Jay Gilligan's First Law

A body at rest becomes art in motion

During one segment of the show, Gilligan stands behind the rack of thin white shelves. There is one ball on each of the five ledges, and he gently bats the balls back and forth. Each rolls along its shelf until he pats it anew, sending it back the other way. The pattern follows the music, at once mellow and bright, with slow, slurred tones punctuated by crystalline chords. He touches the balls as if they were little creatures, alive. They follow his commands until his fingers tell them to move the other way, or to rise up to the next level, or down. His body sways from side to side, sometimes twitching a little as if in concert with the music's accents. His eyes follow his hands following the balls. His glance is at times intense concentration, at times easy contentment.

The piece moves back and forth between fast and slow segments, intensity and serenity. Parts of the work are mesmerizingly beautiful, others are loud and brash and astonishing to watch. Throughout the piece, as Gilligan juggles with different props, he breaks down the patterns, making them visible even to non-jugglers. He juggles three balls and two rings. He juggles three red balls, each tied by a long string to the jungle gym. He juggles three small balls and one large one, three orange balls and one blue one.

The same thoughtfulness runs through his preparations. In Finland, "Building Weight" was staged in an empty warehouse, with ample room to move around and ceilings that allowed for the highest of throws. By comparison, Gilligan says, the BLB is a shoebox. Yet while he has had to tailor the performance to the smaller stage, he admits that he's also enjoyed rethinking the piece in the context of a confined space.

During rehearsals Gilligan runs through his show, analyzing problem areas. He has long since taught himself to pay attention to each throw so that he can fix the technical mistakes that lead to bungled patterns and dropped props (juggling is something of a science; release the ball too soon and it flies too far in front of you, too late and it flips back over your head). But more than that, he collaborates with musician Ochen Kaylan to make sure the music and juggling match. He works with producer John Rauser to develop the overall aesthetic and to keep the audience involved and entertained. He carries with him a worn notebook, filled with scribbled notes about each segment of the show and scrawled drawings of the set. During a break, he sips from a carton of chocolate milk, contemplating what works and what doesn't, what stays and what changes.

As he rehearses, Gilligan is all concentration, watching the props as they fly above him, trying again and again to catch a ball on his forehead despite the perspiration making it slip. When he drops a prop repeatedly, he simply picks up the fallen object and keeps going. It's rare for him to show any frustration, though an occasional Finnish curse word escapes his lips.

During the actual performance he is even more composed. Gilligan is aware of the audience, aware of the general vibe in the theater. Is the crowd large? Are they taking it seriously? Are they having fun? (The only time he really gets nervous anymore is if his parents are watching.) But unlike jugglers who interact with the crowd through banter, in this show Gilligan never acknowledges the audience, even when he walks offstage and juggles beside them, on a platform, or in the aisles. He doesn't even like to build in "applause points," the breaks in the performance after a particularly tough trick when the audience can clap their enthusiasm.

The forced separation between Gilligan and his audience sometimes makes it hard for the theatergoers to understand his work. He knows that. And he knows that juggling as art is a pretty foreign idea here.

"I don't juggle to do tricks," Gilligan says. "I juggle because it's pretty, or it means something to me. I've made my own rules, made my own way a lot. For one person like me to try and educate America is very hard."

And while Gilligan accepts that reality, from time to time it does annoy him. As he flips through his notebook, he pulls out a few photos of himself performing in the circus in Helsinki. The pictures show the large warehouse space where he premiered his current show. For that performance, the place was packed. "It's frustrating," Gilligan muses. "I had 350 people at the Helsinki show. At the BLB in Minneapolis, 27 people come. And I've played in Minneapolis for eight years."

 

Of all the moving parts that make up Jay Gilligan--the performing, the traveling, the studying, the teaching--it's the creating of something new that is his purest, most essential element. That something new might be a pattern or an image, a movement or a physical cadence. It may add up to a new way of looking at juggling, a new art form. But even that is secondary.

"The performance is a byproduct. It's a happy coincidence that at the end of the process, I can perform. It's a happy coincidence that I can make a living at it," Gilligan explains. "The moment that's most fun for me is the first moment I do something that's new: Aha!

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