The setting was sublime. Site of both the pre-show and public show, the Piazza Dante was eerily picturesque... A spacious old-world square charged with 21st century anticipation... Past pageantry merging with modern scaffolding, staging, sound and lighting...
Located in the heart of Verona's historical section with an immense statue of its solemn namesake presiding in the center, the cobblestoned square was surrounded by ornate buildings, majestic clock towers, inlaid carvings and medieval statuary. Symbolizing the spirit of the occasion, Dante's pensive posture was irreverently contradicted by a bouquet of helium balloons impishly tied to his outstretched hand.
True to form, the scheduled 4 p.m. dress rehearsal was endlessly postponed and finally abandoned entirely by about 8 p.m. By the time the acts got a chance to spot-test the lights there were already 3,000 spectators gathered, and by show time that number had swelled to about 5,000 (half of whom were conventioneers).
In an interesting blend of verbal and visual expressiveness, Lee Hayes (a transplanted American who currently resides in Amsterdam), agreed to 'compere' (emcee) the show with Kevin Brooking (another American expatriate).
"Good evening," Hayes began, first in Italian, then English, German and French. Meanwhile, despite the considerable humidity, Brooking stood shivering slightly at the foot of the stage, ludicrously attired in a huge winter coat, Cossack hat and heavy muffler. Peering shyly with his owl-like visage, Brooking slowly responded to the crowd's hushed astonishment by rubbing his hands and hugging his arms, knees trembling as if he were chilled to the bone. His expression implored, "Please help me get warm!"
Incredulity swiftly gave way to happy recognition and the crowd en masse began to clap. Reacting to the applause like an Arctic adventurer who just lit a fire, Brooking stepped back and held up his palms as if to let the warmth penetrate his numbness. Basking in the glow, he loosened his muffler, then reacted with shock when smoke began rising from his coat. With a hilarious expression of panic, he tore off his Cossack hat and began beating his coat, creating increasing billows of smoke. Then in swift succession there was a mock explosion, a wave of laughter from the audience and an eloquent exit. Without a word everything a performer could ever hope for from an audience had been convincingly communicated and firmly established.
The opening act was Boris Afanasier, a technically gifted Soviet juggler. Sticking with clubs, rings and large balls Afanasier compensated for some spotty five club work with incredibly rapid, intricate three club progressions and finished strong to enthusiastic applause.
In striking contrast, Dutch clown Mr. Jones provided some great comic counterpoint. After blindfolding his "silent partner Freddy" (a stuffed pig) and menacingly and adroitly cracking a long bullwhip, Mr. Jones so badly missed his mark that he smacked over a microphone stand, forcing the comperes to physically remove him and Freddy from the stage.
Next up was Nicholaus Holz, a former student of Todd Strong at the Chalons-sur-Marne circus school in France. Standing more than six feet tall with a bright red clown nose and bare feet ill-concealed by an undersized trench coat, Holz cautiously removed his black top hat and peeked inside. When he found a shiny red stage ball, the drama began. So did the music, a lilting, precisely composed piano solo that alternately soared and swooped.
Lifting juggling to a level of craft that for my music surpasses Michael Moschen (which I realize is saying a lot!), Holz is an agile alchemist, expertly blending pathos with comedy. As if the upper half of his body works in direct opposition to his lower limbs, the choreography forks off in two different directions. On top, his gangly torso and impossibly long arms whirl around his flat-top head like orangutan marionettes. Underneath it all and constantly threatening to usurp the clown's crown are a ballet dancer's nimble feet and graceful strides. Similarly striking one ball technique, solo hat skills, mime isolations, etc., vie with expressive visuals and an inspired frequently impassioned story line. Throughout the act the ingenious interplay between dance and clowning is given great emotional content by precise correlation with the musical score.
Holz told me later that being in front of so many fellow jugglers had given him such stage fright that he failed to execute cleanly several of his most exacting juggling moves. Yet even with periodic drops the transitions and overall structure involved such exquisite and highly original sequencing that the majority of the audience clearly appreciated their enormous difficulty.
Imagine going from standard head rolls to abruptly looking the crowd full in the face with the ball standing squarely in the center of your scalp. Add to this a quizzical look amounting to "Huh? Where did it go?!" Then he has the incredible control to quickly turn his head first to the left and suddenly dart it back around to the right, as if to surprise the vanished ball in its hiding place. All the while the inanimate subject of all these furtive glances sat perched almost mockingly right on top of its seeker's head. Control combined with character, topped off by such an accurately tossed top hat that after a double spin it simultaneously landed on his head and trapped the mischievous ball beneath it.
Finally, with a full foot extension reminiscent of Francis Brunn (and a wing span all his own!), Holz tucked his head forward, snatched the ball from the hollow of the hat in mid-descent and back-handed the hat brim, causing it to turn another 180 degrees to land flush on his right foot. As the piano struck its resolving chord, Holz triumphantly foot-flipped the hat high above his head and, leaping, speared it in mid-air.
Clearly it was a tough act to follow! Fortunately, Foolsproof (Rob and Linda Peck) for once really were foolproof in a flawless, but considerably less demanding skit of staged marital strife incorporating run-arounds, hat switches and prop takeaways.
Next up was Alexi, a Soviet standout devoting himself to the devil stick. Alexi was smooth and stylish with the standard centerstick manipulations, then progressively interwove more unique and increasingly difficult variations to culminate in a brilliantly accurate double devil stick finish.
In a delightful contrast to Alexi's unbending, almost martial music, Cindy Marvell's artfully choreographed three club routine was set to the title track of the musical "Cheek to Cheek." With Fred Astaire's nimble spirit emanating lyrically, Marvell's airy three club patterns perfectly matched the music while her seemingly effortless execution belied their technical complexity.
The next two acts featured Englishmen with different types of fire juggling. Chris, the first one, combined a classic English accent with some daring three and four torch throws while perched on a six-foot unicycle. Festival co-organizer Jules Howarth followed, skillfully presenting unaccompanied fire swinging with immense billows of flame fanning out from two of the widest wicks imaginable.
After the smoke cleared, Foolsproof returned with an acrobatically choreographed three club tango climaxing with a running leap frog take-away which they missed, but made the most of with a comic recovery. After two more unsuccessful attempts (and fortunately a few more successful drop lines and sight gags) the leap frog finally worked, as did the ending series of innovative behind the back catches. To the Peck's great relief, their persistence paid off.
Michael Menes began with four beach balls, then closed the first act with his trademark three ball routine to "Rootbeer Rag" and an artful five ring routine. The latter made ingenious use of the round shapes to suggest imagery ranging from ripples in a pond to a butterfly's wings.
The second act featured primarily Soviet and European performers whose names I either never learned, can't recall or couldn't begin to spell even if I did! First up was a wonderful tumbling and acrobatic trio composed of two men and a woman known collectively as Tridomi. Next was Alexi Chaposhnikov, whose style and choice of props strongly resembled his Soviet counterpart, Boris Afanasier, who opened act one.
In a compelling shift from Chaposhnikov's speedy numbers juggling, the next act featured a single staff dramatically manipulated in the manner of the Peking Opera by a striking Englishwoman named Rachel, ably accompanied by a trio of friends playing folk flutes and percussion.
Then came the dynamic duo of Dirk and Daniel. These two European men shared three American clubs with every conceivable takeaway and some truly unbelievable gymnastic teamwork and partner acrobatics. Not to be outdone, Mr. Jones and his faithful stuffed pig, Mr. Freddy, returned for some daredevil stunts of their own, providing some farfetched foolishness and timely comic relief.
Bereft of both stuffed pig and any desire to be funny, Michael Menes reappeared in black garb and, to minimalist music, performed his stark style of sharply delineated club swinging. Combining inventive, almost idiosyncratic movements with standard progressions, he produced a piece which was at once fluid, intensely personal and clinically correct.
Kapa Troyakova, the only woman in the troika of solo Soviet numbers jugglers, brought a lithe touch to the traditional props, infusing her routine with warmth, pixie charm and deft accuracy. In comic contrast, another solo woman performer named Tash presented a truly hilarious caricature of Mildred from Milwaukee (or somewhere in Wisconsin). After engaging the crowd in some spirited call and response (frequently rebuking them for their manners and schooling them on proper Midwest etiquette), Mildred stunned us by performing ball spinning on what appeared to be her bare breast!
Not quite as shocking, but equally mind-boggling, was the way Henry Camus closed the show by ball juggling and playing the piano simultaneously. Elegantly attired as the consummate concert soloist, Camus strode to the piano and slid unceremoniously off the bench and onto his butt! Camus, who hails from Brooklyn but now resides in Zurich, was aided, abetted and comically indebted to his slapstick sidekick, Bruno. Bruno is a deft Italian juggler who, along with Camus and occasionally Gabbi Schmutz, comprise the highly regarded troupe Fratelli Zucchini. With Bruno putting him through his paces, Camus played a classical number evenly alternating left-right tosses with one white stage ball. Soon he progressed to two balls, circling them in his right hand while his left laid down an infectious boogie-woogie bass line. Then he adroitly juggled the balls from right to left just in time to free his right hand and hammer the keys with ringing blues riffs.
For a finale, Camus and Bruno cleverly combined six clubs with at least as many languages. The result was a brilliant display of synchronized solo three club tricks and verbal gymnastics, providing a punch line for every nationality assembled.
European Juggling Association president Sue Hunt and vice president/emcee Lee Hayes kicked off a spirited encore by passing six clubs around His Honor, the Mayor of Verona. As the mayor flinched and the crowd roared, one by one the evening's performers formed a half-circle behind the passers. Each artist held a helium balloon in one hand and a luminous sparkler tied to the balloon's string in the other. When the cast was fully assembled, the passers finished smartly, his honor heaved a heavy sigh of relief and the entire cast released their helium balloons.
Picture a plethora of miniature Halley's comets soaring skyward in slow motion, buoyantly drifting over the Romanesque statues and medieval towers, transforming Piazza Dante into Disney West. The sound of the ovation, coupled with the sight of the sparklers' incandescent ascent, was truly euphoric, and a fitting climax to a spectacular public show.
Robert and Linda Peck comprise the husband and wife team, Foolsproof, currently living, laughing and learning in Northfield, Mass.