"The audience is there for all the right reasons -- to see a show. In nightclubs they may be there to dance or drink."
"Someone said it looked like we were playing out there. I think that's just the effect we're looking for."
Eight clubs under the big top, and the Flying Gaona's net!
Take two talented solo jugglers -- Barrett Felker and Jim Strinka -- and let them practice together with no distractions for four months. Take the team act they develop in that time -- the Dynamotion Jugglers -- and put it under the finest big top in America, The Big Apple Circus.
The combination of conditions produces a beautiful presentation of some of the best juggling in America today.
Dynamotion is currently kicking off the Big Apple Circus's 1986 show with an exciting six minutes that establishes a classy tone for the nine acts that follow. It's just what Felker and Strinka hoped for when they decided in February 1985 to team up. Neither had worked on a professional presentation with a partner before, but their individual credits indicated the possibility of collaborative success were good.
Felker, 27, toured worldwide with the Harlem Globetrotters for three seasons and made a name for himself with other jugglers through his mastery of five club backcrosses, among other technical strengths. Strinka, 25, didn't have as high a profile as Felker, but was well known in the Southwest as a tremendous numbers juggler and veteran street performer. He also gained some more formal experience in 1980-81 with the Circus Arts Troupe, which did shows in schools and shopping malls.
"Jim is one of the most natural jugglers I've ever encountered," said Felker. "He doesn't have to struggle to learn things. He's also on an even keel all the time, which is a good complement to my high and low mood swings."
Their Big Apple Circus act combines three elements they believe are key to success in the competitive field of professional juggling -- movement, skill and presence. Before discussing those in more detail, here's a description of their act:
The one-ring show begins with an old circus theme in front of 1,600 people seated under a sturdy big top. Ringmaster and circus director Paul Binder (whose career began as a street juggler) talks about the first American circus of John Bill Ricketts in 1793. As he talks, players roust themselves from sleep in an old circus wagon and scurry around to prepare for the day's show.
A beautiful white horse jumps through hoops in a couple of trots around the sawdust ring. Clowns and stilt walkers form a parade and the live band strikes up a happy tune. The commotion forms into a three-high climactic pyramid to announce that the circus has come to town. Two people on the pyramid and clown Michael Christensen (Binder's former street juggling partner) cascade three rings briefly before the introduction ends with everyone running back behind the curtain.
Felker and Strinka have walked behind the ensemble sometime during the action and begin an eight-ring color changing passing pattern right away. Rather than using one color and white, their Dube rings are in white and several colors that match their multi-colored striped shirts and blue satin pants.
Passing 8 rings
They throw the rings directly across from hand to hand in offset rhythm with no self-throws, so the action is much more profound than if they traveled around in a shower pattern from juggler to juggler.
Felker makes five changes of color, grabbing the trailing edge of each ring with each hand and turning it before throwing it back. With hardly a pause, those ten are set aside and five all-white rings are picked up for several run-around drop-backs to each other. Felker then grabs five more and they run circles around each other cascading five each. They finish by synchronously pulling one down over their necks and removing it several times, then end with a five ring pulldown capped by a double pancake flip catch.
Surprised? Not really! Strinka with a five ring drop back to Felker
After a quick bow and pause for applause, they turn to each other and pass all ten rings in the same straight across, no self-throw pattern as eight. ("We tried several patterns and this seemed easier," Strinka said. "Plus, it's better looking because there's no self-throw.") Felker ends the ring routine pulling all ten down over his head.
Passing 10 rings
Stage hands bring out two tom-tom drums and mallets for the next portion of the act. Facing each other, they beat out a quick rhythm with two clubs each, then pick up the third and continue the rhythm from a cascade. One man throws a mallet to the other, who juggles four while the tosser beats his drum. The fourth is thrown back and they reverse roles, answering each other's drum beat in the process. Each then gets three and they jump back and forth between drum sets keeping up a steady rhythm. The drums sound loudly and deeply throughout the tent, giving voice to the juggling rhythm.
Next come solo routines. Felker does two ping-pong balls with no hands, then five with a hand feed. Strinka follows with five red street hockey balls in various patterns, ending with a shower that Felker collects in a pouch.
The last props are Jugglebug clubs. They begin by trading three with leapfrog steals, then pass them back and forth in a shower punctuated by pirouettes. One by one, Felker adds three more on the floor to the pattern as the duo moves quickly back and forth across the circus ring.
They shower six with synchronous chop passes, pirouettes and shoulder throws, then go back to back with six in a shower. Again they face each other and move quickly in and out toward and away from each other, tossing a high pass when they are close and passing hard and straight when they back away from the center. They end by tossing one each high to the middle and catching it on one knee.
Passing 6 clubs
Two more clubs are added and they do synchronous moves with four clubs each. Juggling alternate columns with double spins, they run toward each other, drop to one knee in the middle and switch to single spins. They rise into doubles again and do a synchronous four club spread pattern. For a finale, they turn toward each other and pass the eight in a shower pattern. Strinka collects them all and they take a well-deserved bow.
"We're trying to put across an upbeat image so that people will feel, 'There's someone I'd like to meet,' when they see the show," Felker said.
Strinka added, "We wanted something different to set us apart from other acts. That's why we worked hard on movement and choreography. We want to present smoothness and good transitions between tricks. Someone in Switzerland said to me it looked like we were playing out there, like our act was spontaneous. I think that's just the effect we were looking for."
Their smiles throughout are only possible because of the complete confidence in their juggling. The cute asides, shrugs and nods to the audience, are well-planned. Under the professional lighting in the Big Apple ring, Dynamotion radiates joy and health.
For Felker, the job with Big Apple fulfills a dream. "Ever since I saw the Knie Circus in Switzerland in 1983 I wanted to work for a circus. The audience is there for all the right reasons -- to see a show. In nightclubs they may be there to dance or drink. In the Globetrotters show they came to see basketball, but this is ideal."
Strinka, too, enjoys the Big Apple atmosphere. "There's a lot of energy here with the live music and other performers around."
However, he admits missing the spontaneity and freedom of the street. "You get a different feeling getting a laugh on the street than getting a hand here," he explained. "I think I prefer the laugh, maybe because I'm more of a clown than a juggler. This show is helping my skills as a juggler."
That statement may sound odd coming from a man whose technical background is so strong. Strinka worked on seven rings until he could do 200 throws, and seven balls to the point of behind the back tosses and a finale heel catch.
The improvement he speaks of comes from performing difficult tricks in the strictly choreographed atmosphere of a circus act as opposed to the loose situation of the street. "On the street it doesn't matter if you drop," he said. "Here, there's more pressure for everything to be perfect. It's important to experience that pressure to develop our act for other stages, but it also means you're not free to try out new stuff like on the street."
Strinka considers the job a big step up for his career nonetheless. The pay is better than he's ever made and the circus represents an entree to the international juggling arena. Felker refuses to rank the street and stage according to value. "To me it isn't a step up, just like it wouldn't be a step down if I went back on the streets where I started. There are tremendous artists both places," he said.
Because of a busy performing schedule, Dynamotion seldom practices new material and juggles outside the show only for a half-hour warmup to each performance. "We put a lot of time into learning this, so we're content to just cruise right now," Felker said. "In the market we're working, you don't change your act much."
Their current act doesn't represent the limit of their capabilities, but includes tricks they consider perfectly reliable. "We practiced passing 11 rings until we got 100 throws, and even got 15 throws from each hand with 12 the one day we practiced that," Felker said. "But in the act we just want to be consistent with ten."
Their first show as a duo was live in front of more than six million people. That was in Chile last December for the nationwide television program, "Martes 13."
Felker said, "I was pretty nervous. We hadn't done anything for an audience except a couple of school shows back in Colorado. But Jim treated it as just another show. That tells you what his temperament is like!"
The two met originally in 1977 in Arizona. Strinka lived there and Felker was in school at Arizona University. Strinka had just learned to juggle and had never seen anyone do much with the skill until he and Felker began meeting to practice. "He was amazing," Strinka said. "I had never seen anyone that good in person."
They parted ways when Felker moved to Boulder, Colorado. Strinka went to college for a year, but quit because, "I was doing more juggling than studying." He worked with the Circus Arts Troupe for two seasons, then moved to Boulder himself in August 1981 because it was home to good jugglers like Felker, Airjazz and John Leffingwell. For more than three years he worked the streets and odd jobs in that region, including some fairs with Sean McMahon.
Felker returned from his third Globetrotters tour last winter and the two decided to become a team. They spent five months working up an act and a lot of money on a video and public relations material. They sent it out to agents in Europe and America and waited -- but not for long.
The decision to team up with Strinka represents a turning point in Felker's career. He worked hard to become a successful solo juggler and had tremendous ambitions in that regard. "There was a time when becoming the greatest juggler in the world was important to me," he confessed. "It was a hard lesson for me to learn that there were limitations to my skills with numbers. I learned to do a couple hundred throws with seven rings and balls, but being honest with myself I couldn't say it felt natural. I realized it just wasn't going to happen, so I decided to work on other things -- entertainment and the experience of travel."
His juggling inspiration was Dick Franco, the first American since Bobby May to work his way to the top of the juggling world from a non-theatrical, non-circus background. "He showed a lot of people it was possible," said Felker. "Here was an IJA juggler who made it big." Stu Raynolds provided a lot of moral support, and Kris Kremo continues to be a role model because of the complete choreography of his act from costume to music to technique. Fellow Boulder residents Airjazz helped Felker and Strinka work movement into their act.
"Michael Moschen is another favorite," Felker added. "I'm dumbfounded by what he can do. His control is phenomenal. When he rolls a ball along the back of his hands as he walks across stage you can easily imagine him stopping and the ball continuing without him."
As he has gained confidence and skill, Felker has begun looking at his own act, and others, in a new light. "Lately I find it more difficult to remember individual tricks. I'm more interested in the act as a whole and the general feeling it gives me."
The Dynamotion Jugglers convey a feeling of confidence and pride. It's hard work to get there, but other jugglers can learn a lot by watching.
Following their premier on the Chilean television show, they worked at the International Casino in Nairobi, Kenya, for the month of December 1985. Then it was off to Switzerland to work at Chez Maxim, the best nightclub in Geneva. The Big Apple Circus was the next concern to recognize their talent and sign them for a tour. As for the future, Dynamotion expects to continue working in international casinos and nightclubs. Felker would certainly not mind a European circus, either.