Francis Brunn's finish trick.
Francis Brunn looks forward to the 50th year of his show business career with the same artistic enthusiasm that launched him into a lifetime of physical manipulation.
Sidelined from his performances at the Lido in Paris for several weeks last September by a pulled muscle in his leg, he released the energy he normally expends in the show in a Juggler's World interview. The tone of his speech revealed both satisfaction with his 47 years as a professional juggler and a desire to accomplish still more with his artistry.
Brunn's career demonstrates artistic maturity at its finest. His act has changed over the years in accordance with his instincts and capability. He still attack his work with enthusiasm and care.
Working with his sister Lotte from 1939 to 1948 in Europe and with the Ringling circus in America until 1951, he dazzled audiences with speed and up to 10 rings in performance. But in the late 1950's he felt a strong pull in a different direction. He went night after night to watch the performance of a flamenco dancer named Antonio, admiring the power of his carefully controlled motion and poses.
He began changing his own act, but as he recalls it, the transition was frightening. "My new opening was just standing in the spotlight. I almost started shaking because I wasn't doing anything, I wasn't moving. It was very hard to go from doing all these crazy things to doing nothing, but once I got a feel for it I found it was more interesting to the audience.
"Previously in the first two or three minutes of my act I did lots of things and the audience knew then I could do anything, but it wasn't interesting to them after that."
He found the challenge of learning a higher degree of control extremely stimulating. "One of my new moves was to bounce one ball on my head, but I did it in such a way that the audience saw the ball move but not my body. I worked for absolute control over it like I was inside the ball."
His act today is designed to mesmerize an audience. "For me silence is success," he said. "If someone comes backstage and says I had a good audience I know I did not do well, but if they say it was a bad audience I know I've done well. When they don't react at the moment I know I've made a lasting impression.
"There is one trick where I am spinning a ball on a finger of my right hand and holding another on the back of my neck. I roll it down my back and kick it with my heel over my head to a dead-on balance on the spinning ball. When I hit it perfectly it's deadly to the audience. They're speechless."
Time and wear-and-tear have slowed him somewhat. "The injuries have slowed me down," he admitted. Then with a laugh he added, "Nothing else could have!"
But rather than retreating to perform simpler material, he has responded with greater precision in his movement. "I don't think of adding tricks anymore, but of eliminating things and doing more with what I already know."
The serious face he shows audiences is reflected in his devotion to a strict training regimen. He rehearses 90 minutes each afternoon, then 45 minutes again about 90 minutes before each show. During the remaining time before his number, he puts on makeup and stretches. He has had several operations, but always resumed practice sessions as quickly as possible. "Four days after I had my osteotomy in 1976 I started working on balancing on ball on another on a mouthstick as I sat up in the hospital bed," he recalls.
Another bad time was the death of his father in 1980. It put him in a deep depression and prompted him to think about retirement. "But I didn't know what else to do, I have no other interests," he said. "I know every act and every manager in the business, so I could be a manager but that would be horrible! I could open a juggling school but I would be a horrible teacher, too! So, I kept working."
He has found fresh impetus during the past few years through his relationship with Nathalie Enterline, a 25-year-old dancer with baton and hat who also appears on the Lido showbill. Besides her solo, Enterline plays the vital role of his on-stage assistant. Most viewers of the show hardly notice her, but Brunn says the four assistants he has employed on stage during his career have played a critical role in his performance.
Francis Brunn with assistant Nathalie Enterline
"I began performing with Lotte and still today I must have a partner. She is almost invisible to the audience but essential to me. She must feed me the props very precisely, they must come at just the right moment. It takes a long time for someone to learn the rhythm of the act. When it is right we are almost like a dance team."
The first night Enterline assisted Brunn was in an emergency situation in 1980. He gave her the cues as they rode in a car to the performance. When the time came in the act for her to toss him six hoops he turned toward her and she threw them right by him and they clattered away on the other side of the stage. "It was the funniest thing I ever saw!" he said.
Brunn has fashioned his own career while paying very little attention to other jugglers. In 1936 his father, owner of three thriving restaurants in Darmstadt, Germany, and a former national diving champion, took his son to see a stage show, "Menschen, Tieren, Sensationen," in Berlin.
Brunn said he decided then and there he wanted to be a juggler rather than follow his father's entrepreneurial footsteps. He badgered his father into letting him attend a performing arts school, then gave his first performance with Lotte in 1939 in The Sun restaurant in Rossdorf. It was full of gymnastics and action. "We probably loved it more than the audience," he said. "I was so fast in my pirouettes that sometimes I lost the audience and ended up bowing to the orchestra! We were a big success from the beginning.
"For me juggling was like a toy. We had plenty of money and I didn't have to do it, but I wanted to do it. For me it was an adventure when I began, and still is such today."
But the entertainment world around him has changed drastically since Brunn broke into the business. As nightclubs and circus declined, television has created an entertainment medium that emphasizes the bizarre rather than the artistic. While he doesn't agree with the style, he refuses to pass judgment against it.
"Nothing makes sense in entertainment today," he said. "People are doing awful things but getting away with it because they have guts. Maybe I'm square, but the world seems crazy. Look at Tiny Tim. He made millions but he gave me a headache! But because it's crazy it's a success. Years ago he would have been arrested but today he's getting away with murder."
While he acknowledges that his own road to artistic satisfaction passes through a phase of numbers juggling, today he looks at juggling as athletic endeavor with disinterest. "In the beginning my idea was to juggle eight rings because I knew Rastelli juggled eight plates. I was in the Guinness book for two years when I was a kid and I was proud of that. But there weren't so many jugglers then. Where will it all end? I don't think we've reached the limit in numbers yet, but I don't think much about numbers any more.
"I can understand why a man wants to run the fastest 100 meters, but I don't believe in juggling competitions. It's like seeing who could paint the fastest painting!"
What he seems to be saying is that while "more" played a role in early motivation, the word "better" was what counted in the end. In an interview at age 19, he said he figured he would give up juggling by age 25. Now, 50 years later, he sees no end to his juggling career. Instead, he dreams of gathering a small company of skilled friends to create a theatre production choreographed around their combined talents. It's just another step forward for a great artist.