Juggler's World: Vol. 39, No. 2

New Perspectives on Competition

While the debate on the ethics of juggling has been going on for years, the innovation of IJA championships has resulted in a more modern issue: are the championships good for juggling?

Three founders - Roger Montandon, Art Jennings and George Barvin - all have mixed emotions. They speak as innovators themselves, having gone against the general grain to establish the IJA, and are not quick to condemn its fruits. However, they see a revival of the jealousy and animosity the IJA was founded to overcome, and would like to see some de-emphasis in the area. Nor are they comfortable with the "gymnastics" aspect of technical juggling.

The street performing "championships" and Renegade's midnight un-conventions are pleasing steps to these men. Generally, however, the veterans are in favor of whatever helps juggling. Jennings says he has to admit that "putting juggling in a competitive and sports connotation has certainly developed the art far beyond my expectations."

It must be admitted by even the detractors that the championships have helped focus much more attention on the IJA nationally than did the public shows and big toss-ups alone. Roger Dollarhide, who established the championships in 1969 partially for this very end, is proud that his efforts have blossomed so well. He answers critics with the simple logic that the success of the championships is self-evident in all respects.

Successful or not, there are those who, while perhaps taking a live-and-let-live attitude toward competitors and techno-jugs, scratch their head about its benefits. Avner Eisenberg said:

"I'm into technical juggling - but I haven't found any real way to use it in the show except occasionally. I've never been into that competitive side of juggling. It seems bizarre." - Juggler's World, Spring 1986

Another view is that technical and competitive juggling is antithetic to juggling as an art form. Francis Brunn said:

"I can understand why a man wants to run the fastest 100 meters, but I don't believe in juggling competitions. It's like seeing who can paint a painting the fastest!" - Juggler's World, Spring 1986

The advent of achievement pins awarded for different skill levels, as promoted in Dave Finnigan's new book, "The Complete Juggler," will undoubtedly broaden the controversy. Art Jennings, who has been virtually turned around on his attitude toward the championships, is keeping his mind open on the pins. He believes that setting levels is impractical because of the entertainment value in different routines of lesser difficulty, and admits that juggling is purely entertainment to him. "It has nothing to do with 'Oh my God! Look at that!'" he said. Nevertheless, having seen several eras of juggling come and go, he admits, "I could be totally wrong."

Another vociferous group of critics is found in Europe. The growth of American juggling-bashing has grown in direct proportion to the success of the championships. Europeans see the IJA championships as another manifestation of American lust for fame, bigness and illusory immortality of the Las Vegas variety.

Yet European juggling, with its deep circus tradition, has always been very technically oriented, while the American tradition, with its roots in carnival and vaudeville, has been much more comically oriented, with heavy emphasis on achieving a personal rapport with the audience. As our two pendulums swing toward and past each other, the pot seems to be calling the kettle black.

As for competitions, the Europeans have their Cirque de Demain and Monte Carlo circus championships. These and others, with prizes meaning far more than money to the winners, represent championships much older than the IJA variety.

Much of the argument stems from the fact that many people now recognize a sports aspect in juggling. To the old-timers it was a business and an entertainment form. They even had to reconcile themselves to the new and high-borne idea that it was an art. Now a lot of jugglers are having trouble with the idea of juggling as a sport.

Toby Philpott, however, writing in "Kaskade," defended seriousness in juggling. He pointed out that every game has evolved from a pebbles-in-the-dust rudiment to highly structured play. His implication is that the underlying play is still there, justifying the seriousness. "This is not a bad thing, as play can include seriousness in a way that the serious business of the world can never tolerate playfulness."

An interesting about-face on the topic was provided by Francois Chotard, writing in the same issue of "Kaskade." He first stated flatly that juggling is a sport:

"Like sport, juggling means competition, striving for a title, a record, a crown. The gold medals and Golden Clowns of the European circus competitions bear witness to this. And on this subject, I think the European conventions have got a long way to go. As well as competitions for fun, it would be beneficial and motivating if serious competitions were to be organized."

To this end, he suggested a litany of ideas for structuring the European competitions that made the IJA championships look informal. However, before that issue of "Kaskade" went to print, he had changed his mind. He attended the Third Annual International Festival of Juggling and Magic in France and found it dominated by the sense of competition:

"I could feel the tension, the nervousness, the grind, all the things which militate against a spirit of pleasure, of fun." His answer was to leave the competition to specifically designated festivals and the fun juggling to the European juggling conventions.

The headline of the Chotard article was "Olympics for Olympians" and suggests the unspoken: some people dream of juggling as an Olympic competition. This is no longer as far-fetched as it once seemed. The "Guinness Book of World Records," that embodiment of Andy Warhol's "15 minutes of fame for everyone," has now taken an active interest in jugglers. The fairly recent addition to the Olympics of rhythmic gymnastics, using ribbons, hoops and balls, is so close to juggling it makes your eyes water. And, as Chotard put it:

"Personally I can see at least as many sporting qualities in a juggler as in a rifle marksman in the Olympic shooting competition."

You can't argue with a truism like that. The truth is, the Olympics may claim to promote sporting competition, but the entertainment value of events such as ice skating is unquestioned. This fact paves the way for the aspirations of some jugglers.

What we have come to learn, then, in the 40 years of IJA history, is that Juggling, with a capital J, is a pretty complex thing. We had better keep an open mind to the variety of attitudes it encompasses!

New Perspectives on Competition / Index, Vol. 39, No. 2 / jis@juggling.org
© 1996 Juggling Information Service. All Rights Reserved.