The audience had turned on the MC pretty early at the Wednesday night battle. In a small, dimly-lit circus tent, members of the Polish crew had organized a single-elimination tournament among sixteen of the greatest (and bravest) prop manipulators they could find. The audience, drunk on 50-cent-per-liter beer, chose the winner of each round by making the most noise for their favorite. To raise the stakes, all competitors drank a shot of vodka following every round so that those leading the pack got increasingly sloppy. And sloppy it was; the MC, a tarted-up sideshow performer with an accent somewhat like Natasha from Rocky and Bullwinkle, had her work cut out for her while trying to advance the competition despite the interruptions from the wasted and heckling crowd.
The sixteen entrants were all outrageously qualified. Every single one of them had show-stopping tricks for days; every round, each one boasted some of the most risky, cutting-edge, and expertly executed tricks: stuff that practically nobody in the audience had ever seen. And considering the greater event that had brought this international team together – the 2017 European Juggling Convention – a lot of the audience had generally seen it all. The prize: a case of beer to the winner.
It’s been a while since the 2017 EJC in Lublin, Poland. Many of us – myself included – have continued on tour to far corners of the world. I suppose I’m speaking for more than myself when I say I’m just now recovering from the barrage of stunning acts, furious practice, packed-to-the-gills workshops, and ultra-cheap food and drink.
In case you’ve been living under a rock since you joined the world of object manipulation, the European Juggling Convention is the world’s largest. Having spun off from the IJA conventions almost 40 years ago, the EJC has now grown into a gargantuan convergence of thousands of circus people from all over the globe; like the Olympics, it bounces from country to country every year, produced over 2-3 years by whichever team of volunteers is able to secure the bid (2018: the Azores, followed by England in 2019).
Marvin Ong and I spend a lot of our time trying to drag more Americans (whether North, South, or Central) to the EJC. I still think his abridged description of the EJC is the best. It goes like this:
You roll out of your tent and go to the gym, where you see all your favorite and most heroic jugglers from the Internet. They’re so friendly, and you spend all day jamming and taking their workshops. Any class you teach, no matter the topic, is full of enthusiastic students who can do anything you ask. Then there are the shows – an open stage every day, sometimes with an extra invitational show on top. Even the open stages are amazing, starring the best jugglers from five or ten different countries… with half the acts getting standing ovations. After the shows, you go to the bar tent, where you meet all your new friends again – and your heroes from the Internet – whom you’ve met at juggling festivals all over the world, and drink and dance into the night. Then, completely tired and inspired, you crawl into your tent to fall asleep. …and then it’s Tuesday.
A few rounds into the Wednesday battle, all the great competitors had been eliminated, leaving only the top-notch in the game. At one point, a team of three – two Catalan street jugglers and an expert Chinese contact juggler – attempted a wild stunt in a cockamamie attempt to advance. With one guy stalling a tall unicycle with one foot, the contact juggler would fly a two-high, balance a ball on his head, and then pour a beer into the mouth of the guy stalling the unicycle. But as soon as the beer hit the face of the unicyclist, he bailed off the unicycle and fell to his feet on the stage, with the rest of the beer getting poured on his head as the two-high collapsed. It was a great stunt, perhaps only to be surpassed by how spectacularly it had fallen apart.
This EJC was an attempt to recover financially from the last Lublin EJC in 2012, which was sorely underattended and came up with a huge loss. Just a few days in, however, I met an organizer who’d expressed that this year’s EJC had doubled the 2012 EJC’s attendance only a few days into the week this year; those prior debts thankfully seemed to have been remediated.
The site of the convention left little to be desired – camping was spacious, yet the site was small enough that it was easy to find one’s friends (often by accident); the rest of Lublin wasn’t too far away, either. Even the weather was superb, with light rains occasionally whirling through to blunt the midsummer heat. The greatest perk of this year’s location, however, was how well this year’s EJC did in washing out the taste of last year’s impossibly expensive (~$25 for a burger) on-site food. While the food options at EJC2017 were somewhat limited (only two food kiosks for most of the week), the prices couldn’t be beat; a dollar a scoop for ice cream, four bucks for a burger (vegan or non), and high quality across the board. And as usual for an EJC, the most frugal jugglers could head into the supermarkets in town for even cheaper eats.
Warranting comparison to the IJA convention, the EJC is an expressly fusion-minded event. Everyone is there: hoopers, acrobats, contact jugglers, diabolo artists, and kendama players. Perhaps the most noteworthy squad this year (full disclosure: writer lives in Oakland, home of tech poi) was the dramatic number of poi jugglers. Every day, one could see an A+ posse of poi jugglers hard at work in the middle of the gym. Two nights in a row, Chris Kelly (one of the world’s premier poi jugglers) and Ty Foods (who shut down the stage with a poi juggling / street dance piece) had earned massive ovations on the open stage. Even Mel, the most famous Russian poi artist, made an appearance—leaving many poi spinners gnashing their teeth in disappointment at having stayed home.
The audience went nuts for the stupendous failure, howling with laughter and approval. But when the MC brought the three up to accept their consolation prize – one shot of vodka – the audience soured. Jeering and booing, the crowd began to chant: “Three shots! Three shots! Three shots!”
Still trying to keep the show moving, the MC capitulated, and the Polish team poured out four shots – one for the three guys who were about to be eliminated, and one for the opponent who would vanquish them. But then another chant started: “TEAM. TEAM. TEAM. TEAM. TEAM.”
Someone had gotten the idea that a team should be built from the three losers and their opponent, and that this new team should go on together. The MC disagreed, and she tried to shoo the threesome from the stage. The audience roared with disapproval. Then the Catalonians refused to leave the stage. The MC looked around for someone who could remove the offenders, but nobody appeared. The audience howled with laughter and amazement. Chaos ensued as the show threatened to fall apart.
The Polish team put their heads together. After minutes of complete confusion, the MC returned to the mic. The problem, she explained, was that the brackets didn’t work out unless every competitor had won the same number of matches. So this new team would have to defeat a new competitor before the tournament would go on.
The jugglers’ face-off wasn’t the only top-notch show at the EJC – just the most special, in the less-than-humble opinion of a writer who’s probably seen more than a couple hundred circus shows by now. The most noteworthy of the invitational shows was Compagnie LPM’s “Piti Peta Hofen,” so stunningly creative and so ruthlessly high-energy – described by many as “a 45-minute manic episode” – that the audience couldn’t help but release a minute-long ovation right in the middle of the show. Also of extraordinary note was the small Compagnie FahrAwaY, who rolled in from Switzerland in a box truck to give an utterly charming, sensitive, and humorously awkward two-human show featuring a surprisingly diverse skillset and devilishly ingenious diabolo work. While I didn’t see all the special shows, I did see all the open stages; unsurprisingly, thousands of the world’s best jugglers can make some pretty great variety shows on the fly. Wes Peden’s solo show naturally didn’t disappoint, nor did the gala – cunningly MC’d by a disembodied doodler projecting drawings onto the stage to introduce each act.
The audience seemed to accept the makeshift solution; a new challenger emerged, and was defeated by The Team. But the next one to go up against them – one of the greatest kendama players at the EJC, or maybe anywhere – wasn’t refused by the audience either. Instead, a new round of shouts started: “TEAM. TEAM. TEAM.” So then it became a team of five (“five shots! five shots!”); and six, after the new challenger was drafted as well. And this was how it went – each new challenger getting drafted into the team until the rest of the bracket became a member of the crew, like some kind of mutant renegade show, with The Team of an increasingly top-notch crew of manipulators breaking out some kind of ridiculous, wasted combo trick. Finally, with every remaining contestant on The Team, it became the winner – and split the case of beer.
Attendance in the thousands and a highly mixed group of circus artists (which also included enough ground and aerial acrobats for their own 30-person acrobatics show) raises some questions about the biggest US convention. Why do I still meet jugglers at the IJA convention who think that poi isn’t real? Does the IJA care that convention hotels without camping options are pricing out tens to hundreds of circus people, missing out on thousands of dollars in registration fees that the EJC happily laps up? And if the IJA does care, how does the problem get solved? And what part of these issues are due to the greater differences between Europe and the USA – in particular, the difficulty of making a living as a performer in the USA, as opposed to the EU — where professional circus artists are often paid a retainer by the state?
These questions have parallels for the next year’s EJC producers. The Azores is a handful of tiny islands, some of the most remote territory in the EU – will this be a minuscule EJC that only the world’s more moneyed jugglers will be able to attend? Would an ultra-small event also blunt the amount of talent at the convention, or will it just bring everyone closer together? Will the event be extra international since everyone will have to fly in anyway? Will we ever get any juggling done with volcanic hot springs on site? Presuming flights stay as cheap as they are now (only a few hundred bucks one way, from the right city!), I’ll be juggling in one of those hot springs before I know it. I considered skipping next year’s EJC during the past calendar year, but as soon as I got halfway through this EJC I realized I don’t want to miss another. Here’s to another superb EJC next year – na zdrowie to the Polish team for an excellent EJC, and felicidades to the Azoreans during their planning in the coming year!
Richard Hartnell is one of the world’s premiere contact jugglers, a co-founder of the Bellingham Circus Guild, and a previous resident artist at Flowtoys. He has been based in or around the Vulcan, a collective of movement artists near San Francisco, since 2009. He can be found online at www.gravitydefiance.net.
Coming soon to eJuggle – detailed coverage of all the EJC shows.