Yes, I admit: I like good classical juggling!
In the juggling culture where I grew up, a world with youtube and Wes Peden, it seems almost like a sin to watch the videos below. Common critique is that traditional jugglers hardly invent new tricks. They also do not incorporate tools such as theatre and dance. These jugglers merely meet the expectations of their uneducated audience, and are therefore uninteresting to anyone with knowledge of juggling and performance. Their acts are little more than a presentation of skill. On top of that they also present highly arrogant self-loving characters!
What juggler would want to watch that?
Well, me. And if you are interested in performance art, so should you!
Beyond the technical juggling skill level, it is their presentation which excites me! By playing similar routines night after night for many years, and having to compete with impressive circus acts such as flying trapezes and wild animals, these jugglers have discovered some fascinating performance tricks.
I hope that by dissecting these routines, you and I will both get a better understanding of the secrets of these classical jugglers!
I selected 3 performance videos whom I enjoy, all relatively recent. They are from Mario Berousek, The Teslenkos, and Anthony Gatto. Sadly I never been able to see really good classical juggler live, so all my opinions are based on videos.
Mario Berousek (1974) is a Czech speed juggler, who set and holds world records such as most 5 club catches in 30 seconds and most club rotations in one minute with 5 clubs. Together with mr Babache he developed a special speed juggling club, flash. He has performed solo since 1995 and won prizes at Cirque de Demain and Monte Carlo.
I was introduced to him only about a year ago by David Severins, who told of him as his childhood idol!
Haha, I can’t help myself from laughing as we travel back in time. The costume, the music, the hair… I don’t know if it is intentional but to me it is so bad that it is good!
The opening: His rock music, the effort it seems for him to even keep one club in the air, the clap during the ‘finale’ of his mini routine (a slightly higher throw) and then the ‘winner pose.’ It is hard to describe these first 10 seconds in words, but it is clear that something exciting is about to happen!
Mario doesn’t believe in making things look easy. By focussing on every club and repositioning his legs for every throw, he is recognised as a master. The tricks are connected too quickly to follow, but if you were looking out for a particular throw (such as some people get excited by the thought of ‘behind the back’) you’ll find it in his routine. The music, the flashing clubs, his face, they are hypnotising you to get excited! It is as if this were a nightclub and the strobe was turned on!
You should really watch that video again and just concentrate on what he does with his face – it is a performance on its own!
Mario walks further to the left as new clubs are thrown from the right. The longer distance is more impressive and visual. Though the break is just long enough to provide energy for the next attention curve, by throwing one club in the air before he goes into 5, he makes sure your focus wont ever leave the stage.
Actually, 5 clubs is the ‘relaxed’ part of the act. The music is slower, the routine is pretty steady as there is the constant 5 club cascade. Like a movie trailer, this act is perfected to the attention span of the audience! In this routine, his head remains very steady, a clear sign of full concentration. Of course the cool down is only to prepare you for the next peak.
Before the 6 clubs there is 22 seconds of building the anticipation. Every second spent on increasing the anticipation increases the perceived value of the actual trick! And, of course, Mario manages to do so without losing your attention.
Those who have received applause might know how hard this actually is. Mario is a very skilled in receiving applause and encourages more of it, without seeming rude. The audience members loves sharing their praise, and the rhythmical clapping unites them. If you didn’t love the routine until then, social pressure will force you to enjoy it now!
And then, something special happens…
Juggling 7 clubs seems almost too easy. Finishing an act with a flash is a tough move, as it is over so quickly. And by now he has already played all his anticipation cards! Mario knows this, and by putting the speed juggling after the 7 clubs he signals that it is even harder. This juggling goes on and on as the music keeps pushing the pressure. The audience reaches a new excitement peak and instinctively they all get up for a standing ovation! It is an art to get so much excitement out of juggling.
I am looking forward to see more acts inspired by this. Perhaps finish your diabolo routine by going from 4 high into low on this song, while making the same face!
The Teslenko jugglers are a family from Russia. Among the many shows in which they have performed, they were the original juggling team in Cirque du Soleil’s Corteo. I hoped to see them when I went to Corteo, but found out during the show that they had been replaced. The 4 new jugglers were wearing the same costumes as in the original act, but could not match the quality.
Note that their act is designed for a circular stage, and therefore not all of it can be captured on (static) video.
This act is not about skill, it is about images. Every new trick brings a new picture, and with a team of four they are well equipped to create stage-wide visual spectacles! Besides juggling I am also involved with visual arts and animation, so this act tickles both my interests!
Not a single moment is there time to count the props, they are always subtly added and removed. Similarly, there is no hierarchy or role division. Even with a woman on stage, all performers remain relatively anonymous, servants to the images they create.
The perfection serves the images well. Every step seems deliberate, every throw is counted. Instead of making small hand- or facial-gestures, they mostly rely on acrobatics to accompany their tricks. This is more visible, and thus much more suitable when your vision is spread over the whole stage instead of focused on a single person! They manage to move smoothly enough to not distract from the juggling.
I love Russian style 6 club passing. Long, strong, fast passes between moving people always looks electrifying! The Teslenkos are not disappointing here. Of course the image is not complete yet; their incredible signature trick is the walking on the heads.
The routine that follows is just as great to me. The patterns where they walk around each other are choreographed as if they were objects, manipulated on stage.
Once their gallery of images has finished, they finally turn to the anticipation game. From a juggler’s point-of-view, the finale seems like an odd choice: There is by far not as much skill involved as with most of their juggling patterns! Again, reasons are: It is safe and can be done flawless night after night, and it runs longer than the 3 seconds of a flash, and by putting a completely different skill in the end it is suggested to be the hardest!
They fail on the first try, night after night. Look at the responses from all the jugglers, there is some well rehearsed theatre going on! It wins over the sympathy of the audience, and the applause becomes even better! Failing the finale is a standard ruse used in many acrobatic acts, where ‘risk of injury’ is involved, but it’s much harder to pull off successfully with juggling!
This man needs almost no introduction. He was the first man on the moon, the inventor of the iPhone, and the greatest president the United States ever had. Also he can juggle pretty good. This article would not be complete without Anthony Gatto!
One should note that this particular video is from Kooza, a themed show, in which he plays a specific role. In other performances, Anthony acts differently.
The set-up is as stereotypical as could be: a glittery costume, a female assistant, two prop stands (one for him and one for her), and just balls, clubs, and rings.
His strategy is to convey the image of ‘superhumanly skilled,’ by making everything seem easy. And he can pull it off very well! Not so much by his juggling technique, since the audience would not be able to properly estimate the skill level anyway. Instead, it is his acting that works its wonders!
In between the juggling, Anthony does a great job acknowledging the other characters on stage: his assistant and – most importantly – his audience! Mister casual walks in as if he were the coolest guy on the party, and does not miss any chance to smile at his audience in a charming way.
While juggling, Anthony does great leg choreography to accompany his throws. Every trick has a new move or pose! I recommend you to watch the video again, concentrating only on his leg stances.
My favorite moments in the act are:
– The Saturn ring (3:05). “It just looks cool” was reason enough to include this move in an act that is otherwise packed with hard tricks!
– Receiving 5 rings (3:20). I could not think of a way to make something that is so simple, so animated! A joy to watch.
– The running in the 7 ring breakdown (4:00). No way that was an accident, it just looks funny to see him hurry with that ring between his legs! Also, it justifies the fanning.
Similar to Mario Berousek, Anthony uses the 5 club routine as a break so that there is energy left for his finale trick. The whole 5 club routine is 1 minute long, and the audience is not asked to applaud even once!
This is the most watched single performance on youtube from all of Cirque du Soleil, and I am sure that this is not just because of his juggling technique! Otherwise the videos of Nikolay Gerasimov and Willy Colombaioni, who both perform acts with a similar technical level, would have a higher view count, right?
I’ll leave it to other people to discuss the definition of “classical juggling.” At first, I thought their characteristic was “confidence,” but actually this is portrayed in many “contemporary” acts too.
Also, all of the acts belong to sub-genres, in order: speed juggling, acrobatic passing troupe, Vegas.
I hope that with this dissection I’ve helped to convince you that also classical acts can be much more than just the tricks. I surely had fun re-watching and studying these clips!
There are plenty of other great examples of classical juggling. From the top of my mind I recommend watching Bob Bramson, Kris Kremo, Jeton and Boris “Buba” Panfilenok.
This article was in part inspired by a workshop on performance by Luke Burrage.