Author’s note: As an active participant in this year’s IJA Festival, I will have to perform the uneasy task of talking about myself in this review. Thanks to my humble readers for grasping my fruitless attempts at objectivity in this regard. Additionally, I must give credit to Matt Hall for his help in clarifying language for this article, as well as Emory Kimbrough for captioning most photos.
The Morris Performing Arts Center in South Bend, Indiana, opened in 1922 as The Palace Theatre, a house for vaudeville productions.
So it is fitting that more than 400 jugglers would gather there a hundred years later for the 76th Annual IJA Festival.
South Bend’s venues, including the Century Center convention hall, gave attendees and performers ample room, character and hospitality to celebrate object manipulation, variety arts, and the many genre-defying acts that took place throughout the week.
Opening the week by connecting with the local community, the ‘Planting the Juggling Seed’ show visited the St. Joseph’s County Public Library, featuring performances by Sophie Klein, Matt Walmsley, Luther Bangert, Thom Wall, Benjamin Domask-Ruh and Alex Larson. A separate group entertained youth at the Boys & Girls Club at Liberty Elementary School. A news segment by WNDU aired footage of both events.
To improve newcomers’ experiences at the IJA, Emily Brancel hosted daily ‘Welcome to the IJA’ sessions to answer questions and help first-timers get the most out of their festival. There were also gatherings of BIPOC, LGBTQIA+ and women/queer jugglers to allow folks to meet and mingle.
The Bendix Arena – designed for esports events – was a great space for XJuggling, in which jugglers flaunted their most technical (and often most absurd) patterns and tricks. Entries ranged from acrobatic – a front roll behind a spinning floor ring by Wes Peden and an attempted one-high backflip out of five balls by Mark Fiore – to the fantastically frenetic dot patterns of Lucy Alexander and Glublia.
With clubs, Isidora Adeley displayed smooth wero rolls, Yoshi Chladny catapulted clubs from a unique three-club face balance, and Stefan Brancel juggled a mind-bending helicopter mess. Wes Peden’s one-high with four low overhead reverse doubles with five clubs was a certified banger.
The mixed prop category was an audience favorite – and a judge’s nightmare. Entries included cigar boxes, diabolos, boomerangs, flower sticks, whips, kendama, spatulas, rifle spinning and triple staff. Shi Wei Huang 黃士瑋 won with sheer technical brilliance, executing a lightning-quick ‘feed the sun’ combination with four diabolos.
The festival’s performances opened with the Welcome Show, whose audience included a strong showing of South Bend locals and families alongside festival regulars.
Festival director Exuro Piechocki addressed the crowd first, telling them about his family’s multi-generational history in South Bend and how encouraged and supported he felt growing up there.
Kaylin Meyers (Muskegon, Michigan) got the night off to a flying start, posing as a student who ditches her studies for an impressive leap over her desk (with an under-the-leg toss, of course). Meyers flexed her trademark mess patterns with a strong character, adding factory and arm-stall variations into the mix for good measure. Her soundtrack Why Worry by musical group Set It Off felt like the perfect commentary on her electrifying act.
Cam Resch (Denver) appeared next, a stagehand playfully coaxing them into view with an LED club – like a cat to a laser pointer. Flinging off a bathrobe to reveal a colorful, striped outfit, Resch worked to the lilting beats of Galdive’s Dear Matias to present club fishtails through two-in-one-hand, a spontaneous trapangle, elegant forearm stalls, and a kickup into a face balance cascade.
Emcee Curt Carlyle (Portland) interceded with some slick diabolo moves, including a satellite that traveled through his legs and behind his head. “Sometimes I’m not a juggler at all, friends. Sometimes I’m just a poser,” Carlyle announced, dropping into an artistically deep squat.
McKenzey Simper (Salt Lake City) took command of the stage next, shrouded in a red cloth that accentuated her seamless isolations and one-hoop movements. Before long, Simper shed the cloth and performed an exceptional five-hoop cascade, later segueing into weightless body rolls and captivating manipulations with three.
Closing out the first half, Rozbot (Chicago) got the crowd hyped with a dropless three-club routine featuring her infectious footwork and choreography to a booming bassline. Moves included what I would call ‘stirring the pot,’ stanky legs with wall plane reverse cascade, spicy chops, and mesmerizing body isolations paired with club manipulation. Mix some steps into your next three-ball cascade and you will quickly grasp the sophistication of Rozbot’s maneuvers.
Stephen Doutt (Philadelphia) entered the picture next, setting off a line of falling domino-style rings, followed by a ring juggling sequence and some innovative and visually intriguing cuphead club patterns. Utilizing a shop vac to initiate a club kick-up and performing cross-armed variations with two cupheads and three balls, Doutt’s act gave the crowd plenty of new juggling concepts to dwell on.
Dana Dailey (Minneapolis) arrived from stage right creating her own soundtrack with a whirly tube, a familiar childhood artifact for jugglers and laypeople alike (see also: boomwackers by Cía Les Objets Volants). When assistant Benjamin Domask-Ruh rolled a pink stage ball in her direction, Dailey comedically whacked it with the whirly tube. The act progressed to Dailey doing body balances atop three stage balls, with occasional accents from a musical triangle, expertly played by Domask-Ruh. As Dailey leapt off her balance in conclusion, the crowd (and the triangle) went wild.
Fernanda Sumano (Guadalajara) was up next, exhibiting expressive one-hoop choreography leading into a high-energy LED hoop showcase with juggling, spinning, balance and manipulation. Sumano’s foot spin combined with Bramson rolls never fails to get the audience roaring, as did her five-hoop split and six-hoop combo of knee/hand spinning with a head balance.
Christian Kloc (hey, that’s me! I’m from Boulder) appeared as the final act of the evening. I began my performance with no props whatsoever, spending more time than my on-stage character would have liked acquiring props from the stagehands. After a strange trip into the realm of a golden bucket, I bounce juggled three to seven balls, finishing by bouncing them one at a time into the bucket.
Matt Hall reignited the Individual Prop Competition this year, hosting two-minute routines with three objects in ball, ring and club categories.
Wes Peden took home first place in the three-club competition with a set of patterns that are currently unreleased to the general public.
Liam Halstead earned the title in rings by treating the crowd to a suave and innovative routine including ring-on-ring spins, pancake flips to penguin catches, and weightless 423 variations. Watch his routine here.
Alex Rozanov – whose dwell time often tells gravity to ‘hold on a sec!’ – packed a tidy sum of dense ball juggling patterns into two minutes. His silky behind-the-head showers, head stalls, inverted boxes, and N-boxes earned him first place. You can see his full routine here.
Later that evening, the Flow Show assembled a fierce line-up of artists.
Mik Phil (Little Rock) opened the show with a Fred Astaire-like dragonstaff act in which his prop acted as his dance partner. Phil alternated effortless matrix rolls with palm spins and other complex manipulations, taking time to grin at the appreciative audience in between sequences.
Lexi Moreland (owner of Cosmic Flow wellness studio in Toronto, Ohio) came next, exhibiting extraordinary control over her poi with twisty arm contortions, multiplane work, contact rolls and smooth footwork throughout. Considering her flow journey began in 2020, it’s not surprising that her introduction mentioned embracing the ‘endless tech rabbit hole’ in which artists often immerse themselves.
Stephen Haines (Philadelphia) appeared next, performing an impressive three-staff routine including ‘active two’ hand spins during a contact rolling cascade, 360-degree neck rolls, and a forearm balance transfer from one side to the other. Haines finished the routine with continuous over-the-back rolls.
Arriving in a glowing pastel outfit, Fan of Hoop (aka Anna Krueger) presented mesmerizing isolations and tosses while spinning a hoop on her arm. Anna made excellent use of her musicality, contrasting mellow moments with fast-paced hooping and combination tricks, including some impressive leg hoop manipulation to conclude her act.
Eric Sipos (Chicago) appeared on stage as a professorial character who has a doctorate in mind-blowing patterns featuring simultaneous poi swinging and juggling. Presenting incredibly technical favorites – Seb’s mess and behind-head swings – that are hard enough when you’re not fusing two disciplines, Sipos also juggled three linked pairs of larger stage balls to a flamenco guitar beat. His highly visual and technical routine earned him a standing ovation.
Kimberly Bucki followed, exhibiting a wonderful set of buugeng shapes that were expertly timed to the music. Bucki’s shimmering, elegant costume and the oscillating ebbs and flows of her programmed LED props looked a bit like sea anemones flaunting a dazzling blend of light and color.
Alli Hart (Philadelphia), aka The Hoop Doc, brought fluid lines and expression to the stage in an act titled ‘Perspective’ exploring the themes of light and darkness. A demon character bound her hands behind her back at the outset of the piece, which led to innovative hooping around her legs, neck and nose (all while she unbound her wrists). The act continued with unrestricted manipulations, isolations and juggling with three hoops.
Emcee April Jennifer Choi (Orlando) – who works at Kennedy Space Center when she’s not performing – put her whip skills on display next, breaking the stems of flowers held by an audience volunteer with pinpoint accuracy.
The show ended with a cheerful and upbeat act by Emily Perkulator and Kyle Ford, who roller skated onto the stage and rolled staffs effortlessly between them. The duet then crossed over into a set of playful partner poi that got an extra boost of joy from their roller skating footwork.
For those with insatiable energy to burn, Kevin Axtell hosted the second annual live Battle Night competition after the Flow Show in the Bendix Arena. Eight entrants brought their most stylish and intense three-club moves in 30-second increments to this head-to-head format.
The first-round matchup of Joe Cronquist (aka Teton Juggler) and Liam Halstead set the tone for an action-packed evening, with Cronquist and Halstead both nailing acrobatics, club-to-club balances, and electrifying sequences. Halstead ultimately earned the victory.
Jared Janssen faced Cam Resch in the next round, with Janssen doing multiple seal roll balances and Resch throwing contortion multiplexes plus solid forearm stalls. The judges’ votes from Matt Hall and Cassaundra Smyth were split, with the audience vote giving the edge to Janssen – though a misstep in organizing eventually put Resch in the later rounds.
Jeremiah Johnston brought the heat against Christian Kloc (aka me) with his vintage club rolling, traps, and club-to-club hits from multiple angles, not to mention some incredibly smooth Seb’s mess patterns. I countered with a jumping one-up 720 and butterfly backcrosses, escaping with a narrow audience-determined victory after another split judges’ vote.
Resch paved their way to the finals with a towering multiplex into backcrosses, club slapbacks, and a toss to face balance straight to a scissor catch. I maneuvered my way to the finals with some overhead juggling on the ground alongside club factory patterns.
In a grueling twist of fate (for the competitors, at least), the finals went to two ‘overtime’ rounds. Resch took no prisoners with their trademark reverse flips to lazies in a contorted position. In the end, I managed a victory by placing one of my shoes atop a balanced club and landing a two-stage 720 in the remaining few seconds.
The following evening, the IJA Stage Championships were an excellent showcase of skill and performance.
Emcee Unique Derique – also known as Lance McGee of Oakland, California – used deft physical comedy and playful audience interactions to keep the stage warm and animated.
Diaboloist Masahiro Kudo (Tokyo, Japan) opened the evening with elegant lines, deliberate posturing and an unhurried pacing that gave his routine an ethereal quality. Kudo executed floaty stick-release moves, a slick genocide entrance into a 360 sun to forward and backward two-diabolo fans, and a run of four-diabolo high for 12 catches.
Next up was Matan Presberg (Oakland, California), who arrived on stage wearing a unique lace-up top that left his painted arms free to land signature patterns, including an arm stall swap with one ball while running a high three-ball cascade. Presberg grabbed props from color-coded bins to showcase creative sequences in which one color framed another. His six ball ‘shower’ pattern with three sets of vertical multiplexes was well received, as was his seamless six-up multiplex entrance into a seven-ball cascade. Presberg’s routine earned him the bronze medal.
Manuel Mitasch (Ansfelden, Austria) was next to the stage, presenting a clean and technically rigorous LED club routine timed precisely to the music. Mitasch combined heavy hitters – including a five-up 180 and 360, plus an extended run of five-club backcrosses – with classically smooth head rolls, spin control, and three-club chin rolls with a nose balance.
Jeremiah Johnston (Oakland, California) followed with a charismatic and well-choreographed routine depicting a suitcase-clad gentleman waiting for a train. After his cigar boxes tumbled out of the suitcase, Johnston executed a delightful series of patterns with ease and grace. Highlights included a windmill box juggle and a shape-shifting nine-box balance that culminated in a shimmering tower rotating on his fingers.
Manuel Mitasch and Moritz Rosner (Bad Saulgau, Germany) teamed up for the next act, creating a fine show of synchronized LED club juggling and passing. The two highly technical jugglers displayed fluid arm swings during a seven-club popcorn and synchronized six-club solo cascades to a clean collect. They also completed a qualify of ten-club double-doubles and back-to-back nine-club passing. Their performance earned them the gold medal.
Michael Karas (Queens, New York) joined the party next, appearing in a plaid bathrobe and wistfully picking up a pink telephone with no one on the other end. Luckily, the phone rang shortly thereafter and Christina Aguilera’s Come on Over heralded the arrival of Karas’s tightly choreographed routine with pink clubs. Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off signaled a costume change to a pink tutu, plus a spirited sequence with balls that ended in Karas juggling three tutus. Finishing with rings to Beyonce’s Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It), Karas’s act earned him the silver medal.
Shih Rong Huang 黃士融 (Taipei, Taiwan) appeared next in a simple black outfit, quickly revealing stratospheric diabolo skills punctuated by a calm and decisive stage presence. While his ‘feed the sun’ sequence with four diabolos was obviously stunning, the audience was equally enthralled by his vertax stick releases, body wraps, and deft maneuvers under high tosses. Preset diabolos seemed to float into two-diabolo patterns including a 360 sun genocide catch and a one-high with duicide underneath. Huang waved the Taiwanese flag at the act’s conclusion. Huang’s act earned him the gold medal and the Lucas Cup.
The final act to compete was Intermission from Minnesota, featuring Kacy Chinavare, Miriam Drabek, Joseph Erickson, Danny Keuning, Kayla Malmgren, Rebecca Moore, Maya Nowak and Ben Sneesby.
The group brought unique passing patterns and a spirited energy to the stage to tracks including Frank Sinatra’s My Way and It Don’t Mean a Thing (If it Ain’t Got that Swing). One of the crowd favorites was a drop-forward ring passing line where the long throw was a marvelously zippy ring bounce across the length of the stage. Intermission also executed technical and creative club passing, including a popcorn pattern with two jugglers lying on the floor and throwing clubs to the two standing jugglers. Intermission’s teamwork and creativity earned them second place.
The scores for the two team acts were so close that the championships’ directors decided to delay announcing the winning team until later in the week. Ultimately, the tie-breaking criteria resulted in Mitasch and Rosner taking first place by a narrow margin.
The numbers competition had a great turnout of strong jugglers this year. Doug Sayers and Noah Schmeissner set an IJA competition record, passing 14 balls for 155 catches.
Tom Whitfield (United Kingdom) became the first person in the history of the competition to qualify ten balls tossed, then managed to run 11 balls for 19 catches. Whitfield has vowed to come back for a qualify of 11 in the future.
Wes Peden performed his ‘pop punk juggling show’ Rollercoaster twice on Friday evening, taking audiences on a thrilling journey that capitalized on the parallels of playing Roller Coaster Tycoon (the 1999 computer game franchise) and building a juggling act.
The challenge of the computer game was “trying to make [the theme park] interesting and good for the guests, but not, like, too much,” Peden said during a Q&A about the show. “That’s like juggling.”
Read the full recap of the show in Morgan Anderson’s eJuggle review at this link.
A fire night hosted on Island Park – just steps from the Century Center – provided a wonderful environment for all varieties of props to light up and flow. Festival attendees were also treated to a stellar glow jam sponsored by Flowtoys the following evening, with expert DJing by Richard Hartnell.
Fight Night, a one-on-one combat juggling tournament organized and hosted by Alex Larson, was a close match-up in the finals between Jonah Botvinick-Greenhouse and Noah Schmeissner. Both competitors launched vicious attacks and made incredible saves, but Schmeissner’s squeeze catch of two skyrocketed clubs (viewable at 3:52 in this video) was one of the most jaw-dropping moments I’ve ever seen in combat. Schmeissner won the competition 4-3.
Larson also hosted the North American VolleyClub Championship, with finalists Steven Clipson and Tony Kaseman winning the title 9-7 over runners-up Noah Schmeissner and Justin Daniel Sheldon. Buzzsaws and helicopters were popular attacks, with the occasional sneaky drop shot.
This year’s Cascade of Stars offered a stellar variety of props and performing styles.
Paris the Hip Hop Juggler (New York City) emceed the show with instant audience appeal. Noting Hip Hop’s recent 50-year anniversary celebration, Paris took the crowd on a performative journey through the history of the culture’s dance and music accompanied by the juggling that he first picked up in his native Harlem. “Hip hop is old enough to complain about its grandkids,” Paris joked. Paris also flexed his skills with up to six rings and four basketballs, wowing the audience with clean and stylish sequences.
Cassaundra Smyth (Oakland, California) got things going with a dropless poi act. Smyth’s flow fused engaging movement with technical elements that punctuated each move – from contact to toss to spins – with flavor and attitude.
Pun Ho Lam 潘昊臨 (Hong Kong) – the 2022 IJA individuals champion – took the stage next with an audience volunteer piece inspired by Benjamin Domask-Ruh. Five volunteers received colored bells that they rang in coordination with various parts of Ho Lam’s kendama routine. He continued with a ‘gentleman juggler’ sequence involving glasses to further complicate his impressive kendama repertoire.
Jesse Patterson (Dallas, Texas) appeared with a strong hoop routine, ranging from hoop juggling and body rolls to exceptionally beautiful hoop rolling patterns that encircled her with gentle arcs. Patterson’s ability to incorporate so many types of hoop manipulation into one act was quite a feat.
The Passing Zone’s Jon Wee and Owen Morse (California) brought a comedic and educational routine to the stage. With a doll teetering atop a pole balanced on Wee’s forehead, Morse used a bullwhip to snag the pole away and knock the doll onto a giant needle – also attached to Wee’s forehead – to “receive the life saving vaccination.” Did I mention that Wee was juggling three axes throughout the ‘procedure?’ Save that trick for your next doctor’s appointment!
Richard Hartnell (Bellingham, Washington) accompanied his acrylic ball contact juggling with a fascinating monologue on technology, physics and history. Manipulating as many as eight balls at a time, Hartnell raised the question of whether we could build a computer the size of the universe (and then run the universe on it), citing science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, among others.
Devin Tucker (California) presented some well-honed technique with three club juggling, including wall plane windmills, elegant straight-arm throws, forearm balances, and a stunning backbend cascade.
Zelan Juggler, aka Salih Mahammed (College Park, Maryland), brought his extraordinary bounce juggling to the stage next, with lightning-fast three-ball tricks accompanied by quick footwork. Mahammed progressed to a seven-ball lift bounce and a series of multiplex bounces to finish the routine. Mahammed originally honed his skills as part of Ethiopia’s Circus Tigrai, and serves as a prime example of the country’s legendary style and proficiency in circus arts.
Amélie Bolduc (Québec, Canada) impressed the crowd with manipulations and juggling with one to three batons. Bolduc’s execution was acrobatic and dance-like, with an ebullient character accentuating each toss and roll.
The Hoop Troop had the daunting task of closing the show, but did so with incredible flair. Made up of Lisa Ellipse, Callum Baker and Cameron Ford (United Kingdom), the three hoop jugglers navigated effortlessly between manipulation – including Baker’s buttery Bramson rolls – and passing patterns with as many as eleven hoops. Their neon yellow, pink and green colors added to the vibrant and good-natured atmosphere of the act, earning them a warm and appreciative roar from the crowd.
The IJA presented several awards throughout the week.
This year’s Extraordinary Service Award went to Shivella Schwab, a dedicated behind-the-scenes organizer and registrar for her local festival in Atlanta and the IJA festival alike. Schwab admitted to being very shy, but felt thankful for the effect that joining the juggling community has had on her. “I am the product of what happens when shy people are encouraged and feel safe and supported,” she said. “You make me feel like I belong here.”
The Flamingo Club Award, which honors an inspirational and influential female-identifying or nonbinary juggler, went to Jennifer Miller, who founded NYC-based Circus Amok in 1989, and has been weaving social and political commentary into her offbeat and accessible productions ever since.
Dr. Arthur Lewbel received an Honorary Life Membership in recognition of his long term service to the IJA. His first festival was in 1975 in Youngstown, Ohio. He is a former stage championships director, frequent championships judge, MIT Juggling Club founder, and prolific Juggler’s World magazine contributor. Lewbel also actively supports juggling and circus performance around the world today.
Niels Duinker received the Excellence in Education Award, recognizing his far-reaching contributions to teaching juggling through YouTube, in publications, and in person through personalized coaching and group team-building.
The Sky King Award for advancing diversity and representation in juggling went to Sam Malcolm, whose career and intellectual contributions to the community have broadened access to juggling for Indigenous people and diverse communities across the country. Malcolm filmed a video expressing his gratitude for the award.
Maruichi Senoh, who has carried on the Japanese performing arts tradition of Edo Daikagura for decades, received the Historical Achievement Award.
The Bobby May Award – in recognition of years of coaching and mentoring jugglers to improve their acts – went to Judy Finelli, who is the first woman to earn this distinction in IJA history. Finelli is a mainstay of the New American Circus movement. She was a member of the Pickle Family Circus and co-founded the San Francisco School of Circus Arts in 1984. Despite experiencing the debilitating effects of multiple sclerosis, Finelli remains a faculty member of the school, now called the Circus Center.
I was honored and humbled to receive the People’s Choice Award, determined by festival attendee votes during the week. Other top contenders included Wes Peden, Liam Halstead and Michael Karas. Thank you Laura Kaseman for publishing the full results!
The Award of Excellence – presented to him by his father Jeff – went to Wes Peden to recognize his extraordinary accomplishments in the world of professional performance. After Peden met Sean McKinney, Kris Kremo and Jay Gilligan at his first IJA Festival, he said it solidified his plans for the future. “There was no doubt in my mind, and I was 100 percent sure, that I wanted to be a juggler for the rest of my life,” Peden said. “If I had gone to a sandcastle convention, things would have been different,” he joked.
As many jugglers departed for their flights and carpools on Sunday, a group of thirty-something folks lingered at PEGGS restaurant for a late breakfast before heading home. “We hope to see you all again,” the restaurant later posted on Facebook.
I never thought I would say this about South Bend, Indiana, but… we hope to see you again too!
Thanks to everyone who made this year’s festival possible, in particular festival director Exuro Piechocki and all of the volunteers who performed their duties with diligence and grace. See you all next year in Green Bay!