Monday, 16 January 2017

Chapter 169: Gandini Juggling's "Smashed" at Sadlers Wells

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Smashed last night, shattered this morning after a trip to Sadlers Wells last night to see a special edition of Gandini Juggling's renowned show. The evening led to psychedelic dreams where Pina Bausch merged with Pina Colada, and pineapples housing espresso cups were juggled with liberal abandon. It has been quite a journey. Smashed started life as an outdoor show at the National Theatre's "What The Space" festival back in 2010, quickly formed (a throwaway piece?!) as a love letter to German choreographer Pina Bausch, although I read it now as an extraordinary testimony to the partnership, both artistic and romantic, between Sean Gandini and Kati Ylä-Hokkala. Sean and Kati met when she, a rhythmic gymnast by training, noticed him as a street performer at Covent Garden. Since then they have fused together into a unique body of work that has revisioned juggling, exploring its potential as a language in its own right as well as its ability to speak to, describe and illuminate other art forms.

Smashed was my first reference point for Gandini Juggling, chancing upon a youtube video of the finale of the show from the festival in 2010. It had uber-slick choreography ending in chaos set to the song "I've Never Waltzed in Berlin". I loved the music, the skill and the way the rug was pulled from underneath. Just a few weeks later, I came across performers from Gandini Juggling at Camp Bestival dressed in utilitarian white dungarees with LED clubs flashing to the beat of DJ Rob Da Banks. 8 Songs was another outdoor piece I saw, with a thumpingly great soundtrack. Then came a work at the Royal Opera House crossing four jugglers with four ballet dancers to draw out 4x4 Ephemeral Architectures, while later in the year the experimental meta was created in honour of Jacksons Lane's 40th anniversary. I last saw Gandini Juggling at the ENO, an integral part of Philip Glass' opera Akhnaten. But not having seen Smashed I felt I was missing an intrinsic part of the Gandini experience. Then it was announced that there would be a "special edition" at Sadlers Well, and Christmas came early - I got tickets in September for the following January. 

Thomas JM Wilson's juggling trajectories
On the day itself, though, I was pretty fed up. The tube strike had brought London to a standstill, the friends we were meeting had booked the other night by accident, the babysitter cancelled so my husband would have to stay home instead of joining me, our youngest had kept us up all night and the energy was pouring out of me like water through a colander. Not going was not an option, but I was determined to find a good home for the spare ticket, even if it meant dragging someone off the street. Which is pretty much what happened. You see a fortnight previously a passerby, a fellow Mum with young kids, stopped me for directions, thinking about moving to the area. We got chatting, swapped numbers and I invited Michelle to drop in for a coffee if she was ever back in the neighbourhood house-hunting and wanted the local low-down. Out of the blue, Michelle turned up that afternoon, just as I was hitting the doldrums. Her timing was providential. While I made us some coffee, a copy of juggling trajectories lying open on the kitchen table attracted her attention. Michelle was open, interested, a lot of fun and to my delight was up for coming along that evening. The very randomness of the act generated its own energy, as though we were a couple of atoms juggling fate lines. 

Michelle and I both bumped into friends in the theatre bar, somewhat less surprisingly in my case, and, ever the people-watcher, it led me to wonder about the make-up of the audience: many Gandini aficionados, both professional and amateur jugglers, Sadlers Wells regulars and Bausch disciples, and those drawn by the fact that this was the flagship show opening the 40th anniversary of the London International Mime Festival. I would love to have the statistics to draw up a Venn diagram of overlapping cultural circles. 

I felt the usual frisson of risk and responsibility as we took our seats, as I always do when I introduce someone new to this world. What would Michelle make of it? On stage sat an impressive row of 15 empty chairs - there had been nine in the original. As though mapping out juggling trajectories, apples were laid out in lines in front; not fiery clubs, glitter sticks, flashing knives or light-changing globes, just your communal, red, garden apples. The entire show revolved around playing with these apples that by turns could read as an articulation of Bauschian iconography, a homage to Newtonian physics, or the fruit of knowledge, a tease of Eve. "Take an object, and do something to it. Do something else to it" as abstract artist Jasper Johns is quoted in juggling trajectories. So beautiful in its simplicity, right? In the question and answer session later Sean Gandini would say the best ideas are often cooked up in the kitchen and here domesticity had a retro feel, Stepford meets post-war austerity, as the jugglers paraded in a succession of suits or tank-tops and cords, tea dresses and t-bar shoes. This was undoubtedly amplified by the nostalgia inherent in the song "I've Never Waltzed in Berlin". Watching the performers file past was like watching a Who's Who of juggling. I'd only met about half the performers, but recognised a fair few more from the striking portraits that I had been admiring in Thomas Wilson's authoritative juggling trajectories only hours earlier. I was struck by the individuality and unique energy of each performer, their gait, their mannerisms, their facial expressions, by turn Marx brother zany, zen, nonchalant, dry, curious, engaging, up to something... each brought their own personality into play here.

That the show began with the same track in the video that was from the end of the show surprised me. Where could they now go from here?* Oh lordy! Where indeed! Distraction was the name of the game, whether through sexual provocation, taunts, or physically, sometimes violently, interrupting the flow of others. There were sequences of intense beauty: the spectacle of so many jugglers in synch, a row apples punctuating the air at the exact same height, describing the same patterns; the hand of one performer stealing its way into the space in motion of another and plucking out an apple from the whirl; a romance of tango between by Sean and Kati.

[* I later found out that the same track was used both to open and close the original show.]

There was a lot of laughter too. I enjoyed the slapstick of Sakari Männistö, a cross between Loki,  the trickster god, and Charlie Chaplin, as he used a stick that reminded me of a rolled up newspaper to disrupt the juggling of others one by one, and when he tried to take his seat again the others swiftly shifted chairs to prevent it, first one way, then the other.

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That is what I love about Gandini Juggling - the sheer mischief at play. They call the audience on what they see. You see female jugglers vastly outnumbered? Is there a whiff of sexism there? Let's have both of them crawling on all fours in front of a row of seated men, like some mobile coffee tables, surfaces to bounce off apples. Then if that doesn't push your buttons, let's do it all again, only this time let's stuff an apple in their mouth like a suckling pig, setting it to the tune of Tammy Wynette's "Stand By Your Man" for good measure. In a near Freudian slip I almost wrote that the music was Dolly Parton's "9 to 5" and you could say the ladies have their revenge later in a sadomasochistic game that in spirit was rather like a Bavarian slap dancing game where the women literally have the upper hand. 

That's Smashed for you, with it's dark humour, piquant, both rousing and arousing. In another instance Kim Huynh tantalisingly stretches out a leg, trying to distract the men around her, rolling apples across her body, then dropping them down her front. As she stands up, she looks pregnant with desire and then the fruits of her labour are dropped one by one as she straddles the lap of each man in turn until she reaches Tedros Girmaye, who looks expectantly, but there are none left for him. That is very much path of the course for Tedros in the show, that the joke is on him. Here again Gandini Juggling are the agents provocateurs as we see the only black member of the cast being turned down, ignored, ganged up on to the point that he is trapped while a teapot's worth of water is trickled down his head. He eventually broke free, but was wretched. It was disturbing to watch. It made me think of Malvolio being taunted in Twelfth Night, but staged in a parallel universe where National Socialism had won the day - care to waltz in Berlin? Then the masque of pathos was removed, Shakespeare's fool was in on the act, and toying with our assumptions. To quote Lucy Ribchester on the show in juggling trajectories "As an indictment on human nature it's vicious; as theatre it's brilliant."

In terms of the "special edition" there were three significant changes: the first was obvious to me, when half-way through six more female jugglers arrived on the scene. Lynn Scott took centre stage on a seat first, while the others emerged gradually. Lynn's pre-Raphelite tumble of long hair called attention to her gender, while lip-synching Charles Aznavour's "What makes a man?" (click here to watch the original). Lynn interpreted the song through an extraordinary eloquence of hand gestures, effectively juggling without balls (pun intended), and the fleeting impressions conjured up, like the parakeet on her shoulder, were so clever. The second addition was when the jugglers sang with gusto a Harry Belafonte calypso "I like bananas (because they have no bones)" seated in an outward-facing circle, extolling the virtues of the fruit. A catchy tune that I imagine has really got under their skins.

The third was the ending. Mezzo-soprano opera singer Emma Carrington rose up from below resplendent in a white shift. At the time I neither registered that she was Queen Nefertiti from Akhnaten or that she was eight months pregnant (respect!), simply transfixed by her voice. Singing a Vivaldi aria, she walked steadily backwards towards the four-strong strings Camarata Alma Viva, and then the Bachanalia commenced. Catcalls and in-jokes were chucked around, sacrilegiously drowning the beauty of the music, as each juggler in turn took the floor with a trick to show off: "Pretentious rubbish!" "Crap!" "Oooh, a laydee juggler!"  "Fancy opening the Mime Festival with a bunch of jugglers..." [Actually, the proper collective noun, dating back to the Middle Ages, is a "neverthriving" of jugglers, so even funnier to wonder] "The Arts Council gave you money for this?!" Apples were munched, spewed across the stage and soon crockery followed suit. Time for tea, Sean Gandini juggled a couple of teapots deliberately slowly, as though weighing up the audience, until he let drop. I heard from friends the following night that the butler from Downton Abbey was sitting behind them. I wondered what he made of such smashing etiquette. The pièce de résistance for me was when Malte Steinmetz managed to take side swipe bites of his apple mid-air, timing it so that when it was down to a tiny ball he simply flicked it down his throat in time with the final note of music. Bravo! En-core! 

Post-Show session

Donald Hutera and Sean Gandini
The audience was buzzing afterwards as I bumped into more and more people, faces radiant. Newbies like Michelle and devotees like me were similarly delighted. There had been a lot of laughs and that good will spilled into the generous feedback session afterwards where Donald Hutera, dance critic for The Times, took questions from the floor and riffed off them with Sean Gandini. It made for a fascinating insight into the creative process as well as great entertainment, as a quick wit volleyed between them. 

I was interested to hear about the collaborative nature of the work. How, for instance, Sean had emailed Lynn a choice of three songs ("Take Good Care of Yourself", "Josephine" and the Aznavour) but in retrospect you realise it couldn't have been anything other than "What Makes a Man". When asked how difficult it was to incorporate extra jugglers, Sean attributed the ease to Kati's ability to sketch out ideas quickly and disseminate them. 

Towards the end the two were joined on stage by Dominique Mercy, French dancer and choreographer, member of the Tanztheater Wuppertal company of Pina Bausch, who had been acting as an outside eye for the company for the past few days. Working with one of his heroes was obviously a dream come true for Sean, and the affection and mutual respect between the two men was palpable. That they both would have liked more time together ("we could have done with a week", "make that two!") made me wonder if there wouldn't be future collaborations in store. While the idea of reworking the show to feature nine women juggling oranges had a zest of jest to it, Sean was deadly serious about taking Smashed! to the Big Apple. There was talk of incorporating a Bob Fosse number into the show, so who knows, maybe next stop La La Land...

We are certainly living in a Golden Age of Juggling, as Sean pointed out, evidenced in the variety of patterns that fifty years ago may have numbered in their hundreds, now number millions. I was interested by a question from the floor as to whether there was any software model available that could map out juggling notations in advance and help speed up the creative process by enabling you to visualise immediately what would work and what wouldn't, and if they would consider using it if so. Sometimes it is better to go more slowly, observed Dominique Mercy, a sentiment echoed by Donald Hutera: "failure is good", and Sean agreed. It reminded me of the Neil Gaiman quote that ends "fail better"**. And that is at the heart of Smashed for me. We are all a little bit broken and are liable to drop the odd ball. Let's put it out there, centre stage, and make something of it. Chin-chin!

Previous posts: 
Gandini Juggling at the ENO - Akhnaten
Thomas J.M. Wilson's Juggling Trajectories is available from (click here)

"Ever tried, ever failed, no matter. Try again, fail again, fail better." Neil Gaiman.**

Mike Antony Bell, Sean Gandini, Frederike Gerstner, Tedros Girmaye, Doreen Grossman, Kim Huynh, Antoni Klemm, Sakari Männistö, Francesca Mari, Chris Patfield, Dani Rejano, Owen Reynolds, Ben Richter, Inaki Sastre, Lynn Scott, Niels Seidel, Arron Sparks, Malte Steinmetz, José Triguero, Jon Udry, Kati Ylä-Hokkala

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