and solid- you may be asked to stop the sequence before it is finished during the show, start in the middle, loop the first 30 throws 10 times, etc. etc.
2. 5 different juggling tricks/patterns. These are in addition and different than tricks/patterns in your routine. The tricks should be able to be repeated/looped if asked for and the patterns should be able to be stopped shortly or continued longer.
3. 2 extra tricks- the first one being your favorite trick and the second one being your best trick.
The show started off with choreographed group images composed by Wes Peden (and the help of the cast), and then progressed into a one minute long solo by each juggler. The theme of the solo was “Why do I like juggling?” The solos ended up being one of the highlights of the evening because of the extreme range of personalities involved. Additionally, our two musicians took it upon themselves to play something completely different for each person. That’s 22 different one minute long songs! That would be amazing enough on its own, but on top of that the musicians met for the first time ever only two hours before the show started for sound check. They improvised together on the spot, one percussionist and one instrumentalist. Their skill at catching the atmosphere for each performer was shocking. The solos led into the group improvisation which ended with the 70 object scenes for the end. At one point we had seven jugglers flashing seven clubs while seven jugglers flashed three clubs for a total of 70 clubs! We prepared a surprise encore for Ivar, creating a tunnel of club passing through which Erik Åberg led Ivar by the hand for a much deserved round of “Happy Birthday” by the audience.
Show highlights can be seen here:
Center of Gravity cast list:
“The aim of art is not to show what is… but rather, what could be.”
– Ivar Heckscher