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.

David Kern

 

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.

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.

"I never intended it to be a career," Gilligan says. "Mostly because I enjoy it too much. I didn't want to turn it into a job." But after graduating from high school in 1995, Gilligan moved to Maine, where he worked and lived with two other jugglers. Together they made up Blink, a short-lived performance trio that fizzled in 1997. Gilligan returned to Ohio, where he enrolled at Bowling Green State University to study dance, a discipline that had captivated him since age 18, when he first saw a modern dance performance. "I was intrigued. I asked myself, 'Why do I juggle? Why do I like juggling so much?'" he recalls. "Juggling is not about tricks. It's about movement, it's pretty. Like dance. When I discovered that, it transformed me."

Yet after only a year and half in school he got a call from a world-renowned juggling group, the Gandini Juggling Project, asking him to move to London to perform with the troupe. He jumped at the opportunity; in the interim he had realized that studying dance wouldn't make him a better juggler--juggling would.

In 2000 the British government commissioned the Gandini troupe to perform a show twice daily at the Millennium Dome. The bureaucracy of the government-run Millennium Dome and the drear London living quickly got to Gilligan, and he and his girlfriend decided to move. "It was either Minneapolis or Oslo," he explains. Minneapolis won out for a couple of reasons: its relative proximity to both Ohio and Winnipeg, Gilligan's girlfriend's home; its active theater and arts community; and the juggling community, including the Minnesota Neverthriving's Jerry Martin, John Rauser, who has performed with Gilligan and produces his current show, and Ochen Kaylan, who performs the music.

Gilligan hasn't given up the rest of the world, though. Among his travels abroad last year was a trip to Paris; he was invited, as a member of "the next generation of juggling," to perform with personal heroes and icons of modern juggling like Sergei Ignatov, a preeminent Russian juggler, and Michael Moschen, an American artist who is considered the father of modern juggling. Over the winter he spent three months in Helsinki, teaching at circus school and performing in a traditional circus; his latest show was commissioned by a Finnish festival for experimental juggling and it premiered in January in Helsinki. This year Gilligan plans to go to Sweden and Finland in May, then France and Italy in June, then Finland again in the fall.

It seems that it's easier to be a juggler in Europe than in America. "People [here] see juggling and they think clown or mime," says fellow juggler Rauser. "These art forms aren't okay in America. Theater people, they don't want to identity with jugglers."

Still, there are signs that juggling--and other circus arts--could be undergoing at least a limited metamorphosis in popular culture. What were once considered strange pastimes for oddballs have reached a level of artfulness that is increasingly accepted by mass audiences.

Take the booming popularity of Cirque du Soleil, for instance. Founded in 1984, this modern, Montreal-based circus emphasizes music, drama, artistry, and acrobatics to create stylized performances. Some six million people each year attend its shows around the world. As Cirque du Soleil and other modern troupes popularize the notion of the circus as the European-style mixture of artistry rather than the animal-driven spectacles common in the United States, they also open the door to greater opportunities for jugglers like Gilligan.

Yet the idea of the circus as an artistic venture is still in its infancy in the United States. While there are circus schools in America--and even in the Twin Cities--they aren't considered a real training ground for a true performance art. Edina's Jugheads is an after-school program where kids can learn to juggle. Circus Juventas in St. Paul offers classes in the circus arts, a physical activity that appeals to kids who aren't into teams or competitions. There is also a circus-arts class taught to students in the Bachelor of Fine Arts Actor Training Program that's jointly run by the University of Minnesota and the Guthrie Theater.

That class is well known to Gilligan. He often tags along to get in some practice time (he'll methodically work on his technique for five-six-seven balls, then six-seven-eight rings). He'll also pause from his own work to help any of a dozen students learn a club trick or mount a unicycle, or just watch as they work on the trapeze. But even this class doesn't really aim to produce circus performers; rather, it's a way to help the students further their classical theater training.

"As actors, it's valuable," explains Scott Freeman, the director of the Actor Training Program. "It puts them in an arena where they have to risk." It helps them understand the relationships of their bodies to character, to props onstage. It builds teamwork. And while they seem to love it, Freeman stresses, "the point is not to turn them into circus performers."

Circus schools are both more common and more respected in Europe, Gilligan explains. "In Europe, there are circus schools all over," he says. "If you want to be a professional performer, you must go to circus school."

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.

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.

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!

"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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