sat 20/04/2024

First Person: pioneering juggler Sean Gandini reflects on how the spirit of Pina Bausch has infiltrated his work | reviews, news & interviews

First Person: pioneering juggler Sean Gandini reflects on how the spirit of Pina Bausch has infiltrated his work

First Person: pioneering juggler Sean Gandini reflects on how the spirit of Pina Bausch has infiltrated his work

As Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch's 'Nelken' comes to Sadler’s Wells, a tribute from across the art forms

Carnation libation: Julie Anne Stanzak among the 8,000 individually placed blooms in the early Pina Bausch classic, 'Nelken' photo: Alexander Gouliaev

I am a juggler. My wife Kati Ylä-Hokkala is also a juggler. Our life for the last three decades has been juggling. We have been fortunate to be practising this art form at a time when mathematical and creative developments meant that our vocabulary went from about 30 patterns to thousands. The Golden Age of juggling.

In 2010 our lovely patron Angus MacKechnie asked us to put together a new piece for the outdoor space outside London's National Theatre. The late great Pina Bausch had just died and we decided to make a one-off tribute to her. We made a piece called Smashed. I had been intrigued for a number of years as to whether one could make a juggling parade which emanated from the Bausch universe. That year also was an Isaac Newton anniversary and we had used giant apples in the Paralympic opening ceremony so we decided to use apples as the main props in the piece. The apple choice was not related to Pina and we only later found out she had used them and thrown them in her show Palermo Palermo (pictured below).Members of the Pina Bausch company in Palermo, PalermoOur intention had been to reference other aspects of her work – the suits, the dresses, the power games – as well as the humour and the absurdity. I always loved how there is no obvious moral judgement in her pieces: she depicts humans as complex and perhaps sad, yearning for a love that seems to be elusive. Negotiating the work of such an iconoclastic creator runs the risk of ridicule and parody. There is a thin line between tribute and mockery. Since we did not think our piece would have a further life, we made it rather insouciantly and quickly. The irony, now that Smashed is to be revived later this year at the Peacock Theatre, is that I know so much more about Pina now than I did then.

There is a saying in our company that whatever you decide to do, Pina Bausch or Merce Cunningham did it first. A Pina enthusiast wrote an analysis of our piece finding about 40 references to her work, most of which I knew nothing about! The show became a hit for us, and for the next decade we performed it almost 1000 times across the globe. We are delighted to bring it back to London again this spring. In London it feels foreign but in France where it gets performed often it is frequently described as “So British!”. Whilst performing the show outdoors in Paris I noticed a man in the audience whom I immediately recognised as Pina’s long-time collaborator Dominique Mercy. My body went into panic, what if he didn't like what we were doing, what if he found it disrespectful…? But as the show went on I could see him smiling. Afterwards he came to talk to us and was immensely generous. He accepted to come and be our outside eyes on a remix of the show (pictured below) that we performed for the 40th anniversary of the London International Mime Festival. We are now very excited finally to be seeing Nelken ("Carnations") at Sadler’s Wells. It’s one of the major pieces of Pina's which we have never seen live, and I will probably cry.Gandini Juggling in SmashedThis dialogue with the Bausch legacy made a great impact on us and our company Gandini Juggling. It cemented an acceptance of theatricality. We had spent the 1990s collaborating with the much-missed dance artist Gill Clarke, making a series of what I would retrospectively call formalist pieces. Influenced by North American postmodern dance, we were stubbornly anti-narrative, anti-theatre. We naively believed that juggling and the dance that ensues from it should be enough. Pina’s world was like a vehicle towards creative freedom. Which leads me to High Art Low Art! Juggling has a curious place, if any place at all, in the hierarchy of the arts. Part of our mission has been to share our enthusiasm for how versatile and beautiful It can be.

We have been lucky to have made pieces which dialogue with both ballet and opera. Our 2013 piece 4 x 4 Ephemeral Architectures sent ballet and juggling on a Tinder date, imagining that juggling is imbued with the same classism that we all associate with ballet. It has always amused me to think that if Louis XIV had adored juggling instead of dancing our world might be filled with juggling houses and ballerinas would gather in the public squares of the world setting fire to their pointe shoes. At the time the Royal Ballet offered us access to their divine studios overlooking the Covent Garden piazza. I enjoyed the irony that a couple of decades earlier I had started my juggling career on the hallowed stones of that very piazza. This led to a whole series of Tinder dates between juggling and dance!

Gandini Juggling in SmashedExploring the borderline between the various performing art forms was an inspiration – discovering the watermark that one art form can leave on another, transferring the filigree from one skillset to another, layering, merging and also repulsing. Our relationship with opera was cemented in the Olivier award-winning Philip Glass opera Akhnaten, for English National Opera. Director Phelim McDermot asked us to choreograph 10 jugglers who are on stage for most of the production. Here our juggling takes on a very different role to anything else we have ever done, supplying a meta-narrative, sometimes illustrating the music, sometimes alluding to the story. Akhnaten has been one of the most successful operatic stagings in recent times with 50 performances so far. 

Our most recent piece LIFE was a love letter to Merce Cunningham, that other late, great choreographer whose death occured within four weeks of that of Pina Bausch. Both Kati and I have had a long-time fascination, dare I say obsession, with Merce's work, finding a kind of intellectual solace in it. We even travelled to New York to see the company’s final performances in 2011. The Cunningham Trust generously gave us access to their archives and we spent lockdown obsessively watching a multitude of pieces. Our most recent show contains references to about 30 Cunningham pieces, which isn't that many considering the 80 he made. It felt like coming full circle to our formalist roots but instead of rejecting theatre we now celebrate the way dance and juggling can hint at stories in a non-verbal language.

It’s vertiginous to stand on the shoulders of such giant artistic figures, but I guess making any kind of art requires a certain amount of delusion, or one would be crushed by the greatness of the past. There is also something quite soothing about our main art being juggling. As Kati sometimes says to me if I am stressed, WE JUST THROW THINGS IN THE AIR

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