It seems counterintuitive to marry the minimalism of Philip Glass’ score with jugglers. But juggling is an important aspect of Phelim McDermott’s staging for Akhnaten and sets the tone for the piece. An entire troupe of jugglers – under the leadership of world-renowned Sean Gandini – perform throughout the opera. We spoke with Gandini about his juggling life (a career that includes leading Gandini Juggling for the past twenty-five years) and work his troop’s role in Akhnaten.
What drew you to juggling?
When I was a kid, I always used to juggle three or four balls for fun, and I also used to do magic. As a teenager, I performed street shows in London’s Covent Garden and I saw someone juggling five balls. I got so hypnotized that I thought, “Well, I must learn to do five.” From that moment, I got addicted – kind of like playing the piano; I loved the beautiful patterns you can create through juggling.
What inspired you to form Gandini Juggling?
I met my wife Katia Ylä-Hokkala and she had just retired as a rhythmic gymnast at the age of 19. She’d spent all her life throwing and catching clubs, balls, and ribbons and then all of a sudden they said that’s it. So, she came to London to be an au pair and we bumped into each other accidently in Covent Garden. She picked up two of the clubs that I had and started juggling them, and I said, “Oh!” Then, the gym we used to practice in had contemporary dance classes, so right from the beginning our juggling was filtered through this dance aesthetic. Our juggling also had structure – which opera and dance have a lot of – and from the beginning we wanted to be part of that world. We knew juggling could be structured like notes in a musical composition.
How did you get involved with Phelim McDermott and Akhnaten?
A lot of Akhnaten is Phelim and Tom [Pye]’s dream realized and Phelim imagined juggling in the opera. My troupe and I had experience with contemporary classical music and I was so excited when Phelim contacted me and asked if we could choreograph juggling to Philip Glass music. I told Phelim that the first recorded images of juggling are these wonderful hieroglyphics of women juggling.
What are some of your favorite moments from Akhnaten?
The opening funeral scene is quite marvelous. It’s us imagining what those first jugglers were juggling in ancient Egypt. We’re juggling in these hieroglyphic-like positions on the top of the set. Below us, members of the chorus sing the entire time, while doing one ball choreography. It takes remarkable coordination and there’s a beautiful little moment when our juggling and their movements comes together. They are fantastic and it was fun to teach them and spread the love of juggling.
There’s also a great moment in the section called “City,” where we do metaphorical juggling. We illustrate through juggling what Zachary James, who plays the Scribe, is saying in that moment and then he juggles with us.
Ironically, some of my favorite moments in the opera don’t have juggling in them. There’s something really beautiful about the absence of juggling when Akhnaten is alone on stage and the chorus sings a hymn from off stage. You still have the echo in the space of all the juggling we just did. In that way, it’s like in music when people say that the silence is full of stuff.
What does the juggling represent in the opera?
There’s a marvelous moment in the making of art, where things take on a life of their own and you don’t know how they become that thing. I don’t think Phelim or I had a sense of what the juggling would be when we first started and, through exploration, the juggling has taken on a life of its own within the world of the opera. Sometimes the juggling can be a dramatic prop; sometimes it emphasizes the score; other times it represents the character’s thoughts. I quite like when the juggling has layers.
What is the secret to being a good juggler?
It takes practice. A lot of intelligent practice. But, you also need obsession with juggling. You need to really love it and be obsessed with it. If you don’t have that, you can’t be really good.
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