Director Olle Strandberg takes apart a scene from his piece Ballroom House, a collaborative exploration of the rhythmic similarities between juggling and street dance.
The original idea for the show was to compare the footwork of House dance, which is really complex, with the rhythm of a juggler's hand movements.
For a while now there's been a style of contemporary juggling that's focused on building up these different complex rhythms, and I'd done some research on that way back in 2003 with Jay Gilligan — juggling the drum beats of a song, stuff like that. Through that work the links between juggling and dance became kind of obvious: a juggling trick can be the same as a pas de bourrée in House dance, and if I add a twist into the juggling trick then that's like a heel-toe move in House dance. So the rhythms were very similar; that's how it started.
I was very interested to see how much further we could go with it. In 2006 I did a little five-minute thing together with a House dancer here in Sweden, working just with that idea of looking at the rhythms of dance and juggling, but then had to put it on hold while I worked on other projects.
In 2011 I started to work with Alexander Dam, the dancer in Ballroom House. We were working like one month here and there trying to find different concepts, and we realised it was unnecessary to limit the show to a genre by saying let's do House dance or Locking or whatever. What's interesting isn't the genre, but how you think when you create the material.
Then we also brought in Gustaf Rosell — an amazing juggler. I hadn't seen him onstage before, but I'd seen him practicing for years, doing like nine balls in the hall, and had always wondered who is this dude anyway? The thing that's really interesting with him is he's a pure juggler — he's not like a juggler who used to dance, or a juggler who used to do theatre or whatever. He's just like, Yeah, I've been throwing and catching objects since forever.
So for him to count... he never creates work to a song; he just puts a song on afterwards. He has a musicality, but it's not in counts at all. For some of the material in Ballroom House the only way he can do it is to count to like 83. It's so many 8s he cannot hear the 1. He just knows the catches: after 83 catches, he goes higher. So for him to learn the material, even the basics are hard.
A dancer on the other hand always counts, so for Alex it was easy. The first time I said something like 'three 8s and then 4', he'd get it. But the juggler is just confused. He's like: 'The 1? Which 1!?'
As a dancer you learn the skill; if you want a specific trick perhaps it takes a long time to learn it, but to put your skills in an order... you can do it fairly easily. You can think it all through, and then you can actually be ready to perform it quite quickly. You can create a half-hour, solid piece that you can perform over and over without too much trouble in probably one week. For Gustaf to create one and a half minutes of juggling that's solid, and which he can perform without dropping, will take four weeks — if he does it a bit complicated, I mean. If he does his weird shit it takes months just to create a short piece.
So I had time to go more into details with Alex and to work with him separately. I had time to deconstruct his way of dancing. We divided it into the smallest elements of technique — so we found the isolations and the mini isolations and we named all these elements different things. For me as a juggler I have the different tricks and they have names, and I have different ways of doing the tricks — and we had to find what that was for Alex as a dancer.
So in one of the sequences early on in the show he has to do robot work and then he has to move in these fluid waves — and for him these are completely opposite techniques, and mentally it's the hardest thing to combine them because he wants to be strict with each. That was as hard for him to do as Gustaf's juggling. So we found the connection. If you divide the dancer's movement like this, and make him really think about exactly how he can perform two opposing techniques properly, then it takes forever for him to create material as well.
But in the first part of the scene extracted here the task for Alex is just about balancing — about keeping tension, as if he is balancing somehow, and then working with the rhythm of those movements. The movement then isn't specific to any genre — you could do it in Locking or Popping or House or whatever.
We found that the different ways Gustaf balanced the ball on his head had different rhythms and gave him different qualities. We took these different ways of moving and then on top of them added different synchronised actions just to add some sort of shape. For me this was a gut feeling: it feels nice if you see there's some structure there. If it was only synchronised, choreographed movement it would be flat for me; the moments are nice because they come from a world where it's like what the fuck!? If the street dancer was there by himself doing this it would be really weird. It'd still be really awesome, but it'd be a really weird way for him to do his improvisation. In this scene it's so clear: we couldn't have found this kind of movement without this collaboration.
The second part of the scene is working with a very clear idea that we had from the beginning: looking at how to translate the way you juggle, with numbers, into dance. So for a juggler who juggles three balls to go up to four balls takes a number of weeks. And for a juggler that goes over to five balls it takes a number of months. So we basically asked how can we make Alex have to work his ass off for something that doesn't look so hard?
So when Gustaf juggles one ball Alex is moving just one arm, and he only has to think about this. When Gustaf juggles two balls, Alex has to add in a foot — his left foot does a little rhythm, and it's a little hard for him but it's not too hard. It's two balls, you know? And then with three balls he has to take the other foot and move it out to the side and then drag it for a certain number of counts which doesn't go together with the three count in his arm. He has to really think about this. With four balls he has to add another element — a Locking move from the Locking dance style; it's a very specific move where you have to lift and extend at the proper pace. So now he has four different rhythms to take care of. And then for the fifth he has to move his head from side to side as well.
He also has to keep good angles. If he did it in a sloppy way then he wouldn't have to think so much, but keeping the angles really strict it becomes more like a juggling thing. And also for him to reverse the movement, as they have to do twice — that's huge; it really flips it.
Of course we could add more tricks to it. We added a pirouette and asked ourselves how a back cross would be for Alex, but we kept it quite simple. Ballroom House took so much time to create, and then when you see it it looks nice and neat, but it also looks simple. I like it because it's so simple: this is number juggling. Clear and obvious.
Both of the performers really found something in the process. Gustaf can see now how other people's pieces are musical or not, which he didn't really think about before, and for Alex he really understands about juggling and the mentality and how he doesn't want to be a juggler because otherwise he would kill himself.
Olle Strandberg was interviewed by John Ellingsworth 28 March 2013. The footage of Ballroom House is from a showing held at Hörsalen in Stockholm's Kulturhuset 20 October 2012.