As someone with no knowledge of juggling beyond the much applauded performances of enthusiastic jugglers at Swedish Swing Dance Camps, I merged into the audience at The Oxford Playhouse in September 2015 to see Gandini Juggling’s 4×4 (Empheral Architectures). Four ballet dancers, four jugglers, aesthetically enchanting and quite unlike anything I’d seen before. Co-choreographed by ex-Royal Ballet dancer turned choreographer Ludovic Ondiviela and Gandini Juggling’s Sean Gandini, simply said, I loved it. Awareness of the expertise of the performers in both disciplines skimmed barely discernible beneath the beauty of the piece – a combination of two languages brought together into something new and something I now recognise as a trademark ambition of the company.

Thomas J. M. Wilson’s book, designed to be dipped into with colour-coded sections, helps the reader to develop their knowledge of juggling and in particular the approach of Gandini Juggling and the environment from which it emerged. Echoing its subject matter, the book encourages you to create your own trajectories through the text. The merging of disciplines is in the very birth of the company, co-founded by a juggler (Sean Gandini) and a rhythmic gymnast (Kati Yla-Hokkala) who first met in the 1980s streets of Covent Garden, both curious to see how the languages of different disciplines (and in particular, dance) might blend into one performance language.

For the first decade, the company worked closely with contemporary dance choreographer, Gill Clarke, producing pieces with a pared-down aesthetic. The book is suffused with quotations from key people that give insights to their choices and thinking; the author aims to highlight the different voices of the performers, choreographers and inspirers whose collaborations and collisions with Gandini Juggling were so instrumental to its ethos and direction. Gill Clarke, who herself worked with choreographer Siobhan Davies, in explaining that ‘the moving objects extend the ‘choreography’ beyond the body’ (p.82) elaborates that ‘choreography is about three-dimensional space, going way beyond the body. When you are dealing with an object and having to pass it, somehow, it is a very real functional activity. So often, dance doesn’t seem real to me; so often, it seems like something decorative. The wonderful thing about juggling is it is real and, if you short-circuit the movement, the juggling co-ordination won’t work’ (p.83). The early Gandini Juggling work was also informed by the practices of Merce Cunningham with the deliberate isolation of juggling from music; ‘incidentals’ refers to the natural sounds of the thrown, moving and caught objects that establish their own soundscapes.

Following this last trajectory, for someone like myself with scant contact with the lexicon of juggling, the book offers guidance to key terms and definitions. Introductions to drops, dwell times and disruptions, caterpillars, cranes and causation and their ilk, no doubt familiar to inhabitants of the juggling world, allows the reader to become a more informed audience participant; ‘get-ins’ are compared to the ‘7,8’ pre-count for dance phrases, ‘inserts’ as linking steps between sequences.

A book of different voices, one of the most intriguing sections investigates the role played by mathematics in underpinning juggling and the development of the notation system ‘siteswap’. A siteswap is a string of numbers that define specific possible juggling patterns in terms of rhythm, relative heights, dwell time and throwing and landing sequences. The section is illustrated with siteswap diagrams that you can work through and page 242 has some more intricate siteswap patterns. Apparently a 12 hour DVD set details over 1,200 different siteswap patterns; for Gandini Juggling, the siteswap notation allows ingenious access to ever more creative inventions. The individual essays in the book are a strong feature. For example, Mike Day, a juggler and Cambridge mathematician long involved in siteswap and Gandini Juggling, writes on mathematics and performing, a foil for other essay offers.

Despite the larger font (welcomed after a day with my nose pressed against a computer screen), this attractively designed book, long in shape and peppered with photographs, is more informative than an initial perusal would suggest. For someone well versed in juggling? I can’t tell. For someone interested in the performing arts and movement and looking to gain more from watching a juggling performance of the calibre of the Gandini ensemble? Then yes. The index is useful for identifying different points in the text where any one of about 38 significant Gandini performance pieces are discussed, invaluable for pre-evening preparation. A two-page spread diagram (p.9-10) maps the chronological sequence of works to the colour-coded section themes (though the dark blue and dark green boxes are harder to read).

Juggling has its roots in three settings, namely circus, street art and vaudeville and variety. In explaining the Gandini approach, the co-founders persuade ‘when listening to music, one often forgets the degree of skill required to play the instruments and gets absorbed by the music produced. One wouldn’t dream of saying to a violinist ‘you played that music too smoothly; you should make it sound more difficult, build it up, save the fastest scales for last’. What happens if you radically change the accepted structure of a juggling performance? What happens if you don’t emphasise applause, don’t emphasise the difficulty of the tricks? What happens if you layer related and unrelated things together? What happens if you take the props away and look at it purely from a movement perspective?’ (Sean Gandini and Kati Yla-Hokkala 2013; cited p.62).

As one would expect from a company built in cross-discipline collaboration and exploration, the different phases celebrated within the 25 year span evolve on from contemporary dance to experiment with other forms. The recent piece I saw, 4×4 (Empheral Architectures) circles round to embrace the discipline of classical ballet. For Sean Gandini, ‘it seems ironic to me that when we started, the dance forms that we were exploring were closer to experimental dance, and that the journey has taken us to classical ballet. Some of the choreographers whose work we admire have done perhaps the opposite journey!’ (p.387).

From the descriptions in the book, I’d love to see ‘Remembering Rastelli’, an allegorical telling of the story of the 20th century’s greatest juggler filtered by the rise of Mussolini. But in truth, if Gandini Juggling come back to Oxford with any performance, I’ll be off to see them, better able to interpret what I see on stage and for that, all the more appreciative.

Jackie Clarke

Lindy hop and ballet dancer (of sorts)

23rd February 2017

Thomas J.M. Wilson (2016) Juggling trajectories. Gandini Juggling 1991-2015. London: Gandini.

ISBN 978-0-9955024-0-6 (hardback) £60.

ISBN 978-0-9955024-1-3 (paperback) £30.

You can purchase this book here