x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Life at the big top: the 34th Annual European Juggling Convention

Around 10,000 people are expected to gather in Munich for the 34th Annual European Juggling Convention. We talk to some of the performers.

Competitors practising at the European Juggling Convention.
Competitors practising at the European Juggling Convention.

It's surreal at first: wandering through Munich's vast Olympic Park, dazzled by the blinking lights and blaring carnival music, the screams from the amusement park rides piercing the air like sound effects from a bad horror flick.

The steady rainfall adds a depressing edge to the scene, drenching the carnival-goers with a healthy dose of melancholy. But to the left of the Ferris wheel, past the bumper cars, over a hill and under an overpass, something quite beautiful is taking shape.

At the big-top, tents emerge in bright-red cones above leafy treetops. A few people, hoops and juggling clubs strapped to their backpacks, struggle through the rain towards them.

In Munich, considered by so many Germans to be Germany's least colourful city, some of the world's more colourful characters are converging for the 34th Annual European Juggling Convention. The nine-day gathering of jugglers and circus arts performers began on Saturday and wraps up on Sunday The largest of its kind in the world, it is this year expected to be larger than ever, attracting an estimated 10,000 people.

In the years since its inception, the convention has grown from a few hundred performers and enthusiasts to the world's premier juggling event. It's not a festival, as so many of the jugglers point out, but a convention, where some of the world's top performers mix with amateurs and up-and-comers, where new skills are learnt and innovations tested.

This year's convention will bring together jugglers from 63 countries (none, unfortunately, from the UAE). Among them are Okotanpe from Japan, considered one of the world's best contact jugglers, and Jonglissimo from Austria, world champion jugglers and four-time world record holders in team juggling.

For these guys, juggling is serious stuff. In fact, for so many of the people attending the EJC, juggling is not something to be trifled with.

"But still, people who don't juggle don't understand it," says Sonja Boeckmann, one of the organisers of this year's convention and a historian who is currently putting together an archive of all the EJCs. "Circus arts still occupy a lower rung on the arts ladder."

Cirque du Soleil, the internationally acclaimed circus, has pushed the limits, demonstrating that circus arts occupy a space beyond the stereotypical notions of people throwing things around and catching them.

"These days, there are elements of theatre, dance and music in circus performances," says Chris Kloester, a juggler from Australia. "In some ways, the circus arts are more difficult than any of these other performance disciplines." Mastering performances takes years of dedication involving choreography, dance and music, costumes and props.

"This is the one thing I've noticed about the juggling community over the past couple of decades," says Mathias Pusch, the head of the EJC's volunteer corps. "The quality of performances has gone beyond belief. The skills that these people have are incredible."

According to Pusch, who began serving as a convention organiser in 1994, the internet has been a boon for the juggling community. YouTube has pushed juggling skills into cyberspace, where jugglers who have never met in person can share skills and learn from each other.

But there is nothing like a convention to bring together the creative force of thousands.

The healing power of circus arts is perhaps one of its least understood and appreciated elements. Recent studies have begun to show that learning to juggle, especially as an adult, repairs parts of the brain related to movement and coordination.

Early results show that juggling can delay the onset of brain degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's, so learning to juggle may not only be fun, but doctor-recommended.

And for children, especially those traumatised by war and displacement, the healing power of play cannot be overstated. One of the most successful programmes in Afghanistan - the Mini Mobile Circus for Children - taps into the wealth of creative energy children naturally possess and turns it into a kind of therapy, helping young Afghans recover from the horrors they've faced in their war-torn country. The juggling convention gives those who organise these crucial programmes an opportunity to meet and share their ideas. This year, Andrea Russel, the brains behind SPARK! Circus - which brings together volunteer circus performers from around the world who spend a month every February travelling to orphanages and refugee camps at the Thai-Burmese border - has asked one of her former volunteers to recruit males for the 2011 group.

"I don't want the kids to think only girls do circus," Andrea writes in her Facebook message. "Please, find me some men!"

It shouldn't be too hard. The EJC is a massive repository of circus talent. And if there's one thing jugglers can never turn down, it's a chance to perform.