Almost everyone I speak to has a different definition of juggling. Some elements of some of these definitions I can easily agree with. Others, not so easily. It is hard enough for me to pin down my own definition in any clear way without having to deal with those of others.
But if I was pressed to say something fundamental, something concise and to the point, to answer the question “what is juggling”, than I think I could do worse than to make the claim that “juggling is risk”.
Juggling is risk, and the moment we take that risk is the moment we commit to juggling. The moment an object is released into the air, the moment we relinquish direct physical contact with it, that is the moment when we enter into a state of risk. It is the same risk as when the flying trapeze artist leaps from their bar, to spin and pirouette towards the outstretched hands of their catcher. The same risk, and with the same implied promise: the promise that the risk state will, at some point in the future, be brought under control (in both these cases by the action of the catch), and we will return to the lower tension state that existed before.
And so if risk can control (create, increase and dilute) tension, then therein lies a possibility for us jugglers to use the risk inherent in our juggling to steer and control tension, and with it perhaps to control the emotional states of our audience.
That seems like quite a large jump, I know! To start with the axiom that “juggling is risk”, and to move from that to, in just a few sentences, juggling can “control the emotional states of our audience” seems perhaps to be a rather pretentious path to have followed. But I genuinely believe that it is a rather banal and obvious route to take. No trickery, no artistic detours, no pretenses to high art or conceptualism.
Risk simply creates tension. If good theatre, or music, or performance, can be defined in some broad way, then perhaps it is through the creation and control of tension. We build it, hold it high, keep ourselves and our audience surfing on it (they perhaps holding their collective breath), before we break it and allow them, and us, to prepare for the next curve. Any performance is about mapping and navigating the dynamic of tension, be it a roller-coaster-like swoop (perhaps eliciting oohs and aahs) or a soft zephyr-like line (perhaps to draw in and engage all the senses). When we can hear a pin drop, when spontaneous and natural applause or laughter occurs, it is because of these changing levels of tension. And as jugglers we have the possibility to control these levels of tension, their build and their release, through our technique.
On a more everyday note: it is the reason why the audience often claps when a juggler drops. Because in that moment they have to release the tension that was built up inside them, and the simplest collective way for an audience to release tension is through applause. Laughter is another typical way, as any good comedian knows. Controlling an audiences laughter is also all about controlling the build-up of tension, to be released at the appropriate moment (typically with the punch line).
And so we come to our dilemma. As a juggler, risk is my most natural tool for controlling a dynamic of tension. But as a juggler, I wish to eliminate all risk from my performance! How can I reconcile these two, apparently contradictory, statements?
The starting point is to come to terms with the simple realization that we can never eliminate all risk from a juggling performance. After all, juggling is risk! If there was no risk, there would be no juggling. Every juggler who has ever performed, every juggler who will ever perform, has, does, and will drop and make other mistakes. This is probably the only concrete statement that can be made about juggling, the principle upon which we can all agree, and it holds true whether that performance consists of showing a fellow juggler a new trick, or performing at a world-class level before a paying audience.
Every juggler shall drop. It is a realization that seems at times to be depressing, but one that can also liberate and free our juggling! I continue to strive towards perfect performances, to train and rehearse with the goal of delivering my work flawlessly, but I know that I can offer no guarantees. And it is that very quality, of not being able to promise perfection, which gives juggling its unique value and depth.
I have slowly come to understand that my own likes and dislikes of juggling performances are directly tied to this issue. I can easily say “I like that act” (or “I hate that act”), but where does that gut reaction come from? More and more, I see that it comes from how the juggler on stage deals with risk.
I hope by now that it is clear that by that I don’t mean particularly (or mainly) the technique itself, but rather the content around the technique. I take it as a given that the juggling is potentially flawless. Although we accept that it can never truly be so (see above!), we should be taking no technical risks beyond those inherent to the act of juggling itself. But if we fail to notice or embrace that inherent risk, then we are likely to miss other related factors. There are in particular two large places where I find that risk is often oppressed or ignored.
The first is the theme act. The juggling rockstar. The juggling ninja. The juggling plumber or scientist or flower-seller. Where do these acts come from? Either from jugglers who are uneasy with presenting “just” juggling (and so they add extra layers of “novelty” or “interest”), or from jugglers who are uneasy to perform (and so thus can they hide behind a mask of “character”). In both these cases, I feel it is an inability to accept risk that leads to the artistic choice of the theme act. It is being scared of honesty, of danger, of exposing oneself to risk, that leads to this. There are of course fantastic acts where the performer is a clear character, or where the juggling has some extra layer of abstraction, but I firmly believe that those acts are the exception, and that in those cases the artistic choices come from deep within the performer, rather than from the outside: they are embracing the risk within themselves, rather than hiding it behind some mask. It is the difference between being a good clown, and being the office joker who puts on a red nose at the Christmas party.
The other place where risk is often dismissed, or simply not noticed, is in the jugglers relationship to their props. Often I see jugglers who treat their props with no special value or care. This lack of care often leads to a lack of emotional content: if the juggler themselves doesn’t care about the prop, then why should their audience? And if an audience doesn’t care about something, then why should they care if that thing is placed in a position of risk? In some disciplines it is natural that the audience cares about the “object”. If a person flies through the air from trapeze to catcher, if they are in a clear position of risk, then it is natural that I, and any person of any culture, care about them. When a juggling prop flies high, it is less obvious to care so much. So what if it’s caught or not? Who cares if the pattern is broken or distorted? It’s just bits of plastic, right? The responsibility lies with us, the juggler, to make our props and patterns important and valuable. If we don’t care about them, then why should anyone else? And if no-one cares, if nothing is at stake, then we have no risk.
Every time we throw an object, we embrace risk. It is our statement of intention, and a commitment to our audience and to ourselves. A commitment to juggling, and a commitment to flawed imperfection. A commitment to care, and a commitment to risk.
Juggling is risk. And that risk is what makes it unique and precious and valuable. And that is something we should celebrate.