Jay Gilligan's First Law

A body at rest becomes art in motion

Five white balls, like softballs only squishier, float through the air. They rise along blurred lines, boiling upward several feet. High up at the top of their arc, they pop into clarity, but only for a split second. Then they fall, moving too quickly for the eye to follow, once more visible only as graceful streaky crescents. Again and again, they follow the same pattern, one after the other. Again and again and again.

The only sound is in the background, a peaceful repetition of broken triads on a bass guitar. Da-da-da, da-da-da, da-da-da, the triplets rise, and the balls fly and fall along with the beat. There is a soft accent each time one of the balls meets the palm of the hand, a gentle slapping sound in the fraction of a second before it is thrown again.

It is soothing, mesmerizing, hypnotic. Perhaps it could go on forever, the rhythm of the chords, the vision of the white balls in the air, the constancy of the physical touch. But eventually this enthralling exercise will have to end. It isn't the product of a machine, it's the creation of a man. A juggler.

 

Jay Gilligan's hands are enormous, even for his height (six-foot-two and a half) and the length of his arms (consider the approximate wingspan of a Canadian goose). Even when they could take a moment to rest, his hands twist and point and pose in the air, punctuating the conversation of their master. Callused and blistered, they're accustomed to repetitive movement. They don't seem to like the notion of repose.

You see, Gilligan is a professional juggler. His hands--rising, falling, throwing, catching--are the instruments of his art, his livelihood, his life. His hands are the connector of his body to the props (balls, rings, clubs) that orbit around him, kept in frenetic motion by some sort of magnetic attraction. He can keep seven balls flying (difficult) or eight rings slicing the air (more difficult) or five clubs flipping while he--whoosh--spins around in a pirouette, only to catch them all again (really, really difficult).

But even between those flashes of kinetic energy, Gilligan himself is in a constant state of motion. Onstage, during a performance--whether choreographed or improvised--his figure is in near constant activity: jumping, spinning, turning, twisting, tossing, kicking, flipping. Between shows he rolls around town in a silver minivan ("I'm never home," he quips--and he isn't) to rehearse in the theater, to practice his technique at the gym, to coach a teenage juggler, to collaborate with other artists on ideas for a new show, to work out business details of his many appearances and ventures (he'd happily pass those tasks along to a manager, but can't find one who deals with jugglers).

And then there's the touring, across the United States and in Europe. Though he has called Minneapolis home for more than a year, Gilligan spends months at a time in Europe--Finland, Sweden, France, Italy--teaching at circus school, rehearsing new works, performing with the icons of the juggling world.

At age 25, Gilligan has been juggling for nearly half his life. He has won numerous contests, written more than a dozen shows, performed in places as far-flung as Korea ("They have no history of juggling in their culture. It was an hourlong show and they clapped the entire time. It was really unnerving."), Las Vegas (a pharmaceutical company flew him there from Helsinki so that he could juggle for one minute in front of 5,000 employees at a meeting at the MGM Grand Casino), and Paris (he was invited to perform with some of the world's greatest jugglers).

It may not be a lucrative lifestyle, but it's certainly a creative one. He's constantly looking ahead and trying new things, but only if he can make them meaningful to himself. As he strives to create new movements and patterns and pieces, he's pushing past the common perception of jugglers: Jugglers are clowns, people think. Jugglers tell bad jokes. Jugglers throw astonishing numbers of objects in the air--maybe even melons or chainsaws or knives. But not Gilligan. "I go to the gym and practice technique. I push my personal boundaries in terms of tricks," he explains. "But I have to find a context to present them."

When you first learn to juggle, one of the rules is to stand still. There is a small window of space in front of your body, and you struggle to keep your tosses smooth and regular, inside that window. Although they say that anyone can learn, it's harder than it sounds, and you may well find yourself creeping forward, struggling to catch erratic tosses. But the goal is to stand still and steady, keeping the tosses constant and predictable, until you can throw and catch, throw and catch, without even opening your eyes.

Gilligan, however, is constant motion. Not only are his props always moving, raining over him in a precise pattern, but his body is never still. Just as adding another prop to a trick (six balls instead of five, eight rings instead of seven) increases the difficulty exponentially, adding sporadic, erratic movement to juggling makes it extremely hard.

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