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Notes and queries and a case full of clubs: Object Physical Research

In my last column I wrote at length about the inherent conceptual content of juggling, and so I thought the best way to follow up on that would be by bringing the topic back down to something more tangible: the most tangible and basic thing possible – how we move the objects we use.

Something I hold very dear is the idea that, just as conceptual or emotional content is integral to our technique, so is the physical content (the tricks we do!) integral to the properties of the object itself. This content is already defined and present, we must simply reach in and extract the information. In a way, all we are doing as jugglers is helping the object to move in the way that it would like to move. Again, this could come over as pretentious or insipid, but an obvious example from our everyday juggling life could be e.g. that clubs are thrown with spins, and that balls aren’t. The actual shape and structure of the club allows (demands!) that it be spun. The actual shape and structure of a ball, doesn’t. OK, maybe that example WAS insipid, but let’s see where this simple idea can take us.

When approaching an object, be it a juggling prop or any other item/animal/thing, there are fundamental principles that dictate how we can (or cannot) move it in space. And moving things in space is fundamental to all our juggling or manipulation. So, before we waste too much time aimlessly flipping, spinning or throwing an object with no clear intention or target, let’s take a closer look at exactly what opportunities it can present to us.

1. Can I drop it?

It’s a simple question, but it’s going to inform everything that follows! If it’s a juggling prop, or a cushion, or a paper bag, then the answer is probably “yes, and on multiple occasions.” If it’s a camera, or a wineglass, or a kitten, then the answers are probably (and respectively) “yes, but not without losing basic function of the object,” “yes, but only once,” and “yes, but not without having to chase and capture the object before trying again.” Clearly stating to myself the “dropability” of an object lets me know how far I can push the physical research that is to come.

2. Planes of rotation.

How easily does the object move or rotate in the three simple planes? I don’t necessarily need to throw and catch the object to test these directions (see point 1!) – simply rotating it in my hands may be adequate. This is the moment where I can start to get a feeling for how the object “wants” to move. Perhaps it rotates easily and naturally in the x plane, but is awkward to manipulate in the y and/or z planes. Of course, it’s a question of semantics, but I find that referring to this as how the object itself “wants” to move is not a big conceptual leap, and it helps me to remember that the physical content (the technique, the tricks) is integral to the object itself. I may choose to impose my own will on it, to force it to move in a way that it doesn’t want to, but that must always be with intention and decision.

3. Rolling.

There are three opportunities for the object to roll: it can roll on my body (head, arms, fingers, shins, etc., etc.), or on the environment (on the floor is obvious, but what about the walls, or the furniture, or on other objects?), or, depending on the object, on itself. Does the object want to roll more in one direction than in another? Defining all the possibilities in this way helps us be sure that we don’t miss any opportunities for cool tricks. And the more precisely we can formulate our possibilities, the deeper we can go within them – and the more efficient we can be with our research and our creation.

4. Sliding.

Sliding is differentiated from rolling by the fact that rotation of the object is not involved. A ball for example has more desire to roll than to slide. A wooden crate on the other hand is happier sliding (but maybe it’s even happier just sitting still?). Again, we can separate this into sliding on the body, on the environment, and on itself.

5. Stand or balance.

Does the object stand by itself (a passive balance)? A book lying on the table is in a state of passive balance. In how many formations can it do so? On one end, on its side? What feels most natural for the object? And what dynamic is created in each position? Or perhaps it requires an active balance to stay standing in some way. And again, how does it do each of these things on the body, on the environment, or on itself?

6. Pre-existing technique.

This is where all our prior knowledge as jugglers can come into play. Are there tricks that already exist for the object in question? If it’s a diabolo or a cigarbox or a club, then of course. But there are also pre-existing tricks for pens, for sunglasses, for poker chips, for wallets… Do we know them already? Should we research them? Should we learn them? How about applying tricks from another object to this one? Can I do a club thumbroll with a teacup? Probably not. Can I pididdle my iPad? Yes. Does it feel natural and necessary to do so, or forced and superfluous?

7. Specials

What makes this object unique? Does the colour of my clubs influence the tricks they should be doing? Does the design of my object lead to, or demand, other ways to move it? Can it fold, or tear, or knot, or come apart? Can it hold another object, or move by itself, or make sounds or music? By applying the same thought and reflection as above, one is sure to find even more precious knowledge about the object and its properties: knowledge about how it wants to move, and about what it can say to us.

Armed with the above blueprint, it becomes very easy to drill deep into the potential depths of any object, be it a juggling prop or whatever else. The technique or tricks we find may not be easy to learn, but we will know at least that we are investing our practice time in a good direction. By paying attention to what the object wants, we can find the tricks that have the most potential to display or hide its specific and integral properties, and so we can increase the depth and strength of our juggling.

The most basic thing we jugglers do is interact with physical objects. Let’s make sure that it remains a two-way dialogue.

Here are a couple of short manipulation sequences with mobile phones: each was made and filmed in about 5 minutes, using the principles above as research guidelines:

Samsung phone:

Apple phone:

And here is a routine with a matchbox, that took slightly more time to construct and learn:

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Juggler and magician Luke Wilson, an Englishman in Continental exile. When not on the road he calls Germany home, and his work has developed into a mixture of performing, teaching and directing: roles which have allowed him to claim such diverse titles as prize winner at the Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain in Paris, sometime Head of Department (Juggling & Manipulation) at the London Conservatoire of Dance and Drama, visiting Professor of Juggling at Stockholm's University College of Dance and Circus, and Magical Advisor to FISM World Magic Champion Ken Bardowicks. When not travelling or working, he is probably trying to read the entire internet, drinking tea, and wondering if he will ever print his "tricks make me happy" T-shirt.

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