My last article took one particular theme (efficiency) and explored it as fully as I could. I often tend to fixate on one particular aspect of juggling at a time, and then try to understand and clarify my thoughts and beliefs on said aspect. Sometimes that clarification takes place in a notebook, sometimes in my head, and sometimes in an article for general consumption.
One aspect that I recently started looking at, in terms of juggling and other important matters of life, is habits – and in particular the pursuit of identifying and breaking them. Not necessarily breaking them in order to change them, but rather so as to help us understand their function. I am a creature of habit, and I am comfortable to make the assertion that being such has contributed to my connection to juggling. Habit is just another form of bloody-mindedness. A less clinical way of describing mild OCD (and also less offensive to those who truly suffer from OCD in its extreme and destructive forms). It’s a form of efficiency (to make a call-back to last month).
And so now, and in the interests of breaking my own habits, I shall explore not one but three (!) concepts which have became important to my work (or at least, to my thinking) very recently: concepts which also happen to be very different ones to those which have occupied much of my work up to this point. Thus, two broken habits for the price of one! (Although it could be said that that rather reeks of falling back on the old and oft-exploited habit of efficiency…)
OK, this one is an old obsession. What it boils down to is: BE AWARE OF WHAT YOU AIM TO DO! In a perfect world, what you plan to do and what you actually do should also match up. That is what we should always aiming for, whether it’s learning a new trick, executing an old one, or performing a juggling routine for peers or others. Of course in reality there is often a disecrepancy between our intentions and our execution, which can be blamed on various external and internal factors. But the plan is always to minimise the possibility of said discrepancies. And when we notice a disecrepancy (we drop a ball, the audience reacts in the “wrong” way), it is our duty to understand what happened, and to correct it.
Artists have faced one particular conundrum of intention since the first bored yet curious monkey-lizard-fish-bird scratched in the sand, or blew a bubble in a particular manner. What of the audience? Must they “get” or fully “understand” our intention exactly as we meant it? The answer is generally clear: no, they must not. But the presence of a strong and clear intention, however it is then interpreted by an outsider, carries with it a depth and strength that we cannot hope to suggest otherwise.
Intention is tied to commitment (we need to know what we are doing or aiming to do before we can hope to execute it) and that commitment (to the trick, the catch, the show) is important in all facets of our juggling life. Whether in the gym or on the stage, our best chances of success come when we are fully committed to everything that we are doing in that moment.
Although juggling is a physical task, it has the rather unique quality of demanding a certain mental presence. And the danger is that this necessary mental presence then manifests itself through the possibly unnecessary over-intellectualisation of the basic (physical) task. Examples in everyday juggling are the development of mental blocks when practicing, of dropping when performing due to thinking too much about dropping when performing, and the writing (or reading) of Internet essays about naivety and its relationship to juggling.
Naivety is often defined in terms of a child’s outlook on the world, and of course when we first start to juggle we are as children discovering new trinkets or baubles of experience. Everything is bright and new and shiny. And it is only natural that as our skills and knowledge within juggling develop over time we become less naive. We grow-up with our increased wisdom, and we stop being surprised or amazed as often as we were when we were (experience-wise) younger.
If we can remember on occasion to re-embrace our childlike excitement, to look at the juggling world (both within and outside ourselves) through inexperienced eyes, then we can perhaps practice and create and perform and watch and enjoy juggling with a new freshness and openness. With more questioning, and with less need for clear answers.
Absurdity has a strong relationship to naivety, and the two are especially close in some theories of performance: most obviously in the world of the clown. But perhaps we can also apply the principle of absurdity to our juggling in general, not just in a performance context. After all, what could be more absurd than a hairless bipedal mammal devoting hours of its time to the awkward game of throwing and catching multiple balls in a complex manner?
Absurdity often comes from escalation. One starts with a simple, normal, premise, and by taking it to an extreme, absurdity can be quickly attained. Hence the non-absurd “today I shall wear underwear” can escalate to the absurd “today I shall wear ALL my underwear at the same time”. But note that absurdity doesn’t have to mean ridiculous in the sense of funny. Juggling can become absurd through the (non-funny) escalation of eg technique (Anthony Gatto), as well as through the (funny) escalation of e.g. unexpected objects (Michael Davis juggling food-groups).
We can take any basic trick and, by first identifying the elements/trick-concepts within it (e.g. the props or body-parts used, the technique of the throw or catch), we can escalate it in the direction of our choice (e.g. technical, funny, aesthetic) to transform it into a new trick, a new routine or a new concept. And by embracing absurdity as we do so, we reduce the risk of not exploring all the possibilities as fully as we could.
These three concepts have been useful to me recently both in the gym and on the stage, and, although the latter two took me some time to embrace, I feel that they all have intrinsic value within juggling. The skill is in of itself somewhat absurd. Without a childlike naivety we would have dismissed it as a worthless skill. And were it not for our clear intention, we could never have mastered the three ball cascade in the first place. These three elements are just fragments of the full picture of juggling, and if we can stay open and willing we can identify and embrace more and more elements cascading around and within us: and thus can our juggling become even richer and more satisfying.