Juggler's World: Vol. 43, No. 4

In Verona They Speak English

by Robert Peck

Actually, most natives prefer "l'italiano," but there were precious few Italian jugglers in Verona. Among the 2,000-plus participants at the 14th European Jugglers Convention, the great majority came from German-speaking countries and possessed an excellent command of the English language. The second-most numerous contingent of jugglers, and the convention organizers, all hailed from British soil.

So it's easy to see why English became the convention's common language. Needless to say, this made the European experience a lot less foreign than most of us American first-timers expected.

Language aside, there were major differences from IJA festivals. Some were hard to swallow. Imagine no juniors, intermediate, senior or teams championships!

But also imagine one of the world's greatest juggling bargains! For starters, $23 and change got you a gym pass, access to all workshops, open stages and shows, the chance to participate in the games, plus four nights lodging... and a blue kazoo.

Symbolic of the European Juggling Association's determinedly unconventional style, the kazoo served simultaneously as proof of registration, daily entrance pass and irresistible invitation to collective improvisation on bus rides, between games, during intermissions, etc. Miraculously, even rowdy and raucous jugglers didn't choose to abuse their kazoos during performances or largely ad-libbed demonstrations at either the official Public Show (Saturday night) the Pre-Public Show (Friday night), the opening Celebratory Cabaret (Thursday night) or the final Renegade Show (Sunday night).

Unlike an IJA festival package plan, the $23 registration didn't include a Welcome Party, dance, T-shirt, etc. However, it did provide unlimited use of myriad gym locker rooms replete with storage space and showers, and virtually free admission to what had to be one of the world's longest, widest, most sparklingly fresh outdoor swimming pools... plus a marvelously equipped morning-till-midnight day care center.

But, "Surprise! Surprise!" There were a few pitfalls along the pathways to paradise. Suffice it to say not everything in Italy "fonctione" properly. Perhaps inexpense inevitably entails some inconvenience. While meals were moderately priced, the choice was minimal and most were mediocre. Lodging was a foam mattress on the floor of classrooms converted into 20-to-60-person coed dormitory. Many vets came prepared and took advantage of the numerous nearby campgrounds for both tents and trailers.

Going to the bathroom also involved an element of roughing it. Instead of sitting on a toilet seat one had to straddle a dank, increasingly odiferous hole. Even as one became adept at squatting, the possibility of not finding any toilet paper became more ominous as the weekend wore on.

On the brighter side, workshops in a wide variety of props and juggling related areas were offered daily. Convention organizers Doug Orton and Jules Howarth and the volunteers saw to it that every available space was utilized, resulting in over five different workshop locations.

Workshops were, however, a bit haphazard. Scheduling became a function of whoever showed up and was willing to teach. Most offerings weren't announced until the day they were offered, and posted only on a maze of hand-lettered poster-sized placards taped on to a big pillar outside the gym or along the back wall of the typically mobbed main registration tent.

In fairness, Chris, who graciously volunteered at the eleventh hour to fill the void of workshop coordinator, did a great job of ferreting out and rallying interest among potential teachers. The menu of workshops included some creative offerings, such as one club manipulation, three and four ball multiplex, mime and clowning, creative movement and dance, comic recoveries (a.k.a. Drop Shop), flying trapeze, shiatsu massage, meditation and lasso.

The convention leadership was resourceful in trying to boost the feeble involvement of the locals. Rather than bemoan the dearth of Italian jugglers in general, Howarth and Orton made it one of their aims to subtly spread the joy of juggling among the native populace. To this end they worked with Chris to insure that the introductory three ball juggling and basic balancing workshops were "simulcast" in Italian.

The majority of the workshop leaders at the European convention actually came from America. Dan Holzman taught a very concise, carefully constructed beginners hat workshop, culminating in a simple but instructive one hat routine performed in unison. At the end Linda Peck helped demonstrate several different segues, grip switches and stylistic variations.

Holzman also led a well-attended demonstration of devil-sticking and an even larger advanced three ball demonstration. Several Europeans came up and showed highly skilled, oddly original or otherwise inspiring variations with the devil stick. Noteworthy were neck rolls and bizarre balances with the center stick as well as intriguing, semi-cigar box style switches and regrips with one or both hand sticks. But while Europeans had a lot to show Americans about devil sticking, demonstrations and subsequent performances indicated most of them were either curiously reticent or surprisingly uninterested in demonstrating three ball craftsmanship. I found this out first hand after imploring potential volunteers to come forward at an intermediate three ball "think tank" the following day.

Fortunately, the Drop Shop elicited a much more eclectic response and inspired some unusual input on dealing creatively with errant throws or missed catches. After an initial hesitancy to improvise recovery techniques, gags or drop lines in front of a packed room, demonstrators soon began to think fast on their feet. This, coupled with collective brainstorming and spontaneous suggestions, triggered some truly hilarious and occasionally quite handy recoveries for a variety of props.

Other American workshop leaders included Cindy Marvell (five balls), Jeff Daymont (three and four cigar boxes) and Michael Menes (juggling and movement). Several "transplants" (Americans abroad) also figured prominently, including Carey Bunks (lasso) and Kevin Brooking (mime and clowning). My apologies to others I'm sure I missed.

Americans also acquitted themselves admirably in both the private (Renegade) and public shows. Clockwork (Rick Rubenstein and Jack Kalvan) presented their precision teamwork with five white stage balls to music (and God knows how many green flower pots!) in the Friday night Pre-Public show at Piazza Dante. The duo also helped kick off Thursday evening's opening Celebratory Cabaret. Their novel club sharing and witty take-aways were warmly received and roundly applauded. Rubenstein said the ambience, a wonderful one-ring cobalt blue big top tent, and the juggle-happy audience created a kind of "open stage Nirvana."

The tent was provided by the European troupe Abzurdicus, whose ubiquitous presence and sophisticated acrobatic apparatus made them the convention's unofficial circus-in-residence.

The European crowds were remarkably tolerant, warmly supportive and wildly demonstrative in showering heartfelt appreciation on performers. Doubtlessly this encouraged Jeff Daymont. On Friday evening he appeared in the Pre-Public Show performing a condensed and mostly clean three box routine, along with some funny quips and sight gags with his "mime" side-kick Sergei. Two nights later at the final Renegade Show Daymont presented an unaccompanied, totally improvised cigar box jam session. Sans Sergei and despite a sloppy start, his cutting-edge combinations and distinctive go-for-broke style (sort of the Jimi Hendrix of box jugglers...) resulted in such prolonged applause that he came back for a lengthy encore, was awarded a crown made of clubs and encored with a near-flawless four box finale.

Given the appealing ambience, several prominent performers in the Saturday evening Public Show couldn't resist a Renegade appearance the following evening. Cindy Marvell engaged everyone with a wonderfully executed three club dance. The wacky Dutchman, Mr. Jones, premiered a concept piece of altered perception, comically claiming to be balancing a motorcycle on his nose. Alexis Lee, buoyed by the crowd's receptivity, risked a new character, portraying a brassy female revival preacher. On her second try she succeeded in "baptizing" her kneeling male volunteer by adroitly "clubbing" what appeared to be a real egg, causing it to magically pass through a saucer into a cup balanced precariously on his head.

After a sparkling stint as co-emcee of the Public Show, Kevin Brooking literally brought the Renegade Show lights down with a delightfully resourceful reaction to a momentary power failure. His expressive face illuminated only by the faint glow of a hand-held lighter, Brooking made the mundane magical, banished the darkness, and had more fun with five fingers than any clown since the great Grock.

A different form of fire highlighted a high-energy and technically brilliant three ball, three torch routine that Andrew from California presented, complete with comic patter, to close Thursday evening's Celebratory Cabaret.

But perhaps the most popular performer from the States beneath the Abzurdicus big top was three-year-old Mary Spenger, the adorable daughter of the much-loved husband and wife team Cliff and Mary Spenger. Supported both physically and emotionally in her dad's steady grip, lithe little Mary stood surveying the audience from atop her six-foot perch, her tight smile signaling an endearing blend of bravery and nervousness.

The crowd welcomed her with a long outpouring of approval. Beaming broadly, little Mary brought the crowd to its feet by tipping over headfirst into her dad's palms and going from a headstand into a largely unaided hand-stand. The crowd's rhythmic clapping, hooting and hollering seemed just the positive reinforcement little Mary needed. From a tense three-year-old shepherded in her daddy's arms, she was transformed into a nonchalant showbiz vet coquettishly enhancing her exit with a series of stylish Shirley Temple-like curtsies.

All in awe, the 14th European convention was both a heart-warmer and an eye-opener. In the absence of competition, a truly international camaraderie flourished. Jugglers may not have been pushed to the limits of their technical ability, but almost all expanded their cultural awareness and aesthetic sensitivity. For four days kindred spirits came together - overcoming language barriers, building trust, sharing close quarters and showing throughout a miraculous mixture of resourcefulness and restraint when it came to tooting our kazoos individually or as a collective clown chorus.

In Verona They Speak English / Index, Vol. 43, No. 4 / jis@juggling.org
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