Juggler Sean Gandini may make a living by throwing things, but he’s on a far more conservative path than his parents, “’60s idealists” who made their way to Cuba to live in a socialist society. By most standards, though, the co-founder and co-artistic director of Gandini Juggling (with his wife, Kati Ylä-Hokkala) is living in an artistic utopia of his own, paying the art and idealism of his Havana childhood forward with a genre-defying blend of juggling and ballet that will unfold on the stage of The Music Center at Strathmore as “4×4: Ephemeral Architectures.”
“Most good jugglers have a slightly anarchic streak to them,” said Gandini. “Myself and Kati learned a lot together, but we’re autodidacts. Some of the people working with us come from this emerging scene of circus schools that are producing a generation of really fantastic kids.”
Years ago, according to Gandini, most juggling routines ran a six-or-seven-minute arc—and that was it. But the advent of contemporary circus, mostly in Europe, expanded the role of juggling. And Gandini Juggling, founded in 1992, has managed to use juggling as the basis for an ever-changing collection of works they perform all over the world—5,000 shows in 50 countries.
“I’ve had kind of a nomadic existence,” said Gandini, whose warm accent brings together the elements of a life lived in different corners of the globe. “I always moved around; then I married Kati, who’s Finnish, and we’re always on the road. I love it.”
Audiences love it, too. Gandini Juggling’s latest iteration brings together modern juggling and classical ballet in a show he says “works for everyone,” channeling beauty, skill, humor and humanity and featuring music, light, and four jugglers and four dancers tracing shapes on the stage.
“When I was a kid, I used to do magic tricks,” said Gandini, who moved to London in the ‘80s. “I could always juggle a bit, but when I went to Covent Garden, I met a juggler and saw him do five balls.” There, in the quirky reaches of London’s theater district, Gandini found himself hypnotized by the juggler’s art—one he quickly took as his own. “For four or five years, I was unbearable,” he laughed. “I just juggled all day!”
He was good at it, too, taking the mathematical, architectural and athletic structure of juggling to heart and meeting Ylä-Hokkala, who had retired from rhythmic gymnastics and sought to use her extraordinary movement and coordination skills in a new way. “She learnt juggling very, very quickly,” recalled Gandini. “She’d been throwing stuff since she was a little girl.”
And “throwing stuff” is what juggling is at its core—but it’s also what dance is: the precisely controlled “throwing” of the human body. Gandini and Ylä-Hokkala discovered this early on, when their nascent juggling troupe collided with Covent Garden’s contemporary dance scene. “We started to do classes with them,” he said, “and I think the work we do now came from that: filtering juggling through the lens of dance.”
For nearly a quarter century, Gandini Juggling has turned what its founding artistic director calls “the obvious connection” between juggling and dance into a series of evolving works that fuse juggling with art, theater and choreography. “I think we sort of have a dating agency for juggling and other arts,” Gandini said, noting that the ensemble has matched itself with opera, pop music and Bharatanatyam, a form of Indian classical dance, as well as ballet. “That’s where we’re coming from. And juggling is currently in its golden age; there’s so much beautiful juggling.”
That the beautiful juggling they will bring to Strathmore is paired with ballet is controversial. Gandini admits the form is often disdained in avant-garde circles because of its associations with royalty, rigidity and elitism. “We had this secret crush on ballet,” he explained. “It’s such an extraordinary system of movement—an architecture.
“The way we work with juggling, that’s an architecture, too, a mathematical system where you create patterns of certain durations and heights.
“In some ways,” he added, “they’re made for each other.”
“You throw structures out—throw these objects and they draw these parabolic arcs outside the body—whereas in the classical vocabulary of ballet, it’s the body that’s tracing the shapes.”
In “4×4: Ephemeral Objects,” however, it gets a little more complicated. The jugglers are dancing as well as throwing things, spiraling under the mathematical curves of the objects they’ve tossed in the air.
“We have a notation in juggling called siteswaps,” Gandini said. “It’s a horrible word, ‘siteswap,’ but it’s to do with the changing of the landing order of the objects in the air.” Siteswaps, he explained, encode the number of beats in each throw—and Gandini said that by using mathematical applications of siteswaps, jugglers can potentially create “an infinite number of patterns.
“We went from having a hundred patterns to having a hundred million,” he said. “The permutations are huge.”
And when the juggling recipe—a mixture of mathematics, movement and the act of creating an empty space—gets filtered through the disciplines of dance and music, something amazing happens.
“What fascinates me is that all these things are ephemeral,” said Gandini. “It exists and then it’s gone; we build structures and they go.
“But they leave a trace, and the new structures inhabit the traces of the old.”
And he seems content to trail these structures—these arcs and circles of art, idealism and beauty—behind him, as he throws things, very carefully, all around the world.
4×4: Ephemeral Architectures will be at The Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 22. Tickets range from $28 to $68. Call 301-581-5100 or visit www.strathmore.org. View this event on CultureSpotMC here.