(Dona Compton photo)
The scene is the "Sensations of '86" show at the IJA's 1986 convention in San Jose, Calif. A guy from New Jersey has been introduced. Few expect anything spectacular, but many are soon thrilled with Michael Menes' three ball poetics.
Displaying imaginative use of hands and body, the routine weaves its way through playfulness, absurdity, innocence and picture-perfect virtuosity. It's as if he has written the book on the unlimited possibilities of three ball artistic manipulation. The final pages are eloquent, with a flurry of bounces between the legs while dancing. Then everything draws together into a nonchalant pose with the three balls together, the music ending precisely at that point. The audience jumps to its feet in roaring applause.
(Jim Moore photo)
It's new for the audience, but it's the result of 10 years juggling experience and study under the likes of Michael Moschen and Tony Montanero for 24-year-old Menes. Juggler's World caught up with him at his home in Mendham, New Jersey, where he is performing and writing. An interview follows:
JW: The only other standing ovation that night in San Jose was for Anthony Gatto in the U.S. Nationals. What did you think of your performance?
MM: It's funny, because I often don't think of myself as a juggler at all. When I go to conventions I get intimidated. I often think, "Glad I'm not a juggler, that looks too hard!" I try to keep in mind that there is a very big difference between "doing something impressive" and "leaving an impression." The things which leave an impression are often, but not necessarily, easier than the things which are impressive.
My three ball routine is somewhat of an illusion. The juggling in it isn't that hard compared to what some other people are doing. But I'm juggling many parts of the body in different positions juxtaposed to the three objects. If you consider the body as a juggling prop, then I suppose I am a juggler and it is really a four object routine!
I'm writing a book called Juggling and the Theory of Relativity covering methods I use -- architectural/choreographic secrets, emotional pace-changing, performance secrets and psycho-physical performance.
(Dona Compton photo)
JW: Tell us more about the book.
MM: Writing a book, I'm learning, is a lot like a well-thought-out juggling routine. It takes a lot of reworking, care and affection. I enjoy writing. It's something I'm compelled to do constantly. I keep writing on different subjects -- training, the craft and performing, the business end of things. I tend to write about the things which I believe will help to organize and reinforce things which are valuable to me.
JW: Is it safe to say your writing reflects a certain philosophy?
MM: Yes, but philosophy is a dangerous word. I've attempted to keep my teaching and writing non-technical, simple and straightforward. My goal is to go through general principals and end up with useful tools in concrete and practical situations.
The book is aimed at juggling as a starting point and as a metaphor. I hope that I can have the book come together in such a way that it can be useful to people even outside of literal juggling circles, those who have to juggle problems, people and circumstance. In that way I hope to tap a larger market and bring juggling to the masses by using it as a figurative model.
(Dona Compton photo)
JW: What do you think of the work of most jugglers today?
MM: I've learned to avoid crusading for a cause. I think that if I can focus on my work and be responsible for making it top quality that those kinds of questions will be answered as time goes on by what many people perceive as valuable. I will say that I think jugglers, no matter what level they are on, have a nice quality of being able to face up to humility. Juggling is a very confronting discipline. When you drop, you drop. In other disciplines you can get away with being sloppy or fooling yourself. Juggling, rope walking, unicycling, stilt walking, these are all warrior disciplines. They take something extra.
JW: Some people in San Jose wondered why you didn't compete in the U.S. Nationals? Why didn't you?
MM: My primary reason has been the videotaping policy, combined with the precarious and controversial atmosphere. Juggling is difficult to define and is subject to the discretion of the judges. I don't think that judges should be the ones to decide what good juggling is. I think all jugglers and people should. I base my score on the amount of enthusiasm that the juggling cultivates, not on how many objects I perform.
I also think the fact that competitors have to agree to videotaping undermines a quality atmosphere in the jugglers' world and increases the tendency that the finite market will be tainted for that performer through copy cats. If someone has a routine which has elements of trademark moves and personally crafted choreography, the policy is at the very least inconsiderate. I've been trying to set an example by taking a stand on the matter. Like I said earlier, though, I don't like crusading. I have to deal with the reality of less sophisticated attitudes about copyrighted material and decide what is in my best interest in lieu of the situation.
JW: Does that mean you might be competing at some point?
MM: It's possible.
JW: What are your long term goals, and what are you doing in New Jersey beside your writing projects?
MM: I have been awarded an Interdisciplinary Fellowship Grant from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts to develop concert material and promote my career. Last April I performed a full concert of juggling mixed with vaudeville-style sketches, silent theatre, storytelling, unicycling, dance, and multi-image projection to music I composed. I'm pioneering somewhat the context in which juggling is viewed.
However, the future is hard to predict. There are many things I'd like to do, but time is short. I'm keeping my eyes peeled to develop intimate work with props in a completely neutral performance space. In theatrical jargon it is known as the "black-box performance space." I would like eventually to work in my own space of this kind, to develop a core of creative people and to set in motion lengthier workshops in juggling, theatre and self-exploration.
Ideas always go on to bigger and better ideas and now I've incorporated my network of associates as the Alternate Routes Theatre -- not a theatre company, but an arena of alternative thinking and creativity. Juggling can be a limited thing to speak of and I've got a little bit more up my sleeves. At the same time, simplicity is of the essence, and the world being what it is, I'm taking it one day at a time, enjoying the performing, the people, the traveling and the applause.