A summer evening in Boulder, Colorado. The mountains provide a backdrop for the city, and downtown on the Pearl Street Mall, late night shoppers and strollers enjoy the bookstores, restaurants and cafes. Along the mall, various street entertainers have set up shop. Jugglers, mimes, clowns and magicians vie for passing attention.
In the middle of the block, however, is an enormous crowd of children and adults, laughing and cheering, and seemingly encamped on the sidewalk. At the center of the crowd, inevitably, is Airjazz.
Airjazz is the three-person team of Kezia Tenenbaum, Jon Held and Peter Davison. As a team they have won an IJA Team Championship and established a national reputation, while keeping Boulder as their home base for developing their work...
A winter evening in Boulder. The mountains are snow covered, and the downtown mall is now the home of ice sculptures and snow creatures. In a small house on Boulder's north side, Airjazz talked about their work past, present and future.
Coming from different backgrounds and locations, the trio first met at the IJA convention in Eugene, Oregon, in 1978. In 1980 they had all settled in Boulder, though they didn't begin working together as Airjazz until the end of 1981 or, depending on who is telling the story, the beginning of 1982. The actual beginnings of the company are mixed with their work with other jugglers, jobs and teaching stints. But at some point...
Kezia: The three of us said, "let's do it." We were just going to do it for birthday parties.
Jon: No, wait. Was it just that we were going to do it for birthday parties? We were going to try to stay together then... to build some sort of reputation.
Kezia: It was looser.
Peter: It wasn't a big commitment at the time.
Jon: We could've left then? Now it's too late!
Kezia: This was in February of 1982.
Jon: February 18th.
Kezia: We put the club routine together in about two days.
Jon: Two weeks.
Peter: The important event that happened for us at that time was the Colorado Dance Festival.
Kezia: Before that it was all street performing. The point is, that is where our roots are. And now we're really far from that. Anyway, the Colorado Dance Festival.
Jon: We auditioned, I don't know why... somebody asked us to. And we're a juggling act... what are we doing here? But they talked us into it. So, we got into the festival, and performed in the festival, and there were these articles saying "Is it juggling?" "Is it dance?" It was sort of a controversial thing.
Kezia: And it made us begin to think about what we were.
Jon: We always had ideas about that anyway, but this really made it go a lot faster.
Peter: Using a lot more choreography and design of our bodies. It was working in that format with modern dance groups... more of an arts setting, as opposed to purely an "entertainment" format that we got inspired about. Using our juggling skills but not just being another street juggling act or another comedy juggling act.
Kezia: Because we're not really either of those things. Our street show was always different from anybody else's. It never really worked. I mean, it works now...
Jon: Wait, wait! Clarify "It never really worked."
Kezia: It works now, but it didn't work at first, because we were so visual. It didn't have the broad super comedy.
Peter: A lot of the stuff was really subtle, you know, subtle visual humor.
Kezia: Yeah, it was almost "wrong" for a street act, I always thought. I'm talking specifically of our work at the very beginning. Actually before we were really working with Jon.
Jon: Right! It took me to come in to feed...
Kezia: You have a great different energy.
Peter: So as we've developed, we've incorporated a lot of dance, and incorporated a lot of different ideas into our pieces that aren't traditionally in juggling or dance.
Jon: The funny thing is, though, that we have a really good "Vegas" act that we can perform. We're trying to get rid of that reputation because people associate us with that, and only want to hire us for that.
Kezia: Fortunately we make our money from that.
Peter: We'll do 15 minutes and that's how we make our money.
Kezia: So after we got together, for the next couple of years, we worked at this... do you say "dichotomy?"
Jon: Yeah! Yeah! Use it!
Kezia: Anyway, we worked in these two different directions. We had our street act which was making us money, and then we had these visions of other things, ever since the dance festival. So then it was very difficult for a long time with these two paths, because nobody wanted to recognize our more "obscure" side, with dance and all.
Jon: So then what happened was that the street stuff and the stuff we were doing... the other stuff... merged into the thing that became the super good Vegas act, but then the stuff we really want to do hasn't been merged with that... the more theatrical, subtler, more esoteric stuff... more involved. You sort of have to think to watch it. It's not just a visual presentation. I mean, it's skill, but... anyway...
Kezia: How many unfinished sentences in that paragraph?
Peter: Some of the things that we're doing now are quite abstract. One piece that we do where we each have one ball. Well, you can't very well say that we're juggling in the usual sense, because we each have only one ball.
Jon: But it's juggling in the sense of manipulation. We have a number of pieces where we never juggle like in the cascade, but everything we do has objects that are manipulated in various ways... so that skill is always there.
Peter: It's the ideas behind the pieces that are not traditional as far as juggling goes. One piece we have called "Forest" is with long bamboo poles. It's a 15-minute piece, but there's really not a story with characters in the usual sense. But it's very theatrical and there are images that you can see are developed. And there's a kind of message at the end.
Kezia: This is a strange time for us. We've been working really hard all year. We've been performing a lot all over the place. We put together two different experimental concerts. One with a group of other jugglers. That was very experimental! And right now what's happening is that Peter and I are dancing a whole lot. We're doing ballet and both taking classes and performing. And Jon.. what are you doing, Jon?
Jon: I ride my bike a lot.
Kezia: So, actually, it's a weird time for us right now.
Peter: Our show's kind of like a lot of really flashy juggling that anybody can enjoy in the usual way, and then the other half of the show takes a certain amount of thought. Somebody who comes and brings their kids and thinks that it's going to be a clown show is kind of taken aback. I think we're sort of in between right now.
Jon: I see us travelling and touring for part of the year, but always having part of the year to be here, developing new stuff. As opposed to always touring and doing basically the same show.
Peter: It takes a long time. So right now, the way I look at what we're doing, we're half-way there. It's like when we were at the dance festival we said, "Here's a direction we can go in." And we started then, and that was a few years ago. It's a long process, it's not just, "Oh, here's something we can do, a whole new art form."
Kezia: That's an interesting point. We just performed at the New Vaudeville Festival in San Francisco. There was a lot of discussion about that.
Peter: From a performer's point of view the term "New Vaudeville" doesn't really mean anything.
Jon: But it helps people who would ordinarily just be watching television. They need a label for us.
Kezia: In fact, it helps us to get bookings, and we might have to start using it even more. You guys think so?
Jon: It seems like a "marked" term. After a while people will start saying "What kind of New Vaudeville?"
Peter: I think we will develop beyond where we are now, whether the label is there or not.
(Joel Fink is a professor of theatre at the University of Colorado in Boulder.)