Notes and queries and a case full of clubs: Style Notes

One word which is often bandied about in discussions and descriptions of jugglers and juggling is “style”. Some have it, some don’t. Someone juggles in a particular style, or has their own distinctive and defining style. But what does it really mean to have style, and how can we develop it in our own juggling?

Let us start with our definition. As is often the case, a standard dictionary definition should hopefully be enough for us. According to my Apple computer built-in dictionary, “style” is: “a way of painting, writing, composing, building, etc., characteristic of a particular period, place, person, or movement.” I am very happy to embrace the “etc.” to include juggling, and to accept this definition in the case of juggling style. I am happy that we can use the same words to describe juggling style as any other artistic or physical work. Juggling doesn’t always need to be special, it doesn’t always need to be raised on a separate podium or platform: or rather, it needs to be no more (or less) special than watercolours, poetry, music, or bricklaying.

The keyword, I believe, in our definition is “characteristic.” Style is recognisable. We can watch juggling and categorise the style. This is one way by which we can judge originality, evolution and local variation of juggling skills.

Are most styles characteristic of a particular period/place/movement, or of a particular person? Many people talk about (but would maybe not agree on the exact meaning of) “Circus Style,” “European Style” (which breaks further down to eg “Swedish Style” or “French Style” or “Kiev Style”), “IJA Style,” “WJF Style,” “Gandini Style,” “Greg Kennedy Style,” and countless others. One distinction between period/place/movement styles and personal styles is that one tends not to describe, for example, Greg Kennedy’s own juggling as “Greg Kennedy Style.” Such nomenclature is reserved for third parties who appear to emulate or share such a style.

So if we describe someone’s juggling as “WJF Style,” we are perhaps putting an upper limit on the originality of said juggler, but that doesn’t neccesarily mean that we are denigrating them. A juggler has every right to emulate, or aspire to, a particular movements particular style. The problem perhaps is when they try to emulate a particular individuals style, rather than that defining a larger body of jugglers. Most of us don’t like being compared to individuals, but have far less of a problem being compared to a period or a place or a movement.

It is interesting to note as a small aside that style is always seen as a positive factor! A good aesthetic, clean lines, original tricks. No-one ever described bad juggling as being in the “Bad Juggling Style.” It’s just bad juggling! A beginner learning the three ball cascade doesn’t juggle “Beginner Style.” To claim style, we must already possess good juggling technique.

For me personally, personal style is most important. It is what makes juggling truly interesting and exciting for me to watch and to make and to perform, and it is what elevates juggling to an artform. I can watch, enjoy and respect “Kiev Style,” or “WJF Style,” or indeed nearly ALL general juggling styles, yet ultimately they fail to fully engage my senses or my emotions. Perhaps it is the personalities that are missing for me in the period/place/movement styles. The “Circus Style” jugglers that I love (for example Mario Berousek, Paul Ponce or Manuel Alvarez) have strong personal characteristics and individual style within the larger movement of “Circus Style.” They manage to break through the walls defining the general style to make their own strong mark. In the same way, the visual arts throughout history (but particularly in the development of modern art) have grown and developed through particular movements: Art Deco to Bauhaus, Abstract Expressionism through Pop Art, Postminimalism to Steampunk. Note that also within art movements, the most successful, well-known or respected artists manage to make their own personal stamp on the bigger movement.

So, how can we claim our own style, rather than taking the route of emulating an existing one?

Well, we must start by possessing good technique. So we must train efficiently and well, in order to become good jugglers. Once we have our strong juggling base, we can use that technique to form and create original juggling (I may have mentioned in previous articles some ways and means to do this!). And once we have our original juggling, based as it is on strong underlying technique, we should find that we have already transformed our juggling into our own personal style. And a transformation it can truly be: from generic, albeit good, juggling, to something personal, fundamental and original.

As always, it’s the strong technical base that enables us to transform our juggling into something new. And if we look at jugglers with strong personal styles (Wes Peden, Jay Gilligan, Sean McKinney etc.) we find very very few counter-examples.

Proper base training builds good technique.

Good technique can be used to create original technique.

Original technique transforms to personal style.

Of course, not everyone aspires to create something personal, transformative or long-lasting. But if you truly care about your artform, I consider it vital to contribute to its growth and its development. And the best way to do that is to carefully cultivate your own personal path within it: to allow that path to grow and develop, and to become something that is unique and special to you. Not only can this lift and contribute to juggling as a whole, but it gives each of us the opportunity to be defined as something more than just mere followers of a particular movement or time. It gives each of us the opportunity to be recognised both in the community and outside it as as true practioners of the art and the craft of juggling.

It allows any and all of us to juggle with style.

Juggler and magician Luke Wilson, an Englishman in Continental exile.When not on the road he calls Germany home, and his work has developed into a mixture of performing, teaching and directing: roles which have allowed him to claim such diverse titles as prize winner at the Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain in Paris, sometime Head of Department (Juggling & Manipulation) at the London Conservatoire of Dance and Drama, visiting Professor of Juggling at Stockholm's University College of Dance and Circus, and Magical Advisor to FISM World Magic Champion Ken Bardowicks.When not travelling or working, he is probably trying to read the entire internet, drinking tea, and wondering if he will ever print his "tricks make me happy" T-shirt.

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