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Juggling the dance of promiscuous collaborators Sean Gandini and Alexander Whitley

Sean Gandini, Artistic Director of Gandini Juggling, and choreographer Alexander Whitley are both keen collaborators - Sean even refers to himself as a 'promiscuous collaborator'. Yet the interaction between dance and juggling has, for Sean, proved to be one collaboration he is repeatedly drawn back to.

Spring, with Alexander Whitley, is perhaps Sean's most in depth exploration into dance and juggling to date. Ahead of its Sadler's Wells main stage debut as part of the London International Mime Festival 2019 (LIMF), Rachel Elderkin caught up with the pair to discover a little more about their recent venture and why dance and juggling has proved such a fruitful collaboration.

"I saw a piece Alex made on Rambert" explains Sean in answer to how this particular collaboration first began. "Often when I watch things I’m thinking, 'how can juggling feed off that?' There was something about the complexity of Alex’s work that drew me and, curiously, this piece with Rambert had some overlap with a piece I was then making with classical dancers."

The piece in creation was 4x4 Ephemeral Architectures, one of Gandini’s earlier collaborations between dance and juggling. While it was Sean who approached Alex, coincidentally 4x4 was a piece that had likewise sparked Alex’s curiosity.

"4x4, I’m somewhat ashamed to say, was one my first experiences of contemporary circus. I was amazed at the sophistication of an art form I’d dabbled in as a child. My own journey from ballet into contemporary dance has been a lot about playing with its structures and forms so, having seen the work Sean had done around ballet, I was certainly curious about how those ways of thinking could be applied to juggling."

Alex describes Spring as a work in which it’s not immediately obvious who is a dancer and who is a juggler. For both, it had been clear from the outset that their collaboration would be a dialogue between their two art forms. So, the dancers learnt to juggle and the jugglers participated in warm up and class, led by Alex. Much of Alex's choreography works into the floor so, while many of the jugglers have, in Sean's words, "a long history of movement", floor work was less familiar and a skill they had to acquire.

"Juggling, quite literally, occupies a higher space" explains Alex. "My choreography is as high or as low as the body can be. What’s interesting for me here is how ideas can be at work across a wider range of space than they would normally be."

"In its pure form, even when a juggler is standing still, they are sending choreography out into the space, whereas with a dancer they are carving out space with their bodies" observes Sean. "It’s both very similar and very different from that point of view."

The task then was to find a way in which the two forms could complement each other and it was their shared fascination with complex structures that proved the most fruitful crossing point.

"One of the most complex things about juggling is the way it plays on these mathematical structures" explains Alex. "That understanding of rhythm; the counting, the patterning across structures, it all formed a common language for us and became a significant grounding in how we integrated juggling and choreography."

"Sean could create a complex juggling pattern and then we could introduce the dancers, as we knew which count they needed to come in to be in the right place at the right time. Or we could have a movement phrase that worked independently of the juggling but still had that relationship to it, as we were working with the same counts."

While this structural complexity is evidently something that fascinates both Alex and Sean, their collaborations with sound and lighting designers also made it something of a necessity.

"We had the lighting designer at almost all the residencies" says Sean. ‘It’s a millimeter-by-millimeter precise lighting design that journeys from black and white into 22 different colours."

"That journey into colour is the basic principle around which the piece is organised", adds Alex.

"In a way it was a process of sorting how all these colours come in - that journey of the shades of light is really choreographed," continues Sean. "Alex and I were less bothered about which shade of yellow came in where, but Guy (Guy Hoare, lighting designer) was very specific about the point at which each colour was coming in."

The precision of the lighting design becomes yet more of a necessity when juggling sequences with colour changing rings are involved.

"There’s a very old vaudevillian way of making a ring change colour – we applied a lot of structures on top of this. There’s these passing sequences between the jugglers; certain colours appear on certain counts, and the dancers also have to change so that the colours appear at the same time. Balancing those things, or finding ways to draw connections, was really important. That discipline of musical counting became very useful to have."

Its technical aspect aside, colour is a central concept in Spring.

"Most sections are defined by one colour or another" states Alex. "It's been interesting to see how the use of colour really affected the mood of the piece and then the journey through these feelings."

"It’s a journey between quite a serious and, hopefully, a celebratory place," adds Sean. "Guy was almost a dramaturg on it as well as lighting designer."

"In some respects it was a real advantage" notes Alex. "Often with these interdisciplinary collaborations it's difficult getting everyone in the room at the same time - we had the opposite problem where things were wrestling with each other."

"Guy was always there, trying out different colours and flicking between lights" laughs Sean. "Probably quite annoyingly for the dancers!"

"We spent quite a few weeks in these dark rooms," expands Alex.

"Counting sevens…" joins Sean.

As testing as this precision may have been, the final work has, they hope, achieved a balance between its various art forms.

"Spring is a visual world, a world with a lot of information and, I hope, a fun and seductive world" says Sean. "I guess it’s been a balancing act between our joy in using complex structures and of making it accessible to the viewer."

Both Alex and Sean agree that they have learnt a lot about their own practice during the creation of Spring and, as Sean aptly recognises, "The best collaborations are those that end up being something that neither of the collaborators would have made."

"There was a section and Alex came in one day and took everybody out. At first I couldn’t understand why he did that, but actually the clarity we eneded up with has been a lot more successful. I enjoy choreographing things in my way, but actually I’ve also learnt a lot about choreography from Alex."

"One of the enjoyable things about this process is seeing it through another creator's eyes" says Alex. "It reveals a lot about your own tendencies when you see someone else making those decisions in front of you."
"There’s surprises in there" adds Sean, "in a nice way."

"What I’ve enjoyed about this is Alex’s response. There are so many different ways of collaborating, but this was very much a dialogue."

"Creative practice can be lonely" Alex points out. "Having that opportunity to get ideas out and interrogate them through conversation is one of the best ways of learning and moving forward in your own practice".

In spirit of that conversation, Spring is a work with its own ongoing dialogue.

'It’s alive, we keep tweaking it" says Sean. "The piece is quite different in different spaces, especially dependent on the size of space and lighting."

"In the opera house at Rouen it became a very serious piece; in Germany, it was a very light piece. The audience laughed a lot; they engaged with the piece as a light being."

"But he did introduce a cheerleading section" Alex interjects.

"I did tell Alex – I texted him a film of it..."

For their performance on Sadler’s Well's main stage as part of LIMF festival, Spring will be performed to live music - the fate of the cheerleading section potentially hangs in the balance.

'"I’m super happy with what we’ve ended up with" says Sean. "It feels like there’s a lot more that could be dug into, this hybrid place where you’re not sure which form is which."

In this sense it’s a work ideally suited to the platform of LIMF.

"It's a festival I've participated in for over two decades" says Sean. "It’s a home for those that hover between art forms, the uncategorisables. They’ve championed a lot of people that wouldn’t find homes otherwise."

For Alex it's the first time presenting work at the festival but as he says, he has seen a lot of work there over the years.

"I’ve really enjoyed that it opens up a creative space that invites in a lot of different art forms, under a very broad umbrella. It’s the territory that I’m interested in - working outside of these traditional conventions of form and exploring the boundaries of how they interrelate with other practices and disciplines."

"To me the mime festival is a bit like the internet before there was internet" states Sean. "The interesting places are where there is this openness and LIMF were that really early on. I don’t think theres been a proper mime show there for 30 years!"

There will though, no doubt, be a wealth of interdisciplinary work, creativity, inventiveness and imagination.

So what can we expect from Spring?

"Essentially its dance and juggling together" says Sean. "It’s simple really!"


Gandini Juggling & Alexander Whitley
London International Mime Festival 2019

Sadler's Wells Theatre
Thu 31 Jan - Sat 2 Feb at 7.30pm

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