Juggling Workshop: creating a routine part 2 – Choreography.


(In this workshop I talk in quite a lot of depth about the above video. If you’ve not seen it yet, watch before you read.)

You know what’s the worst thing ever when performing a juggling routine?

You may be thinking “Dropping?”

Yes, that’s bad, but what’s even worse is dropping on the VERY FIRST TRICK! Do you have any idea how many times I see this happen? Probably half of every act I’ve ever seen at a juggling convention. The new performer always thinks “I’ve got to do a big trick at the beginning, to grab the audience’s attention!”

Bullshit. You know what grabs attention way better? Not dropping. In fact, if you reach the first section of your act, which should be about 45 seconds long, without dropping, you’ll get a huge round of applause when you stop, on purpose, for the first time. That’s the way it works, folks!

Maybe the juggler doesn’t drop in their first trick, but only because they are doing club swinging, and don’t actually let go. But then, the first “non-trivial” trick, by that I mean the first time they try more than a single spin throw, they mess up the catch.

Considering that, let’s look at some of my other juggling routines, and check out the first trick:
– 3 ball and video: I throw a single ball from one hand to the other.
– diabolo: I throw the diabolo, catch it on the string, and get it spinning up to speed.
– ping pong: bouncing one ping pong ball on a bat.
– tennis ball in can: throwing a single ball out, and catching it in the can again.
– 5 ball routine: a 5 ball cascade.
– The Art of Juggling: throwing a hat to my head. Once I get to the juggling? A single ball, thrown between my hands, with a throw behind the back too.
– knife juggling: 3 knife cascade.
– club juggling: a three club cascade with a fourth balanced on my nose.

I make sure the first thing I do during a routine is virtually undroppable. It lets me try out the lighting, get used to the space, warm up my hands, etc, etc.

This means I don’t have to “warm up” before performing, as what I do at the very start is the warmup to the the later, more difficult tricks.

The odd one out from the list above is the four clubs at the beginning of the club routine. Come to think of it, even then I do a bit of club manipulation, to get my hands used to the weight of the clubs, and hold the balance for a while before starting.

But I’m not too concerned, as I always do this routine after the ball juggling routine, and so I’m already warmed up, and aware of the space in a juggling sense.

So what do I do at the start of my ring routine? Throw one ring from hand to hand. It’s formulaic, I know, but it does the job! If I DO drop at the very start of a routine, during my long format shows, I have the option to ask the technician to stop the music and restart. This often works out well, but can mean a loss of energy.

That’s the beginning. The first section of a routine I like to think is the introduction to the prop, and sets up expectations about what you can do with it. It’s a statement about the essence of the prop. I also want the first applause point to be very clear, and really don’t want much reaction until that point. Some people will always clap at the first thing I do, but they’ll soon get the idea that they should really clap when I tell them to.

Some points about the first part of the ring routine:
– I want to move my body, turning it around, to trick people into thinking they are seeing both sides of the rings.
– I juggle above my head a bit, to vary the height.
– I juggle facing the audience quite a bit, because I like them to see my face.
– I do some high throws. The audience loves high throws. I can also use them to smile at the audience.

After running through the tricks many times, and to the music, I find that some tricks fit well with the music. This is Sing Sing sing by the Benny Goodman Orchestra.

Working with music is important to me, even if I’m just juggling a series of tricks. The transitions between different parts of music are the most noticeable, so I try to match them up with the most noticeable element of my juggling.

And that, of course, is when I stop juggling. Don’t try to do a trick on a music cue, because if you miss it, it looks rubbish. You may fumble the trick ahead of it, and not get the timing right. However, STOPPING juggling at the right time is easy. You just pad out the juggling beforehand a bit, and you can stop dead on the music by doing a high throw just before, and knowing it will hit your hand on the beat.

Cool, eh?

Second part of the three ring section:
– I break completely from what they have seen before.
– I do pancakes around three different axis.
– That’s about it. It’s what the audience were expecting, because I told them so in the intro. I make sure I do a bit of normal juggling in between, to make sure they know they are different.
– The vertical axis pancakes are the most difficult pancake throw, and a technique I’m proud to say I invented myself and have never seen another juggler doing it with rings. So do I do this trick last? Hell no! the audience doesn’t know this! As far as they are concerned, the tricks I do later are harder. And what if I drop? I need to finish on the music, so I end with the “90 degree” pancakes, which I can run for as long as I want.

But if I do drop in this section, it doesn’t matter so much. People already know I can juggle, and stop juggling, without stressing.

A word about colour changing rings! I want the end of every routine to feature all the rings either in my hand, or around my neck, but all the right way around. This is VERY IMPORTANT.

In my head.

Also, I can make show of checking, each time I stop juggling, that they are all the same colour. It lets the audience know what to look for.

During this section, with all the pancakes, it’s pretty hard to control the exact spins and orientations, like in the other sections. The vertical axis pancakes especially. What I do is, in the final pattern, look at the side of the ring I’m going to pull down over my head. Say it’s white. I then have a 50-50 chance the next one will be red. If it is, I have a technique of pulling a ring down over my head that puts it the right way around. And then another 50-50 chance I’ll do the same thing with the third ring.

In the video above I don’t need to do this, but that’s mainly luck.

Third three ring section:

I want to surprise the audience again. They have some expectations about what is possible with rings now, and I need to take them to the next level. I also want to make them smile two or three times in the entire routine, and flipping the ring from ear to ear accomplishes this.

The end, once again, features all three rings around my neck, and the right way around. I like the end to be surprising, even though it hits the music cue.

Four ring section:

At this point I don’t want to introduce any new property of the rings. Instead I want to up the technical difficulty, and show more complex versions of the ideas I showed with the three ring part.

It also has to be way shorter.

Note, in the video, that at one point I catch one ring the wrong way round. I correct it, and finish the routine with all the rings facing the right way. This is not an accident, of course.

I finish with 4 ring pancakes. I like the trick. This is the last time I’ll do pancakes as a pattern.

Five ring section:

In this part I’m really just aiming for a classic ring routine, but with a twist. The typical structure of a circus ring act goes:
– Colour change. Tick!
– Pirouette. Tick!
– Breakdown. Tick!
– Back into the pattern. Tick!

At this point someone like Anthony Gatto does pancakes. In another routine, where I start with five rings, I do the same.

However, in this routine I’ve already shown off pancakes enough.

One thing I don’t like about juggling acts that show a progression of numbers or tricks, is that by showing mastery of a technique with five or seven objects, it trivializes what they did at the beginning with three objects.

An example is a famous club pickup routine, where the juggler begins with kicking up one club with the right foot. Everyone claps. And he takes that applause. By the end he is kicking up three clubs from one foot! If he can do that (I think the audience are thinking) why did he show us the easy version at the start?

Maybe I’m over-thinking it, but I don’t want to introduce that kind of feeling in my audience, and at the same time I don’t want to bore them with the same trick over and over, but just with higher numbers.

And so first I make them laugh with the five ring breakdown I call “The Aquanaut”, and then I once again get all of the rings around my neck.

They’ve seen me do this a few times before, so I want to make it more interesting, which is why I finish with a two-handed, behind-the-back, over-the-head throw to an around-the-neck catch.

A trick I totally stole from Evgeni Biljaure, by the way.

I skip 6 rings. What’s the point? I want to end with a “bang” at this point, and increasingly diminishing returns on ever greater number of objects can get tedious too.

Finally, seven rings!

First, let’s forget about the stupid joke with the ring in the mouth. It’s completely optional.

However, this is a technical trick, and if I drop on this final feat of juggling, I can’t end perfectly with the music. And people think I’m rubbish.

And yet, if I DO drop, as is the circus tradition, it makes the final trick seem way harder.

But then I can’t end on the music.

My solution (though not my idea originally) is to have the last 15 seconds of my music as a separate track, which the technician can cue up when I drop. If I drop on my second attempt, he just cues it up again. Great, eh?

The comedy skit in between came about as a character filler while picking the rings up from the floor. Also, explaining a trick makes it seem very important.

But a seven ring cascade isn’t going to last very long. And if it does, it shows it isn’t very hard, and also isn’t that interesting.

So I have developed a way to make numbers juggling on stage last way longer than it should. No, I don’t pad it out with stupid noises.

What I do is increase the time ahead and beyond the short run itself. With 6 clubs I do this:

– Show the clubs.
– Setup throw from right hand.
– Setup throw from left hand.
– Start do six throws of six clubs in a fountain pattern.
– The seventh throw is way higher.
– Collect the other clubs.
– Tuck the clubs from my right hand under my left arm.
– Catch the last club.

Wait! I’m not finished yet!

– I throw that last club high again, in a kinda flat throw.
– Turn to face the audience.
– Take the clubs back out from under my left arm.
– Arrange all the clubs nicely in my hands.
– Catch the last club again.
– Present the six clubs again, three in each hand, all nice and neat.
– Bow.

There is a video of me doing this here (check about 4 minutes in, I guess, I’ve not seen the video for a while).

The hard part (which isn’t actually hard for me, but get the point) is just one or two of these small steps. The rest is all presentation, designed to put me in control of both the juggling and the audience.

So many times I see someone try “too many” clubs or rings or balls as the great numbers juggling finale. So many times do they only just make all the catches, and the props are all over the place, trapped under arms, between legs, under the chin, held against the body.

And then what do they do? Kinda shuffle over to a propstand, or try to throw props off stage. How stupid do they look? Very.

Also there is a VERY clear end to the juggling trick. People can start clapping whenever they want, but when I’m standing, presenting the finished trick to the audience, they know I’m done.

And of course, with the high throw before the final presentation, I can play with the timing to end right on the music.

I do something similar with seven rings.

– Ring in mouth.
– Spin rings in hands.
– Split rings with fingers.
– Look at audience.
– Start throwing.
– Ring out of mouth.
– Juggle.
– Start collecting into left hand, letting them fall down my arm.
– Keep collecting.
– Throw last ring high.
– Catch last ring.
– Swipe my arm so all the rings end up in my hand, all together, all the right way around.
– Present!

I only ever do about 14 catches, but I make the whole thing into an event. It becomes a whole routine, with a beginning, middle and end, but really only one trick. And the three parts are well balanced too. The end of the trick is just as visually interesting as the pattern itself, as is the beginning, and they all last about the same amount of time.

That’s the choreography done! There are actually some elements here which come from the “refining” phase of my method, but I’m probably not going to write a full blog post about that.

Next up, a blog post about adapting material to fit under low ceilings.