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Interview with Juggler Jérôme Thomas

On January 30, for The Night of Philosophy & Ideas at the Field Museum in Chicago, and on February 1st, at the Brooklyn Public Library, Jérôme Thomas, known to be the father of contemporary juggling in Europe, showcased the masterful art of juggling with two of his companions, Martin Schwietzke and Jörg Müller, as well as several local jugglers.

After the performances, Jérôme spoke with the French Cultural Services about the art of juggling.

Nicole: Before anything else, what brought you to explore the art of juggling? Was the context in France different then? And, after so many years, what does juggling mean to you? 

Jérôme: The generation of jugglers before the 80s created juggling performances called "un numero," each about 10 minutes in length and designed for cabaret or circus spaces. The virtuosos, which demonstrated great agility (dexterity, nimbleness), were presented in succession.

Once trained, my generation broke these rules, on the one hand to create longer format juggling performances of 60 to 90 minutes, and, on the other hand, to combine poesy (in the narrative sense), dramaturgy, and new objects with this virtuosity…In short, a new writing!

A huge revolution transformed juggling into a fully-fledged art.

Today, 40 years later, my art of juggling is a refined form of the synthesis of this transformation, comparable to a tai chi chuan sequence, such as the 108 yang style. It lasts 35 minutes and features a succession of objects -- balls, clubs, and canes -- and a precise choreographic sequence.

Nicole: For the Night of Philosophy and Ideas, you asked two other jugglers/performers, Jorg Muller and Martin Schwietzke to join you. Together, you performed a trio called ‘New York, New York’.  Tell me a bit more about them, why them, and the story behind the trio.

Jérôme: The performance New York, New York, was specially conceived for the Night of Philosophy and Ideas in New York, hence the title’s reference to Martin Scorcese's film. I invited Martin Schwietzke and Jorg Muller to work with me in order to better represent the European culture of juggling. From Martin, we get street art; from Jorg, we get visual arts; and from my work, we get theater!

Together, we created a performance with just a few, but well-chosen items:  A broom, a cane, and a basket! And we created a juggling performance based on minimalism, a Beckett-inspired performance of sorts!

Nicole: Three New-York based  jugglers (Kelsey Strauch, Luther Bangert and Justin Weber) joined you for the balloon dance. It seemed that you understood them almost immediately. You have trained many people year after year.   How is transmission important to you? What would be your recommendation to young artists exploring the art of juggling and contemporary circus?

Jérôme: To meet jugglers is never easy, and to understand them, even less so. I usually separate things rather than put them together. I separate creation from reproduction, interpretation from composition and writing, codified from non-codified objects, uniqueness from ordinariness. It is through this process that I understand the strengths and the points of interest of someone else.

I very much enjoy passing down knowledge and communicating -- most of all, casually, without even realizing it!!!  To the youngest generation, I would say: Be stubborn! Rebel! Follow your personal instinct! And be disciplined! Follow the general interest of being subject to the show and to juggling. 

Nicole: Thank you very much, Jérôme.

About Jérôme Thomas:

Inspired by jugglers Michael Moschen and Francis Brunn, Jérôme Thomas began his career in the circus and cabaret. In the 90s, he started to integrate contemporary dance and theater techniques (staging, lighting, etc.) into his practice. He created the first modern juggling solo: “Extraballe,” an innovative show using theater lights and double rebound technique. In France, he is responsible for the institutional recognition of juggling as an art form in its own right. With his company, ARMO/Cie, Thomas created more than fifteen shows.

With the support from the Théâtre 71 in Malakoff, Jérôme set up the first Festival for Contemporary & Improvised Juggling from 1996 to 2001, and the same year, he was Artistic Director of Arts de la Jongle  at the Parc de la Villette, Paris.

He received the SACD Award for Circus in 2003 and he was elected twice, in 2009 and 2015, to the French Society of Authors (SACD), to represent circus arts.

Interview conducted by Nicole Birmann Bloom, Program Officer, Performing Arts. Translation into English by Jessica Cohen.