Choreographed juggling is by definition a one-trick pony although in the hands of Gandini Juggling, inspired by the imaginative choreography of Alexander Whitley, the potential of that artform appears limitless. Contemporary circus has progressively infiltrated physical theatre over recent years but, in the main these companies tend to focus on a full range of circus skills of which juggling is but one; and, if they juggle, it is likely that it will involve something out of the ordinary (I recently interviewed the Spanish antipodist, Vanessa Alvarez for DanceTabs and she juggles carpets and guitars, with her feet)!
Sean Gandini was bringing juggling into theatres long before many of the new wave of circus-based shows were even faint glimmers in their creators’ eyes. He co-founded the company that bears his name, with Kati Yiä-Hokkala, back in 1991, and their output has been prolific. There are no carpets, and no guitars; Gandini Juggling stick to the pure form, throwing, manipulating and catching nothing but hoops, balls and clubs in an ever-flowing momentum of arresting synchronisation.
Much creative effort has been committed to achieve a strong visual appeal for Spring, a show that premiered in Cambridge, last year. Colourful backdrops contrast with the performers’ loose grey costumes and in one memorable sequence they juggle large rings, intriguingly bringing some magical manipulation to switch them sequentially from white to a host of primary colours while breathlessly chanting the correct colour in unison. The multiple skills involved in this arresting sequence were mind-boggling!
The coloured rings evoked the Olympic brand and I found myself wondering about what makes a sport? If trampolining, rhythmic gymnastics (where the artist throws and catches just one large hoop), ice dance and synchronised swimming are sports then why not juggling? Who or what determines these boundaries? I have no idea, but what I do know is that if juggling were to become an Olympic discipline (and one can imagine separate categories for hoop, club and ball, individual, duets and synchronised team) then there are likely to have been a few future medallists on this stage. Later, while researching for this piece, I discovered that there is a World Juggling Championships (who knew?) and that one of these performers, Austrian juggler, Dominik Harant, has won it, twice.
Halfway through the hour, I made a mental note that despite seeing thousands of juggling actions, I hadn’t been aware of a single spill (or drop to use the correct technical term). There were a few thereafter, as there are bound to be, but in true circus style these drops were turned into a part of the act and in the most complex line sequence anyone who dropped was forced to kneel and seek penance from a co-juggler who placed his or her hand on the dropper’s head.
In addition to Whitley’s choreography, Spring benefits from outstanding lighting designs by Guy Hoare, intensifying the visual spectacle, and a fascinating, rhythmic bespoke score by Gabriel Prokofiev, played by a small orchestra, Camerata Alma Viva, from upstage. The stringed instruments (violins, viola, cello and contrabass) were supplemented by the ebullient drumming of Joel Barford and Joseph Snelgrove.
Whilst admiring the complex skills of these performers, not the least in their coordinated marathon of counts and in the speed and timing of their closely integrated expertise, the problem remained that it was difficult to become emotionally attached to a performance that is all about elite skill and – despite the attempts at humour – largely without sentiment. The few attempts to interact with the audience by, for example, telling us coyly that “this is the beginning”, and periodically keeping up that running commentary, fell flat and it was difficult to distinguish the individual personalities amongst the performers. Wes Peden was an imposing figure and Yu-Hsien Wu’s engaging presence made her memorable moments more indelible than others. It was a privilege to see Gandini Juggling’s co-founder, Yiä-Hokkala, amongst the cast: a privilege but not a surprise since she has now chalked up 2,500 performances and legend has it that she has only missed performing in one work since the company was formed! It would be one of the great mathematical tasks to work out how many times this evergreen juggler has thrown and caught an item over the past 28 years.
At the close, Gandini interrupted the audience applause during the curtain to ask if everyone in the auditorium could “imaginary juggle” and we all did, without a single drop! This action alone brought extra credence to the show being a part of the London International Mime Festival, which continues to thrive 42 years’ on from its creation.