Ann Arbor Juggling Arts Club
Bruce's vague memories of Niagara

Several Ann Arborites attended the 1999 IJA convention in Niagara Falls, New York, July 27-31, 1999: myself, Regina, Dave Lewis, Dave Heald, Fred, and others I'm temporarily forgetting.

Some of this I wrote down within a week or so of getting back. But I have a pretty crummy memory, so there's a lot left out, and a lot that may be inaccurate.

Shows

The festival was expensive (nearly 300 dollars), but one of the things that really made it worthwhile for me was the inspiring performances.

Airjazz

I remember when I first heard about the group "airjazz", my first reaction was "damn! The coolest possible name for a juggling group has already been taken." They no longer perform together regularly, but they do occasional shows like this one. Their show lived up to the name--there was lots of beautiful, creative stuff.

Here's one act I remember: imagine yourself taking three tall silvery poles, and standing them on end in a row in front of you, spaced maybe a couple feet apart. As soon as you take your hand off one of them it will, of course, start to fall over (slowly; the poles are a good 8 feet tall). You've only got two hands, and there are three poles, so you'll have to move your hands back and forth between them to keep the poles upright. They did a number of variations on this basic idea, but I was fascinated just watching those three poles go slightly in and out of parallel.

They also did an act involving the manipulation of balls of drastically different sizes (monstrous beach-balls, smaller stage balls). And there were lots of other pieces that I've forgotten. But everything was very creative, and very beautiful to watch. I'm too used to thinking of juggling as a hobby, or as something that comedians do; I forget that it can also be an art form.

The Cascade of Stars

There was amazing stuff in this show. I had no idea that people could do such astonishingly difficult things while, at the same time, putting on such great performances. For example, there was a fantastic diabolo-spinner (diabolist?) who did lots of technically difficult tricks; but, in addition, he had this wonderful, smooth, perhaps slightly sleezy, character, and the moves and the music to go along with it. His act was more like a dance in which one of the dancers was an object.

Some of the acts weren't so much juggling so much as--well, I don't know what you'd call it--creative object manipulation? In one of my favorites, there were perhaps 5 or 6 white balls hung from the ceiling by string, on an otherwise black stage. A man pushed and pulled the balls to set them swinging in complicated patterns. It's hard to explain in words, but the visual effect was very striking.

I expected to see lots of difficult tricks, and was not disappointed; Kris Kremo's 3-ball routine, for example, was out of this world. But what floored me was the artistry--instead of thinking, gee, that was a great show for an audience of jugglers, I came away thinking, wow, why doesn't juggling get more respect? Everyone should be seeing these acts!

The Gandini Project

The Gandini project is a group from Britain with a lot of clever ideas; they did an informal show one day in the gym. Really interesting stuff, but hard to describe---ask someone to see a video.... They won the "people's choice award" for the festival, which is based on votes by attendees.

Competitions

Please, explain to me who thought it would be a good idea not to have an intermission? The competitions were great, but the juniors, the individuals, and the teams, together, add up to a lot of sitting.

Anyway, everything was great. As with the Cascade of Stars, there was a lot of variety, although I was a bit disappointed that some of the more interesting acts didn't get awards; for example, two of the Gandini's did really fascinating routines, but their routines were short and unconventional, and they didn't even place.

On the other hand, it was hard to fault the judge's choices; for example, the winners of both the juniors and the individual competitions both did pretty standard vegas-style acts, but both of them pulled off impossibly difficult tricks with hardly a fumble, and with lots of style.

In general, the level of technical skill had to be seen to be believed; most of the juniors were doing tricks I wouldn't dream of attempting.

There was also some between-act filler that was good; for example, Dan Bennett did a great (and very funny) act involving the manipulation of toilet plungers, and the balancing of bowling balls on his head.

Midnight Shows

Previously called "renegade" shows, these have been a mainstay of festivals for years. Anyone can sign up (and does), the humor is a bit raunchier, the acts a bit rougher. The heckling is out of this world. Some favorites of mine:

  • A guy managed to take off his shirt while maintaining a 3-ball juggle. OK, kind of stupid, but hey it was short, and impressive in a "wow, is that possible?" sort of way.
  • There were all these kids there at the same time for a yo-yo convention. They did very high-energy routines, usually to loud techno soundtracks, with amazing moves: asynchronous loops that gave the impression of spinning wheels; wierd combinations of cross-follows and around-the-worlds that had the kids leaping over the yo-yo strings; and lots of other visually exciting tricks that I've forgotten. The first time one of these kids got on stage, everyone went crazy. After we'd seen a few more similar acts it got kind of old. Nevertheless, I spent most of junior high with a yo-yo surgically attatched to my hand, and I remember just thinking to myself, how could I have gone through those years and not known about any of this? Aaarg! As long as I was wasting away my youth, I should have done a better job of it!
  • I never thought I could have so much fun watching a guy spin plates: someone remind me of his name. He put on a great act, at the end of which the stage was covered with broken plates. He must buy those things by the crate.... The same guy did a very nice black-light diabolo act in a later show.
  • There was some rhythmic gymnastics from a young (correct me if I have this wrong) Bulgarian woman. She made all those throw-a-quad-and-do-a-somersault people look graceless and unskilled by comparison....
  • Robert Nelson and Mark Faje did a wild job of emceeing the friday night show, with between-act filler including (but not limited to) a nice version of the standard whip/carrot/volunteer routine, some knife throwing, a straight jacket escape, and a flaming bowling-ball kickup.
  • Some of the rest of the stuff, I'm only too glad to have forgotten, but there also was more that was fantastic.

Workshops

There were workshops every day; a few examples:
  • Robert Nelson's street performing workshop: I've never done any street performing in my life, and don't have plans to. But I went to this workshop figuring it would be interesting anyway, and I was right. Mr. Nelson is an amazing story-teller. I'd love to repeat some of what he said, but you'd be missing the full effect by not hearing his delivery.
  • Club swinging: Mr. Nelson makes my day once again. I can do the full fountain now. Well, it's not pretty, but it's close.
  • Three workshops by Cindy Marvell, one on "movement and juggling", one on 3 club tricks, and one on 4 and 5 club tricks: Cindy Marvell is really good at thinking about how to sequence moves; she can make routines with long series of tricks and movements each of which flows naturally in to the next. And she managed to convince me I had a chance of doing a few tricks I'd always assumed would be way too hard (half-pirouettes, chin balances). The 5-club portion of the 4 and 5 club workshop was pretty much just "look, here's the 5-club cascade, you'll have to practice it a long time but eventually you'll get it". I knew that already. But perhaps that's really all there is to be said about it.
  • Kendama: I didn't learn much (in fact, I didn't stay for all of it), but this was a chance to see a nice Japanese guy (anyone remember his name?) do nifty kendama tricks.
  • Right and left-handed passing with Martin Frost: I hurt my brain trying to follow all these complicated patterns of his, but I also managed to do Martin's Madness for the first time, and I got some good practice on 1-count feeding in the gym afterwards.

Games

On the last day there were games. It had been a long five days, and it felt nice to relax a bit, play some of the silly games, and sit and watch some of the others:

  • Combat: One of the Gandini's was a rather slight young woman named Cecile something (anyone remember her last name?), who made it into the finals by dodging and trying to look innocent---always my favorite strategy. There were also a lot of little kids that did pretty well, having spent the last 4 days doing almost nothing but combat. But in the end the throw-a-quad-and-do-a-somersault people seemed to be the undisputed champions of the game.
  • There was a weird numbers-game which had complicated rules, but was a lot of fun to watch; people had to do a variety of very hard numbers tricks (e.g., juggle n rings, and take it down to a 3-ring cascade then back up to n without stopping the pattern) under very tight time constraints, with rules that discouraged dropping. Dana Tyson swept up, if I remember correctly.
  • Diabolo high-toss: One of the airjazz people nearly managed to hit the ceiling of the huge conference center we were in---wow.
  • Most of the other games were more fun to play than to describe. I entered a few and had a good time (despite doing miserably badly---but hey, you have to give everybody else someone to beat, right?).

Everything Else

So far, you might think we spent all our time trooping from workshop, to show, back to workshop, etc. But the "organized" stuff was really only a small part of the convention. I spent a lot of time tossing 5 clubs in to the air and watching them collide with the carpet (a nice touch, by the way---the concrete arena floor would have been much more annoying if most of it hadn't been covered over with a thin layer of carpet. The organizers also made sure that a good part of the floor was friendly to bounce jugglers---they really thought of everything.) I passed with a lot of people, both the Ann Arborites that I came with, and with many kind strangers; a nice way to meet interesting people.

The perimeter of the arena was lined with tables of juggling props and other fascinating toys. I did cave in and spend some money, but I had the most fun just looking at stuff. One guy was selling these amazing programmable glowing props....

Oh, and we even took a look at the Falls, as long as we were there. Cool.

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