Michael Moschen at the Actors Gymnasium
The essay describes a recent juggling master class given by Michael Moschen at the Actors Gymnasium, in Evanston Illinois.
Michael Moschen at the Actors Gymnasium
Contact Juggling is an artform with many roots and origins. One of it's greatest influences is the modern juggler Michael Moschen. Like any artist Moschen has his critics, but his ability to innovate and impress audiences arround the world is telling testimony to his true skill as a performer. Many attempts to classify Moschen have failed. Some see him as simply a performance artist, while others view him more as a modern juggler and manipultor of strange and unusual objects. Any performance by Moschen will leave an impression on spectators. While he is a capable juggler, many of the objects that he uses in his performance are not conventional juggling props. Over the course of an evenings performance, Moschen will make a steel rod levitate in his hands and roll balls across every part of his body. While he is on stage, audiences will witness an almost magical performance, silver hoops seem to float from his hands and a paper cylinder will dance in time to music, accompanied by dramatic lighting effects. Often he will leave the stage and the equipment that he has been working with will continue to revolve and move of it's own accord. Moschen's ability to take ordinary objects and give them a life of their own has stunned audiences around the world, and indeed allowed him to pursue full time the life of a professional juggler and performer. As a result of his total commitment to his pursuit, he has developed an intimate understanding, not only of juggling but of the creative process of performing.
Recently I had the unique opportunity to meet with Michael Moschen. Given that he has had such an influence on juggling and contact juggling in particular , I thought it only fair to record some of my observations after I took a class that he offered here in Chicago. I honestly believe that many people in the contact juggling community would be fascinated by the opportunity that I was given and will enjoy reading the essay themselves. What follows is basically a forum post that I posted to the website, immediately after returning from Moschen's class. After the post appeared on the contactjuggling.org forum it received generally favorable reviews and it is for this reason that I have elected to submit an edited version of the post as an essay.
Okay, I'm back from the workshop. The Actors Gymansium is about an hour from where I live, in Evanston Illinois, just north of Chicago along the lakefront. Moschen's class however was in a church, quite close to the gymnasium. Tonight he will be performing at the gym itself, so I plan on going to see that performance as well as the workshop, which I attended last night.
All in all the class was a very interesting experience. We had maybe thirty or so jugglers all of varying ages and abilities. There were some very accomplished jugglers who attended the class. Among the various members of the class, I recognized a few local Chicago area jugglers from Midnight circus as well as Andy Head, an absolutely fantastic hat juggler. We also had at least twenty people who paid just to observe the class from the sidelines. Many of these people were parents of children taking the class, however most of them appeared to be involved with the Actors Gymnasium in some way, I guess they were staff members and trainers/coreographers.
Moschen started the class by asking us to introduce ourselves and to briefly explain what we expected from the class. I personally perform a fair mixture of toss juggling and contact juggling, and as a result had brought a lot of props with me including stage balls. I resolved however, that I wouldn't bring up the topic of contact juggling unless Moschen broached the subject first. Consequently, when Moschen asked me what I wanted to learn, I told him that I was looking for ways to make my juggling more visually appealing. Other people, mostly younger students were not shy at all however, about asking him to teach them how to contact juggle. Once we had gone around the group he introduced himself and then we got to work. And it was WORK, I mean this was a real class, my legs still hurt today. You have to remember that Moschen is also a dancer, and his style of juggling is quite physical, he moves around a lot.
The class begain with streaching and body movement excercises. Some of these drills were dance and mime related. After that we moved onto balance work, using wooden poles that he brought and distributed amongst the class. Moschen believes strongly in the value of balance. He is firmly of the opinion that a balanced performance, where the performer can control his/her body smoothly and fluidly will always look better than one where the performer is out of control, lunging around. As a result we spent a lot of time experimenting with the limits of our balance, standing on our toes and moving our bodies in relation to the balance. He gave us drills to work on which he claimed would improve our abilities to test the limits of our balance. He also used the balance excercises to demonstrate his basic principals of juggling that there are three parts to every juggling trick, 1) setup 2) execution/throw and, 3) response to throw. According to Moschen, most jugglers blow the first step, they dont' set themselves up well for a trick, they are unbalanced and, they have a sloppy trick that leads to another sloppy trick. Movements have to be precise and controlled otherwise you can't hope to perform continous tricks easily.
After the balance work we moved on to one ball manipulations and tricks. We spent a lot of time working and moving with a single ball, different types of throws and various types of catching drills. Finally, we started to link the drills together. Moschen explained that he always thinks of tricks in a sequence. So the minute he learns a trick, he tries to link other tricks with it. He personally showed me some ways to make my pirouette under a thrown ball look much cleaner. Moschen brings a lot of performance experience to a class, and he has a quick understanding of the minute diffences that can make a trick more visually appealing to an audience. It should also be said that Moschen is really fun to watch juggle. He has fantastic control, really smooth kickups and expert control of his throws. He begain every drill by demonstrating the drill himself. I watched him perform each drill flawlessly , and it is obvious that not only does he practice these drills himself, he is a firm believer in their value to improve any performance at any level. Moschen believes that a great throw is critical to juggling, "anyone can learn to catch garbage," he stated "but a good controlled throw makes you a great juggler."
This was an appropriate introduction into the next section of the class which involved three ball work. We started with a basic cascade of three balls. He had us doing drills where we would streach our arms and lift the pattern of the balls up and down. During these drills we would perform all types of high/low/wide and narrow throws. As any numbers juggler would tell you, developing a high accurate throw is crucial to good juggling and Moschen would also tell you the same thing. Again the object of these drills was to perform the throws without moving your feet, staying perfectly still and balanced. Moving your feet indicates a poor throw and will result in a less than perfect catch. The idea of keeping your feet still, is not an original one. Jason Garfield is another firm proponent of this technique, but it is good to see the idea reinforced because it is an important one in toss juggling. We also did some interesting work with the shower pattern, Moschen believes that the secret to a good shower pattern is having both arms perfectly level. As Moschen juggles he keeps his arms low and level throught all his throws. When Moschen juggles his hands rarely reach too far above his waist. The result is a larger pattern, which looks much more visually pleasing, and I experimented with this idea somewhat finding it very useful. I resolved that in the future I will attempt to keep my arms lower and streach out my toss juggling patterns a little more by dropping not just my shoulders but my forearms and hands as well. Moschen went around to each individual juggler and gave them both a compliment and a criticism. He showed me very quickly how to improve my shower pattern by bringing my hands closer together. This was something else that I quickly learned about Moschen, he has a tremendous amount of juggling knowledge. It was really amazing how he could walk from one person to another and very quickly improve some little part of their juggling pattern. Moschen has obviously made an almost scientific study of juggling and he can quickly isolate problems that most jugglers don't even realize are plaguing their ability to perform a trick. I saw him do the same thing with club juggling as well, he seems to know a fair bit about club passing and I witnessed an almost instantaneous improvement in some of the students in a very short time.
A majority of the class wanted Moschen to teach them to contact juggle. After the three ball workshop, Moschen took the contact jugglers and aspiring contact jugglers to one side and we sat down to talk. Basically Moschen is of the opinion that contact juggling, at least for him, really doens't exist. He doesn't practice contact juggling, instead he is a performance artist who experiments with props and his body. At an earlier point in his life after he developed a particular one ball routine, I suppose he is referring to the "Light" routine, other people started to write books and teach others how to do what he was doing. It never occured to him at the time that he was developing a style of juggling, merely that he wanted to develop something that no-one else was doing and he wanted to express himself. At its most basic, contact juggling to Moschen is a metaphor. The one ball routine that he performs is a metaphore for life and death. Moschen's one ball routine was inspired by the death of one of his close personal friends. He explained this to us while he was performing some contact juggling and it was absolutely fascinating to watch. At the core of his one ball work is the basic rule that his hands must not close around the ball. When Moschen works with a prop and develops ideas, he formulates a simple rule that he tries to follow throught the performance. In the case of one ball work it is that his hands must not close around the ball. Closing your fingers around the ball implies control, and like the ball Moschen explained, we cant control our lives, we can only enjoy them, life flows, it progresses , its up to us to get out of the way and let it take it's course until death. So if you close your hand around the ball you are taking control of your life, a control which is really an illusion, because eventually death will come. Watching him explain this and juggle at the same time was really a pognient experience. Seeing contact juggling the way Moschen sees it was a fantastic experience for me personally , for the first time ever I was able to see the connection between the art and the artist. I also realized how much the routines mean to him personally and how important they are to his identity as an artist. He stated that when he first started contact juggling he was using glass and crystal balls, which he described as "dangerous." He also claims that his idea of the butterfly move was pivotal to the rest of his one ball routine development. Moschen spent a great deal of time trying to slow down the movement of the single ball as much as possible. From the very beginning he was convinced that a slow movement of a single ball would appear more graceful to the audience. He claimed that it took him quite a while before he was able to smoothly control the ball at a slow speed. According to Moschen it took him about 15 years before he was really relaxed and "able to get out of the way of the ball."
Moschen also talked about palm spinning. The palmspinining routine that Moschen performs was inspired by the birth of is daughter. He is a fantastic palm spinner, very fluid when spinning balls in both hands and both directions. In case you are wondering the metaphor that he was trying to express with his palm spinning routine is childbirth and family, trust me it would be a lot easier if I showed you this one than try to explain it, but again it was very interesting hearing it from him.
It should be stated that during the class Moschen did not actually teach anyone how to contact juggle. Once he impressed upon people how personal the routines were to him he stated that he doesn't really teach this type of manipulation. However if people brought specific problems they were having to him, I noticed that he would help them. One young student was having some problems with palm spinning and Moschen did give him some pretty good advice about flattening out his hands. To put it simply Moschen refuses to teach a class as a group how to contact juggle because, as I have said before, to him contact juggling really doesn't exist. However if an individual student approaches him with a specific problem he or she is having be it with plam spinning or with one ball work, it appears that he will be receptive and help that person with whatever problem they might be having in the performance of practice of a specific trick.
Once the contact juggling portion of the class was complete Moschen went around to other jugglers who had specific issues that they wanted him to help them with. He is very creative and it shows right away when he works with other people. Some jugglers did bring experimental props, that they were trying to develop routines with and he gave them new ways and ideas to approach the development of their routines. His central premise was the same though for all types of apparatus. The first was that an object has something that is was designed to do naturally, so as a manipulator, you should try to find out what that something is. If for instance an object lends itself to naturally being balanced, then find that balance and then get out of the way. If a ball rolls well, then learn how to roll it fluidly, where it will least interfer with your body, make the objects the focus of your performance, not your body. Also when developing a new or unique routine, it is often helpful to develop a rule, or rules when working with that particular object ie, "I won't move my left foot" or, "I won't close my right hand," and then stick with that particular rule throught the development of the routine. Whether the audience realizes the rule or not, doesn't really matter, it is your unique rule that will create a new discipline , just as he created his one ball crystall ball manipulation by not closing his hand around the ball.
Moschen was most gracious with his time. Even though the class was scheduled for three hours, he spent a lot of time after the class was over helping individual jugglers. I wish I could have stayed a little longer but it was turning late and people were bombarding him with questions.
I can honestly say I had a great time. I didn't pretend to understand everything he said, but I did take away something from the workshop and he helped us all as a group and me personally. It was fantastic seeing him describe the development of his routines and obtaining some insight into his creative process. For me it was a very positive experience and a lot of fun as well. I hope that I have shared some of the ideas I have learned and that should you get a chance to take a class with Michael Moschen, I have inspired you to do so.