Balancing a stack of precisely sized square wooden boxes as tall as his own body, Germantown circus artist Greg Kennedy quips onstage that this is what $100,000 of engineering school buys you. But Kennedy is a lot more than an engineer, or a designer, or a performer. Whatever he is, he’s also part dancer, part comedian, part mathematician, and, of course, part juggler.
His world-class dexterity and consummate showmanship was on display in his solo hour-long Fringe show, “Innovative Juggler,” at the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts.
No fear of failure
“What I always tell people is not to be afraid of failure,” he said of his art form. “For everything that I do in my show that you see onstage, there are two apparatuses getting dusty in the basement. But I don’t view them as failures. I really see them all as learning curves.”
Many of those apparatuses come out to play in “Innovative Juggler,” including a galaxy of white balls in a giant plastic cone, and a V of wood that Kennedy said came about one day when he stood on his coffee table to fix some curtains and broke it in half. Another is like a marble track on steroids with a touch of roller coaster. He’s won international awards with his original contraptions, putting his engineering expertise to a use few scientists would dream of.
“I’ve been one of the privileged few just really pushing what the art form of juggling is,” he said of moving beyond “traditional juggling,” some techniques of which have been around for centuries.
“We all started off as kids as jugglers who could do, like, seven balls and five clubs, and we took that as vocabulary, and we decided we want to tell stories, but we want to tell stories in our way,” he explained of the boundary-breaking few.
Inspiration at Ikea
There is a rigorous mathematical foundation to some of what he does — for example, a formula developed by a fellow juggler with a Ph.D. in mathematics in the in 1970s and 80s that governs the force and pattern of the tosses, allowing the performer to craft routines of dizzying precision.
This shows up in an “Innovative Juggler” piece that has Kennedy sitting on the stage, rolling large, shiny silver bowls into perfect orbit around him. But for all that math, the seed of that bit was also an unexpected moment of inspiration that the artist himself didn’t immediately understand.
He found the bowls one day at Ikea, he said. “I had no idea what I was going to do with them, but I was like, these are beautiful. I want to keep them; I want to use them; I don’t know how.” He bought them and took them home and struggled with throwing them into the air before he realized they would roll on the ground in beautiful arcs.
“From the moment that I figured out I could roll these bowls on the floor, I performed that routine three months later,” thanks to the math he incorporated into the technique. “That’s extraordinarily quick in my process.”
Keep a notebook
Kennedy is a veteran of Cirque du Soleil — until last year, he and his wife and family were on tour with Cirque before opting for a more settled life in Northwest Philly, and the more nimble artistry and innovation life as a smaller-scale performer could offer (though he does incorporate one of his signature Cirque juggling routines into this Fringe show, and it’s well worth seeing up close).
But his process is one an artist of any medium could relate to.
“I look at moments in life, and if something captures me and is visually interesting and touching to me,” he said, he jots it down in a sketchbook or a notebook, and thinks of how he could recreate it through the objects he manipulates onstage. A successful example is the piece he calls “Willow,” in which he seems to dance with slender white poles that he whips gracefully around him.
“On a beautiful day, I was laying on a picnic table looking up through the trees and watching the branches swaying in the wind,” he said. “How do I want to recreate that?” he thought at the time.
It doesn’t always work out. For example, he has yet to capture the feeling he got many years ago watching morning light reflected from the puddles of a recent rainstorm dance on his bedroom ceiling. He’s tried bits of chandelier and different lighting effects to no avail — so far, anyway.
“Still to this day, I haven’t solved that, but it’s ok because I’ll have that memory in my brain, and I know that someday I will solve that problem…and demonstrate it for a group of people so they can see the same beauty.”
A juggler’s history
“Innovative Juggler” starts out with many of the tricks audiences love and expect, incorporating light, color, and objects from hats to knives to a bowling ball. But the show transitions into the most cutting-edge forms of juggling that have been around for only a few years.
“I have some routines in there that I’ve been doing for literally 20 years, but I kind of want to tweak those into a transition and take people on a journey into the more modern movement, so the show in some cases is a history of juggling and my history,” Kennedy said.