Smashing Traditions: Gandini Juggling Turns 30 - CircusTalk

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Smashing Traditions: Gandini Juggling Turns 30

Through a unique blend of juggling with dance and movement arts, the Gandini Juggling company has slowly made its name as a premier innovator within the circus space. In honor of their 30th anniversary, Sean Gandini speaks on the company’s journey as well as its future plans.

When Sean Gandini set out to perform his street show in Covent Garden, he had no idea that the beginning of Gandini Circus would fall into his lap. The idea of mashing together the artistry of juggling and dance started the moment that former Finnish rhythmic gymnast national champion Kati Ylä-Hokkala happened across one of Sean Gandini’s street shows, picked up some of his juggling clubs, and started playing around with them. She was searching for a way to use her skills outside of the rigidly competitive nature of rhythmic gymnastics.

Sean Gandini and Kati Ylä-Hokkala immediately connected and started chatting about the possibilities of what combining their two art forms could bring. Through chatting, they took up dance classes together and started a deep dive into learning more about the history of modern and contemporary dance. Their 30-year partnership in life and artistry had begun.

Smashed / Photo @Ludovic des Cognets

“At that point, we felt like there was more to be done, aesthetically, with what juggling could be. Back around 1991, the circus landscape was very different from what it is at the moment. We yearned for different aesthetics,” Sean Gandini said.

These different aesthetics consisted of storytelling and drew from some of the movements coming out of American contemporary dance at that time. In the early 90s, the contemporary dance movement was addressing how to use natural breathing cycles to display vulnerability, power, and control through expressive and dramatic movement. Could circus address these things, too? Could circus be more about choreography and storytelling?

“The first pieces we made, in a way, had this purist idealism of hitting something that was just pure juggling and movement and nothing else. It didn’t have any story. Any narrative. Didn’t need to hit the big tricks. It was just about structure and space,” Sean Gandini said.

While Sean and Kati believed in this movement, it was a challenge to get their name out there and be recognized in the circus community for their artistry. Their first decade brought financial challenges, but they had faith in their craft and pushed forward.

“We’ve always been quite stubborn, in the way that we make things exactly the way we want to make them,” Sean Gandini said. “The problem with that stubbornness is that it is also a market thing. You’re making something and you need to sell it.”

For the first decade, they made more “commercial things” that would finance the most “artistic things.” While they were making the most “commercial things” they could think of, the traditional circuses that they performed at often marketed them as very artistic.

As they continued to push forward, they started having breakthroughs that brought them further and further into the light of the general circus population. The first piece that Sean Gandini felt was completely a “truly artistic piece” was the 2010s production of SMASHED, which was a tribute to 1920s German expressionist dancer Pina Bausch. This was the first time that Gandini Juggling created a show completely to their artistic liking that took off in the circus world. From there they were able to move from creating commercial shows, which had a better chance of selling in traditional circus settings, to making the art that they were drawn to.

Over the last decade, Gandini Juggling grew from opening SMASHED to performing in a Phillip Glass opera to performing at the Millenium Dome. Little by little, they started to make a name for themselves among the general public. They created a spin-off of their SMASHED performance, which featured seven men and two women, called SMASHED 2, featuring seven women and two men. Both SMASHED and SMASHED 2 made their United States debut at Peak Performances at Montclair State University which features a variety of dance performances.

While Gandini Juggling aims to make their shows 50 percent juggling and 50 percent dance, they continue to break the traditional circus barriers which make them fall in between the worlds of circus and dance. While the general public views them as a circus act, the traditional circus community considers them to be more contemporary.

While the COVID-19 epidemic was a struggle for many performance troupes, Sean and Kati found that the extra time on their hands gave them more time to explore and play with juggling and dance patterns. It really helped them realize that, putting all business aside, they truly love the simple arts of juggling and dance.

“Even if everything stops, we do what we do. We keep going,” Sean Gandini said.

No matter what people think of their art, they continue to do what they love and make the art that fascinates them. Now they are touring multiple shows, are in the beginning stages of creating a 90-minute feature film, and are researching how magic can play into juggling and dance. More recently, Sean and Kati have been working on a duet they will be performing at the London International Mime Festival in January. This will be their first duet in 20 years.

To see more from Gandini’s last 30 years, check out their website’s “Past Show” section.

Smashed / Photo @Ludovic des Cognets
Main Image: Kati Ylä-Hokkala and Sean Gandini. Photo @Camilla Greenwell
Makenna Cook
Based out of Saint Paul, Minnesota, Makenna Cook started training in circus arts at Circus Juventas in 2011, specializing in juggling and high wire. In 2021, she received her degree in Journalism from Bethel University. She has worked as a content writer for Circus Juventas, copywriter for Centerfield Media, and social media manager for small businesses throughout the Twin Cities.
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Makenna Cook

Based out of Saint Paul, Minnesota, Makenna Cook started training in circus arts at Circus Juventas in 2011, specializing in juggling and high wire. In 2021, she received her degree in Journalism from Bethel University. She has worked as a content writer for Circus Juventas, copywriter for Centerfield Media, and social media manager for small businesses throughout the Twin Cities.