"The cigarette deal is OUT. Bring conservative cotton shirts to donate to the circus instead." Such were the final instructions issued by Haggis McLeod to a group of jugglers assembled at a preliminary meeting in Verona a week before their departure for the First International Juggling Festival held in Tbilisi, Georgia, last September.
We all looked forward to the trip, but had little idea what to expect beyond the spotty news reports of violent protests in the streets, overshadowed in the media by the Russian coup two weeks earlier. McLeod, an accomplished juggler and performer from England, reassured us that our hosts were still enthusiastically awaiting our arrival, and warned us to expect the unexpected in a country which just achieved independence from Moscow last April.
He described some of the moving experiences he had a few years ago while working as an actor with a Georgian theater troupe, an experience which inspired him to organize a juggling convention in conjunction with the Georgian State Circus.
A week later, almost all the 160 registered jugglers representing at least 17 countries from Wales to New Zealand managed to assemble at the airport in East Berlin, where we met American-turned-Dutch co-organizer Lee Hayes. The airport resembled a circus of sorts, as islands of juggling sprouted up amid piles of baggage and joyful reunions. The jubilant atmosphere continued on the plane to Moscow with club-passing blocking the aisles as people studied their Georgian language sheets. The majority of participants came from England and America, with large contingents from Spain and France.
Upon our arrival in Moscow we met with our first minor catastrophe: New Yorker-in-exile Alex Pape lost his passport en route to Berlin, and was taken into captivity by several uniformed immigration officers. The embassy was closed on Sunday, and there was nothing to be done but abandon him to his fate and hope he could follow the next day.
At the Moscow domestic airport the "We're not in Kansas anymore" phase of the trip began. Informed of a possible 10-hour delay, Frank Olivier and Jeff Daymont led a 3-ball workshop in the departure lounge. Henry Camus, Markus Markoni and others did some spontaneous busking for appreciative Russian travelers, while Ollie Crick from England entertained the jugglers with his inimitable sense of humor and mandolin playing. We arrived in Tbilisi at 3 a.m. to find the host families still waiting for us.
For many of us, the most memorable part of the trip was the host family experience. Since each person was assigned to a different family, everyone experienced the convention in a totally different way. At the airport I was introduced to my 19-year-old host, Sophie, and her younger brother George, a cherubic 11-year-old. George gallantly carried the luggage upstairs to an apartment where we were warmly greeted by Granny, who isn't really their grandmother but has become a permanent fixture in the house.
The apartment is surprisingly large and well-furnished, looking like the set from "Fanny and Alexander" with ornate lamps and cabinets everywhere. My room looks like a Renaissance period piece, although beneath the old-fashioned grandeur things seem a bit run-down. But the bed is heavenly zzzzzzz...
I caused great consternation among my hosts by washing my hair with the freezing cold faucet water instead of using boiled water from the stove. Georgians are famous for their hospitality, and breakfast is overwhelming. Granny gets up at dawn to make cheese bread, dumplings and special vegetarian dishes (bless her) from scratch. The Georgian specialty is a round, pizza-like loaf of bread about 3 inches thick and weighing several tons. Granny loves to see us eat as she bustles about, and won't let anyone leave the table without gaining a few pounds. Little George shows me how to sweeten the tea using various kinds of jelly (and, later in the week, champagne). He has learned quite a bit of English in school, and introduces me to his pet mouse, Zanzan.
Meanwhile, back at the circus building, the juggling portion of the convention is getting underway. Already the ring is overflowing with jugglers, and the Russians have arrived. No sooner has an orientation meeting been called than four Georgian acrobats descended from the ceiling and hovered above our heads from chords attached to their waists. They weaved various star shapes in the air as their coach shouted instructions from below. Later on in the week some Western jugglers tried it and found it more difficult than it looked.
McLeod, whose voice is pretty sore by now, introduces interpreters Zurab Revazishvili (who speaks English better than the English) and Guram Akhobadze, who spends the week racing around and trying to see that everything goes perfectly (he is often disappointed, but nobody seems to mind).
Nana Milkadze, the gracious artistic director of the circus, told us that the circus building is the second-oldest in the Soviet Union. Completely circular and surrounded by columns, it rises majestically above the city on a steep hill with a grand staircase leading up to it. The audience is seated all around the ring, making it a very atmospheric and intimate setting for performances. Unfortunately, the building has 19th century plumbing and is in need of some repairs, and now that the circus is no longer being subsidized by Moscow its future remains uncertain.
The daily program remained the same throughout the week, although most people chose to accompany their Georgian hosts on various excursions when the schedule permitted. Max and Susi Oddball of England so enjoyed their hosts' company that they disappeared with them for two days and returned with tales of a picturesque village in the mountains ("those lucky bastards!" McLeod commented).
Many hosts seemed puzzled by the convention format, not understanding why jugglers would want to spend time in the circus building unless they were required to.
Every afternoon there was an optional group excursion to the old city or a nearby 11th century church. Dinner was served in a makeshift dining hall nearby, and provided a nice opportunity for jugglers to socialize before returning for the evening show. Dinners were rather sparse, although the meat was a luxury by Georgian standards. The vegetarians (about 95% of the group) were stuck with bread and tomatoes for both lunch and supper. The concept of vegetarianism was non-existent, as evidenced by the cooks' earnest assurances that they would try to prepare dishes "with less meat in them."
This time I take a proper Georgian shower using the scoop method. Sophie offers to take in English juggler par excellence Sean Gandini, one of 10 people who ended up with no host family and stayed in a hotel the first night (for details, ask the survivors). This evening there is a parade, modified to a gathering in a crowded square to avoid the demonstrations.
On the way there I talked with Mikhail Staroseletsky, who yanked me away from the unpredictable Tbilisi traffic whenever I became too absorbed in the conversation. Among the Russian jugglers in attendance, Staroseletsky is unique in that he is a dentist by profession and only juggles as a hobby. In spite of this, he displayed some of the best technical juggling seen at the convention. This was the first time he has had contact with other jugglers, and he spent the week in a juggling paradise. Earlier that day he gave a demonstration to an appreciative ring-full of jugglers in preparation for the public show.
He begins with an innovative and mostly indescribable routine involving a tennis racket and up to five balls, working up to a half shower with the racket used in place of his hand. His smoothness and consistency with five and seven-ball pirouettes was very impressive, especially to those of us who attempted to keep aloft the large but very light-weight orange balls he uses. Like all the Russians, he makes his own clubs but has a slower, more controlled style, methodically placing them in the air rather than flinging them ahead of time. Staroseletsky comes from Kazakhstan and his dream is to attend an IJA convention.
When we arrived at the games, Staroseletsky attempted club passing for the first time while veterans attempted to pass across a murky fountain in the center of the square and hold the curious spectators at bay. As darkness approached, Alexis Lee awed the crowds with a dramatic display of fire eating and Otto Weizzenegger dazzled everyone with his spark-shooting fire diabolo. Maike Aerden and Rex Boyd left the group scene to do some street performing and met with great success just inches from the demonstrations.
After the games, Sophie took me and Gandini to her friend Thea's birthday party, where we got to sample (abundantly) the famous Georgian champagne amid many toasts.
The news of the day is that Alex Pape actually arrived at the convention after a three-day adventure in Moscow immigration. Lumped in with about 25 Kurdish refugees who left Baghdad on foot to escape Saddam Hussein, Pape became good friends with a family who camped in a corridor for seven months before a Swedish family offered to take them in. "I'm kind of glad to have made it here, but it was so sad saying good-bye," said the exhausted devil-stick wizard.
For the most part, Western visitors are treated specially, but no one can visit Tbilisi without experiencing some of the frustration with the system which has become a part of everyday life for the Georgians. People work hard to keep up appearances despite the shortages, or utter lack of the most commonplace products (clothing, razors, shampoo, etc.). It is not uncommon to find a large store with only one item lining the shelves, such as salty mineral water. Bread can be found easily enough if you know where and when to shop for it. Fruit and vegetables come from farmer's trucks which pull in on Saturdays. People line up with enough luggage for several weeks and begin loading up on eggplants, tomatoes, grapes and pears. With perseverance, things like coffee, sugar and chewing gum can be found, but they are considered delicacies.
Sophie avoided discussing the political situation, but a friend of hers who works for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs tried to explain the complexities underlying the constant demonstrations. Rostavelli Prospect, Tbilisi's main street, has been barricaded since Soviet troops fired on a crowd of protesters two years ago, killing 16 teenage girls. There are two groups of demonstrators: those who support Georgia's recently elected president and are in favor of independence, and those known as the "oppressors" who want to force the president out of office and re-establish some of the old ties with Moscow. Sophie's family is in the majority in their support of the charismatic president, and think the others are just stirring up trouble and threatening the newly won independence.
The National Guard is split between the two groups, and the Georgian police seemed to be joining in the debates. There are also two groups of hunger strikers, though they do not oppose each other. One demands freedom for political prisoners, while the other favors a return to normalcy.
The atmosphere was strained but mellow during our visit, but five people were killed in violence a few days after we left. Most residents have become so accustomed to the barricade - which resembles the set from Les Miserables - that they drive around it without giving it a second thought.
Under these conditions the very existence of the Georgian Circus is impressive, and we were treated to a performance that night. Georgian juggler Odesia opened the show with a technical juggling act including a five-ball start, seven rings and a three-club kick-up. There was also roller skating, chair balancing, an equestrian act and a very dramatic contortionist.
The grand finale, to the music of 2001 Space Odyssey, featured the flying act which we saw on the first day, this time wearing luminescent space suits. The lights had to be turned on for a moment when one of the fliers literally became lost in space and had to be rescued from the ceiling. The polished cradle act remained poised even when the lights went out unexpectedly. It was evident that the circus had suffered from recent events, but Ollie Crick insisted that aside from the hiccoughs, the finale was the best circus act he had seen in years.
That night Sophie took us to a tea party where we met her real grandmother, her uncle and a cousin who plans to move to New York to practice dentistry. All spoke English and were eager to hear descriptions of the economic situation in America. Terms like "recession" and "inflation" seemed meaningless compared to the shortages they experience daily, and it is difficult to convince Georgians that for many Americans the picture is not as rosy as it seems from a distance.
Everyone noticed a high turn-out of female jugglers in Tbilisi. On the convention floor, Anna Bahler from Switzerland sparkled as she practiced some intricate and graceful three club variations, while Susi Oddball kept countless passing patterns afloat.
Among the Eastern delegation, I found Sasha from Latvia to be most intriguing. She is from Riga but currently attends the Moscow Circus School, where she has spent the last year rehearsing from 8 a.m. - 6 p.m. each day. After that she works at home with a mirror for another hour, developing the mime skills which she wants to incorporate into her act. The Georgian convention was a sort of holiday for her. While the other Russians practiced -vigorously during their allotted times, she hung around the outside of the ring and lackadaisically tossed 6 yellow balls or played with three clubs.
Later she confessed her frustration with the daily practice routine, saying that it limited her creative development and natural practice rhythm. Sasha speaks quite a bit of English, but conversations tended to deteriorate into spontaneous pantomime routines. She enjoyed being the class clown in Moscow, but took her work very seriously. "I like to meet people's eyes and make them smile - that is most important," she said. Her wish: to come to America, of course.
That afternoon Karen Quest led 25 of us on a "girls only" excursion to the Turkish baths. Before entering the colorful building, the group juggled outside around the brick domes in an attempt to sell tickets for the final show. Sandy Johnson made many friends with her clowning and balloon animals, and the indefatigable Mikhail Staroseletsky joined in the juggling. Once inside, many were confused by the underground corridors and ended up with no more than a hot shower, but a few found their way to the marble baths.
That night the first of three public shows took place in the circus building, with McLeod in traditional Georgian costume serving as ringmaster. For the visiting jugglers, it was a challenge to adapt their acts to the circus ring. Many were helped by the band, whose jazzy tunes could be heard throughout the week. Jeff Daymont used the opportunity to add more movement to his impossible cigar box tricks. Fellow Kansan Rex Boyd grooved his way through a funky fire-swinging routine and engaged the audience with some Georgian vocabulary. Frank Olivier relied on the force of his personality and performed some of his trademark pieces. Twelve-year-old Jessica Sheldrick, who came from Yorkshire with her father, braved the carpeted arena in a classy unicycle duet. Cliff, Mary, and little Mary Spenger provided true family entertainment, culminating in a 3 person high shoulder stand with 3-year-old Mary on top.
In one of the more creative acts, the multi-talented Henry Camus played original piano music while Sean Gandini danced through an ethereal three-ball piece. Camus then followed with his own style of inventive club juggling. Lee Hayes took a break from his convention duties to perform with Fritz Brehm and his giant umbrellas.
The Russian jugglers performed fast-paced routines which exhibited their incredible skills. Oleg Tchapum dressed as a matador and fought the battle against gravity with large numbers of clubs and rings (he did 5-club flats in practice). Albert Arslanov from Siberia did an unusual routine in which he caught one pole on top of another in increasingly far-fetched ways. His stage presence and infectious smile were so energetic that the audience enjoyed the repeated attempts at nailing new moves. He also used a dagger as a mouthstick, catching objects on the edge of the blade, and made many friends throughout the convention.
Mikhail Staroseletsky's practicing paid off. While most acts suffered from a catching shortage, he was virtually flawless, his look of intense concentration never wavering. At one point he kept aloft two large balls, two rings, and a tennis racket, and finished by running across the ring while doing five club backcrosses. The good-natured sextet Ashvitz, composed of three men and three women, seemed to enjoy their work as they began with four clubs each and then filled the ring with precise passing variations. Their choreography was simple but very effective. It ended with the leader Sergei attempting to catch all the clubs in a net - Frank Olivier took a try and was bombarded as the pace speeded up.
The show came to an exciting close with Sergei Zobolotini, who performed innovative hat and cane manipulations with a snazzy style. By hitting the rim of the hat with the canes he created a floating effect similar to that introduced by old vaudevillian Mel Ody. With one cane in each hand, he then juggled up to four hats by catching them on the ends.
Sophie's extended family turned out to cheer us on, and after the show her cousin drove us up a nearby mountain to experience a magical force which, legend says, causes empty cars to roll up a slight incline. It worked!
I went on the group excursion to a Byzantine church in the mountains. Our chaperons were eager to bring us back right away, but when chants of "Corn bread and bean soup!" threatened to lift the roof of the bus, they let us stop at an outdoor restaurant for 24 minutes for the best meal of the week.
The show was similar to Thursday's with several notable additions. Maike Aerden from Holland captivated the audience with her radiant presentation of silky smooth diabolo variations. She moved gracefully around the entire ring and finished by jumping over the string six times. Tim Furst of the Flying Karamazov Brothers (every trip should have one) joined in a torch swinging quartet and Canadian Raymond Bolduc presented an original three-ball routine. Karen Quest used whip-cracking to split some hard-to-find Georgian spaghetti. Crowd favorite Markus Markoni won the audience's hearts with his whimsical clown character and gave his young volunteer a memory to cherish.
The Georgian organizers had hoped to sell enough tickets for the final show to fill the gigantic Sportspalace, an uninspiring venue compared to the atmospheric circus building. But the cavernous void was sparsely filled, and the acts ended up struggling to project across a cavernous void to a drained and dwindling audience. One of the visually effective moments was the opening, in which all the jugglers entered in practiced formations carrying their country's flags.
It shortly became a comedy of errors with a stage that resembled an obstacle course, a quartet which became a trio when it was discovered that one of the members had left on an earlier plane, and an accidental fire on the gym floor.
Saturday night's chaos was replaced by a beautifully organized farewell banquet in a hotel overlooking the city. Jugglers and their hosts feasted and toasted for five hours. The biggest "gamarjos" went to McLeod and Hayes for organizing the event, which was very affordable for the jugglers even though the price didn't cover the costs. McLeod plans to hold another Tbilisi festival next year, and a convention in Siberia is also in the works.
The week was filled with camaraderie. One person said, "Everyone was made to feel special regardless of the skills they possessed." Many were changed by the experience and plan to keep in touch with their host families.
And no one will forget the very last toast, which took place in Red Square at 3 am. en route to the Moscow airport. For a brief period, juggling filled the otherwise silent square, completely deserted except for straight-faced guards in front of Lenin's tomb. They must have found the sight surreal as jugglers paraded around and chanted for "Independent Georgia." We left behind a jug of Georgian wine so they would know it was not a dream.
Cindy Marvell is 1990 IJA Seniors Champion currently performing with the Pickle Family Circus in California.