Jay Gilligan's First Law

A body at rest becomes art in motion

And because the circus is a more respected art form in Europe, expanding on a circus art like juggling--stretching it in experimental ways--is also easier than it is in the United States. Here the notion of juggling as a performance art is rare, and very much a hard sell. "There's more tradition for it in Europe," Gilligan explains. "They're used to it. They're more tolerant of it and they'll follow you farther. It's like 'juggling and art, I can accept these two things together.' Juggling in the United States is like, 'Are you a clown?'"


Juggling--as a game, a training regimen, an art form--has been around for thousands of years. So long, in fact, that one could argue that any new juggling techniques probably existed in some form centuries ago. But there are some common threads that make up modern juggling today, moving it far beyond the traditional image of a clown in a funny hat tossing colorful balls on a street corner. Modern juggling makes use of the rhythm of repetition, the science of trajectory, and the art of design to create magical movements based on bouncing a ball off the floor and walls or simply rolling balls along the palm of a hand. It is the patterns--not the props--that capture the attention.

David Kern

The earliest depiction of toss juggling comes from a tomb in Egypt, perhaps dating as far back as 1994 B.C. That's according to Arthur Lewbel, a professor of economics at Boston College. Himself a proficient juggler, Lewbel has researched and written about the history of juggling, but he stresses that it's very difficult to systematically cull together information about juggling that spans centuries and the globe. In Circus!, a 1956 history of the circus, author Marian Murray cites a text by Marco Polo describing jugglers exhibiting their skill for Kublai Khan. The one encyclopedic tome about the history of juggling, Karl-Heinz Ziethen's 4,000 Years of Juggling, is fairly comprehensive, but the two-volume work was published only in limited supply in the 1980s, so it is difficult to find. A New York juggling-equipment company is working on a revision of the book, though the publication date is uncertain.

Nonetheless, Lewbel has managed to uncover some interesting facts about juggling. Thousands of years ago in Tonga and Japan, juggling was a game played by young girls. "The earliest known jugglers, in Egypt and the South Pacific, were exclusively female," he says. Moving on to the Middle Ages in Europe, Lewbel explains, "juggling was basically something that men did, and it was a demonstration of dexterity. They'd impress other warriors with their dexterity."

Still later, juggling became synonymous with a certain class of entertainer, from conjurers and magicians to jesters and clowns. And oddly, despite thousands of years of juggling history, it is the image of the juggler-as-clown that seems indelible today. "People's attitudes about juggling and who does it are not fixed," Lewbel says. "The modern notion of a juggler as a clown is very peculiar to Western culture. Juggling is so much associated with clowning. If you see someone lift a heavy weight, you think, 'Wow, that person's strong.' If you see somebody juggling, the first thought isn't, 'Wow, that person is dexterous.' It's, 'That person's a clown.'"

There is one other notion of juggling that in recent years has gained popularity in the United States: juggling as a sport. Today the activity is considered a competitive sport by many jugglers--some even contend it should be in the Olympics. In part, Lewbel explains, that's due to a resurgence of hobby juggling over the past two or three decades. During that time, the growth of the International Jugglers' Association and the widespread availability of video have vastly increased both the numbers of people juggling and their technical skill.

But neither image--a clown with comedic shtick or an athlete competing--is particularly appealing to Gilligan. Though he has often competed at IJA conventions, Gilligan maintains that the event rewards only jugglers who fit a traditional, static style and it doesn't encourage experimentation. "I can tell you how to win," Gilligan says with an undisguised note of sarcasm in his voice. "Just wear your sequined bow tie or dress and look like you're having fun. It's pretty formulaic."

And that formula doesn't really compute for Gilligan anymore, as his own juggling evolves ever further away from the hobbyist community he grew up in. "Performing for jugglers really isn't any fun," he says. "They have these weird expectations of what's juggling or what's perfect. If you do eight rings, they're like, 'He should have done it twice as long,' or 'Why didn't he do nine?' And if you do this new trick, they're like, 'Why didn't he do eight rings?' If you know he can do it, and you've seen him do it, wouldn't you rather he do something new?"


Gilligan's latest show, "Building Weight," premiered at an experimental juggling festival in Helsinki in January before settling into an extended run in Minneapolis, at the Bryant-Lake Bowl Theater. The hourlong solo performance combines disparate images of straight lines and round balls, right angles and curvy arcs. The patterns of Gilligan's juggling and movements of his body revolve around a large white plastic structure that looks like a giant Tinkertoy jungle gym, connected by a row of wooden shelves to a narrow, phone-booth-like tower. He balances and hangs on the apparatus, all the while juggling balls. He climbs the tower at the center of the stage, juggling and jumping and catching. He moves around tossing clubs against a wall in the audience, rolling rings on their edges along his arms and shoulders, catching balls on his forehead and back.

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