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The Joys of Juggling: Donald Hutera talks to Sean Gandini about his Smashed-hit

Donald Hutera talks to Sean Gandini about the joys of juggling and a special Mime Festival edition of Smashed, his internationally renowned company’s tribute to Pina Bausch

It could’ve fallen flat, this notion by Sean Gandini and fellow members of his eponymous company to turn to the work of Pina Bausch as a springboard for an approximately hour-long, ensemble demonstration of precision juggling. Luckily, and especially for audiences, it didn’t. First seen five or so years ago, the show has sustained itself as a knock-out international hit.

What is it about Gandini Juggling’s display of theatricalised, gravity-defying skill that punters globally find so tickling? Familiarity with the work of Pina Bausch certainly enhances the pleasure one takes in the show. Having happily seen Smashed several times now, I can vouch for how lightly the knowing cast handles their Bauschian inspiration.

The production’s means are deceptively simple, mainly involving a load of apples (in lieu of balls, pins, etc.), a row of chairs and, latterly, some highly expendable pieces of crockery. The fruit can be instantly perceived as a symbol of the Adam and Eve-like origins of sexual politics, a subject that so preoccupied Bausch – the guru of Germany’s Tanztheater Wuppertal who died suddenly in 2009. Equally clever is the eclectic, pre-recorded soundtrack encompassing toe-tapping pop songs, novelty numbers, iconic country kitsch (e.g., ‘Stand By Your Man’), bits of jazz and traces of classical music.

All this is at the service of some mighty fine juggling, a task herein aligned with movement and tied in to meaning. None of what Gandini’s suit-wearing men, (including him) or the women onstage do is merely about showing off. Instead juggling is used to delineate some of the tensions and attractions between human beings. The results – formal, flirtatious, flustered and often quite funny in a tongue-in-cheek manner – possess a darkly romantic humour entirely in keeping with the tenor of Bausch’s work and her observations of the often complicated relationship between desire and humiliation. This is juggling put to eccentric, even erotic ends, and it climaxes in a veritable orgy of destruction that completely lives up to the show’s title. What a treat. Bausch herself, I suspect, would’ve heartily approved. Certainly her company members do, as you can read below in this interview with the indefatigable Gandini.

Donald Hutera: Why has Smashed been such a smash-hit for the company?

Sean Gandini: Its success took us all by surprise. I think it’s a lucky combination of elements: the fact that the juggling objects (apples) are familiar, that the show deals with sexual tensions and power play, the 1940s aesthetic and the unison juggling. I think a lot of people haven’t seen unison juggling, but when it works there’s something visually seductive about lots of things in the air all at once. And then there’s the ending: I guess there’s something very primal about letting go of everything and accessing savagery.

DH: I know about the show’s origins of Smashed, which started outdoors in shorter form before being refashioned as a longer, indoor work. But how was it put together, by which I mean how did you determine its structure, and were there any stumbling blocks in that process?

SG: The first version of Smashed was commissioned by the National Theatre’s outdoor programme Watch This Space, but it wasn’t supposed to tour. We had a few ideas to play with and made it in a week with a joyous insouciance. We then reworked it twice, adding some scenes and removing one. It’s been an easy process all along – unlike some other pieces of ours!

SMASHED a Gandini Juggling Performance from Gandini Juggling on Vimeo.

DH: What’s special about the 40th anniversary edition for the Mime Festival? According to the festival website it’s meant to have 17 performers. What does the increase in numbers entail for you all, and is this the first time the cast has been this large?

SG: Actually if all goes to plan there might be around 25 onstage. We’re planning some surprises and changes too. We did a 20-person version at the European Juggling convention this year. Also we now have Dominique Mercy [a mainstay of Tanztheater Wuppertal for decades] as an outside eye, which makes this part of the whole project very special to us!

DH: What are some reasons you hold Pina Bausch’s work dear, and what influence has it had on you and the company?

SG: I think Pina hovers in the background of most physical performers in the creative sphere. She covered so much ground! In our ballet piece 4 x 4 (Ephemeral Architectures) there’s a moment when one of the ballerinas lifts her skirt and is wearing red underwear beneath it, and she says, ‘Red.’ This becomes a running theme in the show. We saw a revival of one of the pieces Pina made in the 1980’s recently, and in the middle of it there was a scene almost identical to this. We hadn’t ever seen this! It feels like Pina did it all before. I also love her moral ambiguity. The power play her work presents between the sexes isn’t simplistic or black and white.

4x4 Ephemeral Architectures Trailer from Gandini Juggling on Vimeo.

DH: I’ve asked you this before but will do so again, maybe especially in light of the current post-Brexit referendum muddle: As a British-based company how are you fixed or placed within the UK arts ecology versus the world beyond the UK’s borders?

SG: Oh goodness. Strangely we do most of our touring abroad where we’re ‘sold’ as a British company. There’s something about our humour… Yet in England I don't necessarily feel like we’re considered English. I feel like we run a European company. We’re in Los Angeles right now choreographing ten jugglers in an opera, and I feel our approach is decidedly European.

DH: How healthy and thriving (or not) is the art of juggling both in the UK and globally these days?

SG: Divinely healthy! I am biased of course. But I would say some of the most interesting avant-garde work in contemporary circus is coming from juggling. We’ve been working with the wonderful Water on Mars [a five-star hit show at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe created by the three-man company Plastic Boom] who are imbuing juggling with an effortless structural virtuosity. In France there a handful of companies producing very vibrant work. I like that you call it the art of juggling without giving this a second thought!

DH: Have your reasons for juggling shifted since you began, or since the company was founded, and, if so, how? And what were those original reasons anyway?

SG: Kati [Ylä-Hokkala] and I founded the company in order to make juggling that was filtered through a dance aesthetic, and to open up the juggling vocabulary and make group pieces. This is pretty much what we’re still doing. We are happy like watermelons.

DH: Is there a simple answer as to why people are so engaged by watching other people manipulate airborne objects?

SG: I think there’s something primal about watching people move or dance and as speaking apes, I guess one of our first evolutionary developments was using objects. The refinement we apes have achieved with objects is really remarkable. I think of this in terms of, for example, the violin. The first instrument was probably a stick with a string, but over a couple of hundred thousand years this turned into the modern violin! On a smaller scale the same is true of juggling – the fact that one can keep six objects in the air in delightful mathematical trajectories rejoices the eye.

DH: And the mind! In a nutshell, what’s your relationship with gravity?

SG: Love and hate.

DH: As a juggling innovator, have you any tips for people who might want to enter the profession?

SG: Practice, practice, practice! Think outside the box. Look at other art forms.

DH: Back to Smashed. What are some things you and the company have learnt – or continue to learn – from performing it?

SG: There’s something to learnt as a performer from repeating a show many times – an inner temperature to gauge. And I learn a lot from my colleagues.

DH: You said before that Dominique Mercy has become an outside eye for the big version of show planned for the Mime Festival. Have other Tanztheater Wuppertal members seen it and, if so, what was their response?

SG: We did a twelve-show run in Paris this summer and a few of the Pina performers came along. I was very nervous particularly when Dominique Mercy came! When we made the piece it was not supposed to tour, so its journey was partly accidental. At the back of my mind there was always this worry that someone from that company would come and say, ‘You can't to this!" Actually the reaction was the opposite. They gave us a lot of love. One of our favorite encounters was with Mariko Aoyama who remounted Pina’s The Rite of Spring for Paris Opera Ballet. After the show she came up to us and said, ‘You are one of us.’ 

The LIMF 40th Anniversary Special Edition of Smashed is at the Peacock Theatre 9th and 10th January. Click here for more information.

Curator, mentor and dramaturg Donald Hutera also writes about dance, theatre and live performance for The Times of London and many other publications and websites.