I’m Rob, known in a previous life as Bluecat. I live in Scotland and work as a teacher and performer with a company called Circus Alba. I help run Play Festival, one of the OG ‘not a juggling convention’ festivals over in Europe, and I set up the Uberevents series of masterclass events almost 10 years ago that helped rapidly expand shared knowledge in the pre-youtube world. I’m here to introduce you to the scene on the other side of the pond.
Juggling Conventions? Circus conventions?
When is a juggling convention not a juggling convention? When it’s a circus festival in all but name. Earlier this April, nearly 1000 circus types converged on Darton College in the north of England for the British Juggling Convention. 20 years ago this would have been mostly jugglers with a smattering of others, but this year was full of aerialists, acrobats, spinners, jugglers, wheelers, balloon modellers, whip crackers, unicyclists and knife throwers and many, many more.
In the UK we don’t have Flow Festivals, we have juggling conventions. Loads of juggling conventions – I can think of more than 20 without doing a serious count, all within an area half the size of California. It’s a model replicated across Europe, with events ranging from 1 to 10 days. Some events that would probably be called Flow festivals if they were in the states, but they take their inspiration from the convention style of event with a focus on shows, attendee-driven workshops and not so much fire. Conventions have played a huge part in the development of the spinning scene, and in all honesty, many people in Europe don’t even know what ‘Flow’ means in this context. I took a straw poll of around 30 people at the BJC and the number who could give a coherent description of Flow Arts could be counted on the fingers of one hand.
In any case, those of us over here who would nominally be part of the Flow scene have a huge debt and love for these events and our history within them. I caught up with acro and contact staff guru Chazz Parham who explained: ‘A big thing is the inspiration that can be gained from seeing the whole variety of circus arts. Jugglers are taking inspiration from spinners, spinners are taking inspiration from jugglers and everyone else. Juggling conventions are the main meets for the spinning community now; but they’re not even juggling conventions any more. The name has stuck from 20 years ago – they are circus conventions, manipulation conventions, they could even be flow conventions!‘.
Oh, you mean the Spinning Arts
The spinning arts have infiltrated the juggling scene over here to such an extent that most events invite major hoop, poi or staff performers to perform and teach. When you see clubs on stage it’s just as likely to be a fluid, artistic and creative style as it is a hardcore technical juggling act, and the different disciplines of circus feed off each other non-stop. Florent Lestage garnered one of the biggest ovations of the week with his act involving canes and clubs; a stunning mix of contact, toss juggling, crazy shapes and patterns and inspired manic theatre mesmerising everyone in the room on the final night. One of the major advantages to the convention scene is it’s focus on performance; and this year didn’t disappoint. I was personally very pleased to get on stage with my partner Suzy less than 3 months after the birth of our daughter, and we had a great reception for our acro, clowning and manipulation piece ‘Late for work’.
A BJC regular and one of the headliners this year was Wes Peden; who is heading to FireDrums in a few weeks. Another who isn’t totally sure how ‘Flow’ differs from ‘Circus’ and ‘Juggling’, he’s excited to come to the festival and to discover the different philosophies of training and creation that come with a different outlook. As he describes his own take on being at any circus meet: ‘One of my favourite things is just talking to different jugglers about their process, about how they think about juggling – I think you can learn a lot more about how you can create work if you understand how someone else forms ideas’. It’s pretty clear he’s not limiting the use of the word ‘juggling’ to just mean clubs, balls and rings; rather he sees all manipulation in the same light, though his tools are the classic props. When pressed on what difference or separation there might be between juggling and Flow (if any) he replies: ‘You know, I’m not sure but I’m really interested to discuss with people at FireDrums how their aesthetic has become so specific – I have a hard time defining it now and they definitely have a different style to me. That’s why I’m so excited to talk to people, get their opinions and find out how their creative process works’ .
As someone who I’ve met many times and only seen go close to fire once, I have to ask if he was looking forward to that aspect of a Flow Festival…? ‘The reason I don’t use it