Review of Wes Peden’s Rollercoaster at IJA 76

His name is Wes.

He likes pretzels.

And his juggling is unlike anything you’ve seen before.

Part contemporary circus show, part tribute to thrill rides, and entirely an exploration of objects and their possibilities, Wes Peden performed his solo juggling show Rollercoaster twice on Friday, July 21st at the 76th annual IJA festival in South Bend, Indiana.

Photo credit: Fahimeh Hekmatandish

Upon entering the Bendix Theater at the Century Center, the audience is greeted by three large blue inflatable structures (designed by Félix Chameroy) that resemble segments of a fantastical rollercoaster ride mixed with a children’s jumpy castle. The lighting (designed by Vilhelm Montán Lindberg, Joel Johansson & Zoe Hunn and operated by Florence Schroeder) shines through the loops of plastic so that rays of white and yellow light shoot towards the audience at odd angles. As the show begins, a robotic voice echoes over the speakers reminding the audience to keep their hands and feet inside the ride at all times and to smile for the on ride camera (a moment that does occur, to the delight of those who were paying attention, about halfway through the show). That robotic voice returns at intervals throughout the show to contextualise the action’s relationship to roller coasters. In a Q&A after the show, Peden explained that he recorded a text-to-speech voice instead of his own so that the show was easily translated into the local language of where it was showing. That meeting of care, creativity, and commercialism was evident across the various elements of the show.

Juggling technique in Rollercoaster was frequently used as a metaphor to represent the experience of being at a theme park. This is perhaps most literally represented in the opening moments of the show when Peden reveals a long, clear, bendy tube that is just wide enough to fit a single juggling ball. Peden demonstrates his juggling ingenuity and lateral thinking through performance as he meticulously winds the tubing around his arms and body in ever-more-complex paths, which serve as breakneck thrill rides for his juggling balls. “I wanted something that looks like roller coasters and juggling had a baby,” Wes explained in the Q&A, “So that people think: ‘You’re right. These ARE the same.'”

Photo credit: Fahimeh Hekmatandish.

The relationship between his juggling and roller coasters is underscored by an original soundtrack by Mika Forsling, which you can listen to on Spotify. Forsling’s pop-y electronic music incorporates the sound of a roller coaster grinding along its tracks and samples sound from the video game Rollercoaster Tycoon, which Peden cites as a source of inspiration for the show’s juggling choreography and set design. After a physically demanding segment of the show, for instance, when Peden is panting and his sweat is soaking through his clothes, the robotic voice over explains that, in Rollercoaster Tycoon you can prevent your guests from vomiting if you put a bench and a vending machine at the ride’s exit. While the robotic voice is speaking, Peden grabs a drink of water and flops onto the floor to rest as well.

One of my personal favourite roller coasters is called The Bat, which opened in 1987 at Canada’s Wonderland in Vaughn, Ontario. On The Bat, which features a single train of 28 riders, you first follow the coaster’s path forwards, until you reach a dead end. After a moment’s pause, the coaster then plummets you downwards to repeat the entire path backward. The unique experience of reliving half a ride in the opposite direction is what I love about The Bat. And Peden gives his audience this experience in his Rollercoaster as well through the manipulation of two clubs, connected by a piece of rope. The rope allows Peden to tug the club back to his hand halfway through its spin, recreating my experience on The Bat. This segment of the show was appreciated more by the jugglers at IJA than any layman audience, Peden says. I think this is because we (jugglers) are all so accustomed to the typical path of a club; we all had to learn and align ourselves with the way a club moves in the air to become successful at juggling. But Peden, with a prop adaptation we have all seen before (Eric Sipos attached two balls with a string for his IJA festival Flow Show performance, for instance), alters the clubs’ movements in ways that felt surprising and fresh. And that is one of the aspects of Peden’s juggling that I appreciate most: it is legible and entertaining for the general public, but it is also deeply grounded in—and pushes the limits of—juggling technique, theory, and history, which is only understood by fellow juggling nerds.

Photo credit: Fahimeh Hekmatandish

By far the most talked-about section of Rollercoaster at the IJA festival, though, was Peden’s 5-club routine. In this lengthy gamified sequence, Peden employs improvisation in his otherwise heavily scripted/choreographed show. Over and over, he tries to hit challenging 5-club patterns and tricks. When he hits them, he tosses a drum stick at a cymbal to celebrate the success. When he fails, he turns on a small digital disco ball and hits a silly—but still technically remarkable—variety arts trick. The 5-club tricks were thrilling, of course, but even more satisfying were the nonsensical party tricks he executed perfectly in between them. This segment also felt like the flow of a theme park. There’s the massive, fast-paced, stomach-in-your-throat thrill rides, but then there’s the carnival games, the 3d movies, and the cotton candy vendors. After experiencing something mind-blowing, like a big coaster or Wes Peden hitting tricks at the edge of his abilities, the audience needs a palette cleanser, like juggling with a dragonfly propeller toy, before they can appreciate more extremes.

There is so much more to say about Wes Peden’s Rollercoaster. I haven’t even mentioned his rollercoaster-memorial-spinning-plates routine or his multicoloured-ring-head-catch routine! I guess if you didn’t make it on the coaster this time, you’ll just have to get in line for the next ride.

Morgan Anderson is a PhD Candidate in Theatre and Performance Studies at York University (Toronto, ON) where she thinks and writes about the relationship between the human and nonhuman in the act of juggling. She juggles balls, hats, and cigar boxes, sometimes on a unicycle, and mostly for her own enjoyment.

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