The fine art of juggling

Mary Ann Hunter

On one level, Circa’s A Man in a Room, Juggling is just that. For over an hour, the extraordinary David Sampford juggles in the Cremorne Theatre. The audacity of the idea surprises and delights. But on another level this performance is far from ‘just that.’ Sampford is accompanied by the equally extraordinary composer-pianist, Erik Griswold, and together they are supported by lighting designer Jason Organ, who provides texture for this intimate and remarkable spectacle of a body in cahoots with an ensemble of squishy balls. While the impressive skill and bold experimentation of Yaron Lifschitz’s direction are to be expected, the wry comedy, finesse and striking improvisational integrity of sound and body make this show quite special. Unlike Circa’s earlier full-company work, A Love Supreme (RT61, p. 8), A Man in a Room, Juggling pares back the busyness to enable a magnified reflection on the complexity of this all too familiar but most bewitching of circus arts.

The 3 part performance begins with the sound of bouncing balls in darkness, underscoring the perception of juggling as a solitary art. Yet as we tune into the aural elements of the performance, it is clear that Sampford is not the only one juggling. Throughout the piece Griswold’s deft handling of, among other things, a grand piano keyboard, rubber hose, miniature toy piano and squeezy bath-time dolphin, has the effect of chasing, leading and articulating the mood of Sampford’s work in a kind of musical juggle of its own.

The first extended improvisation is a funny and self-deprecating look at the juggling craft. Each “Short Reflection on Juggling” provides opportunities to marvel at both the serious skill and the silliness of throwing and catching things in midair. A series of demonstrations of cascade and column juggling becomes an inspiring study of body position and movement. These transform into poetic ruminations on the physics of speed and gravity, and on the ability to be alert and always looking. Sampford loosens up and enjoys himself here, playing up potentially awkward errors, using them as opportunities for new tangents, comic release and the merging of different patterns and tricks.

The second part, “A Routine to Music by Satie”, is more measured, taking the juggling patterns into a clearly choreographed relationship with the music. Griswold’s eclectic instrumental devices still surprise, but are well-suited to evoking the moodiness of Satie. At times, Sampford choreographs the balls to bounce, lift and drop in synch with the music. At others, he rolls a single ball up his arm, squashes it within his elbow, performing an abstracted narrative about the lone soul on an intimate exploration. As Sampford’s experiments get playfully more expansive (soon including a large red construction ladder), the voice-over instructor gently details the unique solitude of “a man in his room, juggling”, with no companions, no ceiling fans, no lamp shades and no gaps under the bed.

But it is in the third section of this performance that Sampford and Griswold hit their stride. The improvisational chemistry between these 2 wizards of juggling—one physical, one musical—enables a beautiful insight into the art of being alone with others. Backed by video footage of pigeons and pedestrians, Sampford enters into a mesmerising solo ball-play, picking up and dropping balls from the hundred or so which he has placed randomly on the stage floor. Simultaneously, Griswold immerses himself in a feat of multi-tasking, his “hands describing patterns in sound.” And together, through a kind of spirited jamming, they achieve a brilliant integration of sound and movement—and a most fitting climax to a mind-expanding show.

Circa Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus Ensemble, A Man in a Room, Juggling, concept/director Yaron Lifschitz, choreographer/juggler David Sampford, music Erik Griswold, lighting design Jason Organ; Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Cremorne Theatre, July 14-24

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 44

© Mary Ann Hunter; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2004