The most important factor separating good juggling festivals from great festivals is the personality of the event. Each festival takes on a particular persona reflective of the city and local juggling community. Austin Jugglefest XX in February 2013 really stood out as one of the most fun festivals of the past year. It’s a festival every juggler should highlight on their calendar each year. People commonly say, “Keep Austin Weird!” While that saying remains appropriate, equally appropriate statements could be: “Keep Austin Fun!”, “Keep Austin Nice!”, “Keep Austin Awesome!” or “Keep Austin a fantastic southern juggling hub where every juggler can go for fun, inspiration, and camaraderie!”
The festival began earlier than typical festivals in the United States, starting on Thursday night rather than Friday. The Texas Juggling Society (Austin Juggling Club) invited all jugglers attending the festival to a special free show Thursday night entitled ‘Between Someonesons’ performed by Wes Peden and Patrik Elmnert at the University of Texas. Before and after the show, jugglers were invited to juggle at the Texas Juggling Society’s usual meetup space. Not only was the show fantastic, but the ability to juggle for several hours before and after the show was a superb way to kick off the festival.
The festival proper was held at the Texas School for the Deaf from Friday through Sunday. Right from the get go, a large number of jugglers arrived on Friday. Although it was slightly confusing to find the gym inside the campus complex, once one arrived, the organizers made everything clear and easy. The efficient registration process and distribution of information made it clear that the organizers had been running a festival for twenty years. Every attendee was even given a chance to win a prize after registering!
They included all sorts of informative and exciting extras throughout the festival, such as a printed program detailing the festival itinerary with maps. There was a table with free snacks (donations welcomed), a gigantic balloon sculpture (everything is bigger in Texas), and plenty of vendors.
One thing I admired about the Austin Jugglefest XX was the ability for the festival to include the fire and spinning community of Austin. Juggling festivals often struggle to include the flow arts community, but Austin successfully incorporated this community in many ways. There were vendors selling poi and staffs, and a brilliant fire show Friday evening. Some of the members from this community provided crash space for jugglers arriving from out of town as well.
Moreover, Austin Jugglefest XX had a number of entertainers involved with the circus community at large. All sorts of fun things to try surfaced throughout the festival like walking globes of various sizes, a tight rope to walk on, and even an extremely long metal pole with a cup attached to the top – a popular challenge for jugglers to balance, then attempt to toss a ball up into the cup.
The renegade show Friday night was absolutely sensational. The show could easily have served as the main show at most festivals. First of all, it was hosted in the circular Zach Scott Kleberg theater creating an intimate environment for all jugglers. Every single act was unique and enjoyable. The Kamikaze Fireflies (Rob Williams and Casey Martin) executed their Emcee responsibilities flawlessly and kept everyone laughing throughout the performance. At one point Rob even made a demonstrably edible bologna sandwich using only his feet. Acts included Patrik & Wes, IJA teams silver medalists Institute of Jugglology, IJA silver medalist Thom Wall, cane freestyle master and 2013 PHIL award winner Drew Brown, a beautiful tribute to Luke Wilson, a high-energy diabolo routine by local diaboloist Thomas Gu, Kansas City juggler Greg Owsley’s breathtaking and inventive mixed prop routine, and a magnificent burlesque routine with a glass of wine impressively balanced upon the performer’s forehead for the entire act! Simply put, the renegade show was astoundingly terrific.
Saturday was filled with hundreds of jugglers from all over the country. In fact, a couple of jugglers from the UK even came, including Caspar Nonclercq who wandered the gym introducing incredibly interesting passing patterns to the jugglers from the states. Ingeniously, Austin Jugglefest XX dispersed various games throughout the days on Saturday and Sunday so that the festival didn’t ‘stop’ for several hours of games packed into a single chunk of time. As the day progressed, many jugglers migrated outside to juggle in the beautiful weather and consume free burgers provided by Jack in the Box. Patrik Elmnert even displayed some impressive pogo skills.
The location of the festival, the Texas School for the Deaf, created numerous advantages. While a bit tricky to find initially, it offered convenient proximity to some exceptional Austin restaurants, including a popular cluster of food trucks. Alternatively, there was an abundance of free snacks and food provided during the fest for those wanting to maximize juggle time and calories burned. To top everything off, the Public Show on Saturday evening was held in a large theatre on campus.
The Public Show boasted a lineup that could easily compete with the Cascade of Stars at the IJA. Scott Sorenson started things off with an energetic technical routine featuring five rings with a ball bounce, five clubs with a sixth club balanced, and an eight ring flash. Alex Chimal also entertained the audience with a classic, super-fast-paced juggling routine with flashy double spins, rapid-fire ball bouncing tricks and spun a LED dragonstaff with his feet! Some variety acts included the Kamikaze Fireflies who crowd-surfed the audience in giant hamster balls and AJ Silver with an old-school meets modern-day rope spinning comedy routine.
Of the variety acts, the highflyer jump rope team from Katy, Texas were a definite high point. Numerous kids spanning a wide range of ages (from first grade to college) jumped rope to exciting pop beats. The choreography was extremely creative and well-executed, the energy was electric, and the courage and showmanship of the performers won over the audience with affection to spare. Juggling shows featuring acts that don’t feature stereotypical ‘juggling’ help to prevent the audience from being oversaturated by similar acts, and might eventually even expand the definition of juggling itself.
Other juggling acts, however, also pushed the envelope to entertain in creative ways. Juggling coach at NECCA (New England Center for Circus Arts) Tony Duncan and student Kelsey Strauch revived Austin Powers in a clever and engaging partner juggling routine. Later on, Kelsey also performed a fantastic hooping routine in which she rolled three hoops consecutively across her back – great trick! NECCA graduate Thom Wall also performed an updated version of his silver medal winning ball routine which incorporated very high technical ability plus a wee bit of clownmanship. It was great to see Thom further develop an act that was already awarded a medal.
If the show wasn’t supremely amazing already, it concluded with spectacular solo routines by Patrik Elmnert and Wes Peden. Patrik demonstrated why he is one of the best jugglers in the world by performing live many complex ring patterns featured in Water on Mars, the recently released popular DVD featuring Patrik, Wes, and Tony Pezzo. Patrik’s creativity, technical ability, and smooth movement mesmerized the audience. He juggled seven rings in one moment, then balanced a ring on his forehead in another.
After balancing the ring, he went into a forward roll, catching the ring after it bounced off his back. He also did numerous balance tricks where the rings were stacked on top of each other in seemingly precarious fashion, yet somehow maintaining enough stability and equilibrium for Patrik to balance them.
To end the show, Wes Peden again demonstrated why he is the absolute best in the opinion of many jugglers. He performed a club routine packed with innovative and highly technical tricks. He juggled five clubs with reverse spins! Multiple times he hit a club with another club or allowed it to bounce and ricochet off of various body parts or the stage floor before catching the club. His routines are filled with tricks that remind jugglers just how far one can push the boundaries of juggling. With no doubt, juggling is art.
After the show, many of the jugglers and performers retreated to an afterparty at a house containing a firepole! What more could one want from a juggling festival!? At the party, performers and common jugglers alike socialized and shared a common bond. The Austin Jugglefest XX was elite, but not elitist. It featured superior talent with a humble attitude. It invited high profile performers, but welcomed everyone. Oh wait! There was still one more day! Yeah!
On Sunday, jugglers arrived at the gym bright and early. As if they were not sore enough, the acrobalance community continued to balance each other to the awe of everyone involved. Local juggler Noah Shipley continuously convinced innocent bystanders to try acrobalancing. Male and females alike would then be hoisted up on his feet as he instructed them how to transition from superman to bow positions. All they could do was laugh as they cartwheeled through the air. Other morning accomplishments included Caspar and Greg Owsley setting a world record for longest duration of the 7-club Holy Grail passing pattern. Later in the afternoon, a joggling race took place on the track and a mass toss-up occurred on the baseball field. Many jugglers stayed the entire length of the festival; why would someone leave a place hosting so much pure fun?
As mentioned in the beginning of this review, the Austin Jugglefest XX is in a class in and of itself in terms of festivals – not because of the talent, but because of the tremendous community. The organizers including Deborah Campbell, Jeremy Frank, Jim Maxwell, Jerry Peterson, and Steve Wiswell were all ever-present, enthusiastic and helpful. They each maintained very clear responsibilities, and consequently the festival ran very smoothly. Steve Wiswell was fantastic as the Emcee of the Public Show telling unicycling jokes, tap-dancing while juggling, and moving the long set-list right along. Jim Maxwell was always around to answer questions, match up jugglers with crash space providers, troubleshoot potential problems (he put out a major fire right before the renegade show), and ensure overall quality control. These organizers serve as commendable models to any juggling community aspiring to host a top tier festival. Anticipation and expectations for Jugglefest XXI will undoubtedly be quite high.
Kansas City Jugglers Greg Owsley and Andrew Olson