Jay Gilligan's First Law

A body at rest becomes art in motion

"Like that bookshelf thing," he continues, alluding to the part of his new show that involves rolling balls along thin shelves. "I was in Finland teaching, and I gave this assignment to do something site-specific, something that you could only do in one place." After deciding that he, too, would execute the assignment, Gilligan found himself in a gym and noticed that attached to one wall were several climbing bars, like shelves. He started rolling balls along the bars.

"That was really fun, when I first discovered it. I was happy when I built the prop for the piece I do. But it was really fun in the gym in Finland. I was like, 'That's awesome!' I did it for a half-hour. I came back the next day. I was completely happy," he says, then pauses for a moment to reflect. "I'm lucky that the audience sits here and enjoys it."

But more than just the thrill of creation, for Gilligan there is an allure to juggling, something that he can scarcely put words to, but that is innate to the art form. "You can express things that can't be expressed in any other way," he begins. "There are things that are uniquely juggling. You can never get this feeling, this aesthetic any other place--not in painting, not in nature."

And although there are artists who believe that juggling is barely a secondary art form--something that breaks up a serious theatrical work with comedy or with astonishing acts of dexterity--Gilligan believes it can occupy center stage all by itself. "Because juggling is inherently interesting in and of itself, it can be abstract art. You don't have to impose anything on it."

More important, he says, is that there is intelligent thought behind the moves. Often enough he's watched jugglers, usually younger ones, mimic performances of his that they've seen on video. And while he understands that videos are often the way jugglers are exposed to new ideas, it frustrates him that they often don't think about what they're doing, or why.

"There's Point A and Point B," Gilligan says, describing his current show. "It's a journey. Along the way I'm highlighting points that I find interesting. There's an emotional part to it. Like the five balls with the bass riff. It's not a particularly expressive, concrete deal. But if it makes people go with the image, they can."

It's because Gilligan's work is both intuitive and thoughtful that he is able to push the genre, stresses friend and producer John Rauser. "He's one of the best jugglers in the world. He does stuff that's really, really hard, that only a handful of people can do," Rauser says. But it's more than just technical ability, he continues. "Jay has virtuosic ability. The instrument doesn't get in the way. With musicians, they just think music, and it comes out. They're not intellectualizing, and it happens. Jay is like that with juggling and movement. He can throw a ball and know where it's going to be and go to it and go catch it. It sounds so simple. I can't describe how hard that is."

Although Gilligan uses his ability to push the boundaries (or at least the perceptions) of art, it's something he does, not something he thinks about. Again, it's the process of creating that interests him, not any overarching mission.

"I'm not out to make a statement that juggling's okay," he concludes, enunciating the words like a commandment. "If people like it, that's awesome. If they don't like it, that's awesome. I understand the people who don't think it's art. I think it is, and for now, that's enough for me. It's not so deep. It's just juggling."

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