Jay Gilligan's First Law

A body at rest becomes art in motion

Gilligan makes it look easy.

 

It's the last weekend in February, and Gilligan is spending a great many hours at a gymnasium at Concordia University in St. Paul. The occasion is MONDO Jugglefest, a weekend-long event that showcases unicycling, yo-yo tricks, and, of course, juggling of all kinds. Since the annual festival began 13 years ago it has grown steadily, and this year it has attracted more than 400 people, mainly from the Twin Cities, but from as far as Illinois, Nebraska, even Saskatchewan.

The gym is a swirl of motion. In one corner a pack of young men are trying to flip their black felt bowler hats with a flick of the wrist (hat tricks). There are little cliques of two and three tossing shiny clubs--a fancier, lighter version of bowling pins--to each other, creating twirling, moving archways (club passing). A few scattered souls carry in each hand sticks that are connected by a thin twine; they move their hands quickly back and forth, pulling the string taut and hurling a large spinning top high into the rafters, then catching it on the same string (flying diabolos).

Wee kids wobble as they learn to ride unicycles. Rings and balls fly through the air, occasionally falling to the ground and rolling away until another juggler kindly stops the errant prop. Ribbons and handkerchiefs and parasols and spinning plates add to the distractions vying for the eye's attention.

Gilligan stands out among the hundreds of the hobbyists. This is partly because of his height (he towers over most of the people here, both kids and adults) and partly because of his wild hair. Elaborately patterned, it's a black and bleach-blond checkerboard with zigzags of bright pinkish-red and orange. (Gilligan happily explains how he found his Finnish barber: After asking a man on a bus where he got his hair cut, Gilligan went to the salon, only to learn that he had taught the barber's son in circus school.)

But he also stands out because he's no longer a "hobby juggler." Most of the people here today view juggling as a social activity, or a sport. While Gilligan's roots are here among the hobbyists, he is quick to say that he's moved beyond this realm, into one of juggling as art.

And juggling-as-art isn't something, interestingly, that many hobby jugglers appreciate.

Saturday night's MONDO Spectacular is a variety show featuring acts by some of the most talented festival goers. The audience, a roomful of jugglers, is rowdy, launching long, thin balloons high above the seats, shouting out to each other, juggling in the aisles. Gilligan is slated to perform second, after a peppy number by a baton twirler. Emcee Jerry Martin, one of the MONDO organizers and mainstay of the Minnesota Neverthriving juggling club, introduces Gilligan by explaining that he is one of a small number of people in world who is trying to make juggling "artful and mysterious."

Gilligan's piece revolves around a set of three tall, slim rods connected together at one end by a cord so that they can move freely, like limbs, but still stay together. When Gilligan leans them together, in a tripod, the structure could be the skeletal frame of a tipi that's as tall as he is. He moves and sways under and through the rods, then picks them up and swings the long sticks slowly, accompanied by the serene folk music of guitarist Tierney McDougall. If the baton twirler was a roller coaster, Gilligan is a raft floating down the calmest of rivers.

The audience members, eager to be amazed, aren't. They seem confused by the piece, but at they end they still offer polite applause.

Gilligan performs again a few acts later (after a break-dancing duo and a juggler who chitchats with the crowd like a Las Vegas magician). Again the guitar music is mellow, but this time Gilligan juggles three balls. He catches all three on the back of his hand. The audience applauds. He balances one on his forehead, then flips it on to his back. The audience applauds. He catches one ball on his fist. More applause. He juggles and catches the balls behind his back. More applause. After a while, Gilligan sits at the edge of the stage and listens to the guitar music, a move, once again, that perplexes the audience ("They kept clapping for the tricks," he explains later. "And I'm thinking Tierney's singing and it's so beautiful."). After the performance, Gilligan again gets warm applause--even a standing ovation from one man.

At intermission, one man in the audience turns to a friend. "That guy who's trying to make it art? He needs a little work. It's a little slow." The friend nods in agreement.

 

At age eight Jay Gilligan started taking unicycle lessons at the local 4-H club in Arcadia, Ohio (his interest in the activity predates even that; a girl in his kindergarten class was one of the world's youngest unicyclists). He practiced tricks and learned routines and competed at unicycling festivals. But by age 12 he had mastered the rudimentary skills. And it's the nature of unicycling that once you've got the basics, learning advanced tricks can take months, even years. So he turned his sights to the more immediate gratification of juggling, because he could learn a new trick every day. At the 1993 International Jugglers' Association convention, Gilligan took the gold medal in the juniors competition, for kids under 18. Since then he's won two gold medals for team juggling, as well as three other medals--two silver and one bronze--for individual performances. These are things that become myth--that make Gilligan something of a rock star in the juggling world. Fans often buy videotapes of the competitions and emulate the performances they see.

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