As Circadium School of Contemporary Circus welcome its 3rd class of students in Philadelphia, it is a good time to check in with Greg Kennedy, co-founder of Circadium and The Philadelphia School of Circus Arts along with his wife Shana Kennedy. A former juggler in Cirque du Soleil’’s Totem, and currently touring several shows (Theorem, Spheres, Innovative Juggler, & Science, Engineering & Art) year round, Kennedy is a tour de force in juggling–known not just for being called the innovative juggler, but also for being a prop creator, a rare breed of juggler who gets real pleasure from creating then mastering their own apparatuses. Not content to be restricted by the standard juggling devices, balls, rings and clubs, his engineering brain adds to the cannon of circus possibilities with inventions like the rhombi, the willow and the iconic and memorable cone.
Kennedy not only invented the cone–he has logged over 3000 hours of practice on it. He knows this because he uses spreadsheets to log his juggling research. He is after all, an engineer, which is where it all started. He even did a Ted Talk about the topic of combining a passion for engineering with circus. He began as a technical juggler, but he started passing with a friend because it was social, and he says he didn’t start seriously training until high school and college, “and that’s where I kind of got my chops. When I was doing six clubs and nine balls and seven rings.” It was a good passion for someone in an engineering program to have, a way to stay connected to patterns and systems while at the same time stepping outside of the the theoretical in to action.
“It was after I graduated from college and started working in engineering where I started steering more towards combining some of the principles that I learned in engineering school and combining it with juggling and then it’s creating work,” said Kennedy when asked about the influence of his education on his work. In fact, the day I visited him in his basement workshop at Circadium, he was busy sanding away on some wooden triangles that looked like a bit like modified billiard racks. These were the rhombi. Before I could even lob a proper question at him, we were in the trenches together, talking about the evolution of the device and playing with how it could be used, and what its little quirks were. This is a common chat amongst jugglers and circus folks in general, communicating through the device itself and sharing one’s systematic exploration of it as the purest road to bonding. And when you are the device creator, things get even more fun.
“It’s kind of another expansion upon the cigar box idea, but also, there was this thing called a wobbling wall that a physicist created in the 70s and it was a two dimensional thing, but these become three dimensional. So the idea is you can turn it 180 degrees in any direction and it’ll still stick if that makes sense. But what you can do is– turn it 90 degrees, and it creates this nice little rolling thing. So I have squares that are more like truncated cubes. That one I came up with just post Cirque, so that’s pretty new, “Kennedy delightedly explained, rolling out more of his creations, which I was equally delighted to get my hands on, if only for a few minutes.
When we had truly explored the rhombi, I asked him what he did at the workshop generally. He gave a classic engineer’s answer, “I’m happy making my little things in here, and I have regular work (touring my shows). I’m not too expensive, not too cheap…”, then, “This is where I create and work, and build props and then also fix the entire church…” (the school itself is in a refurbished Catholic school and church). “You’ll see a whole section dedicated to aerial rigging which I did myself. You’ve got plumbing, electrical…” Kennedy’s life is divided up between his workshop repair duties, his projects as inventor, his teaching the students and his performer role touring his active shows which he says helps to fund Circadium’s improvements.
Physical or Cerebral?
“A lot of people think juggling is a physical thing. They are like, ‘Oh you must be really coordinated. You can juggle five balls!’ But it’s not really coordination because you’re using small groups of muscle to throw a ball literally like three feet up and three feet down. It’s not pushing the limits of what you were designed to do. It’s the mapping of multiple objects, especially when you get to the numbers when you’re doing seven balls. You’re looking at the peaks, so your information is up there, but you’ve changed the events in your brain…that’s the spatial relations part. And that’s also the same part of the brain that people who use the sciences– jugglers, musicians, good choreographers use.”
Although Circadium attracts quite a few jugglers, Kennedy’s classes reach all of the students. For example, he teaches the 2nd year circus students how to make their own props, a hands-on skill that could take them in to innovative territories like the ones Kennedy himself enjoys dwelling in, and which he thinks is essential for any performer to explore in order to understand their own craft and to break away from an in-the-box mentality.
I’m slowly getting to the point where I’m teaching these students and I can only give them a little bit of my process, but I don’t want them to be me.
Regarding juggling, Kennedy admits,“It’s always been a little separate from circus because the people who have the mindset to be a good juggler don’t think like the rest of the acrobats a lot of times. One is more of a body awareness and one is more pattern recognition.” This ties in with his thoughts on the special skills needed of circus artists which involve movement and overlap with the skills of jugglers and engineering, “Some of us can visualize forward in time and backward in time through a chain of events. So you’re really thinking in four dimensions to some scope. A really good choreographer has to use that part of the brain ,thinking in full four dimensions, because there’s a movement of form and it’s changing in different ways, and I do it with juggling.”
Juggling and Contemporary Circus
As the world of circus gets more accessible and broader, Kennedy has some reservations about what could be lost in translation–all the more reason to help emerging circus artists learn the nuances between live and recorded performance.”I think the Internet is an interesting thing. Everybody makes the comparison ‘This guy is as good as Anthony (Gatto) because there he is doing seven clubs on Youtube.’ But he only had to get it once–just for that shot. Anthony would do it 14 times a week, spotless every night. He was Wayne Gretzky. He was Wilt Chamberlain. He just changed the game entirely. Now, its beautiful to see so many people doing seven clubs and that sort of thing, but it becomes a film project. It’s a different thing than live entertainment. And you’ll know when you’re doing a 90-minute show, you can’t put your hardest tricks in there. You just want to keep a smooth flow and keep an audience happy. So you’ve got to get the balance right… and then you can throw (your other) stuff on Youtube.” This kind of knowledge is what Circadium aims to impart with its many performance opportunities offered over the course of the three year curriculum. I asked Kennedy how he thought juggling had changed since his arrival on the scene,”There’s still going to be a market for live performance. It’s actually getting a little harder because people are saturated with multimedia.”
When asked, Kennedy acknowledges the interesting multidisciplinary works that are emerging between circus disciplines due to the influence of circus schools. “There is definitely crossover–I came up when there was no such thing as a network of circus artists in the US. The Pickle Family circus in San Francisco was there for a while, but definitely nothing on the east coast.” Circadium is doing its part to support the unofficial network of US circus schools that is developing in the US along with well-known circus schools like New England Center for Circus (NECCA), San Francisco Circus Center, Circus Juventas and San Diego Circus Center, to name a few. And they are also active members of FEDEC, the international network of circus higher education. In fact, The Canadian FEDEC schools (ENC and ECQ) have already begun collaborative projects with Circadium; in 2018-2019 they had visits from four Quebecois instructors and two school directors, and in 2020 they are hiring an ENC artistic director to direct Circadium’s first graduation show. The consulting expertise from the international community has been a huge benefit to Circadium in its first years of existence.
Like many artists as they grow older, Kennedy reflects on his role in passing the baton to the younger generation. “As an artist myself, later in my career, I have to focus on figuring out how to share more, so when I disappear, it doesn’t dissipate.” For Kennedy, creating Circadium with his wife Shana Kennedy has been part of that process, “I’m 47 now, so I’ve been doing this for a little while. I think when I was creating work in my 20’s I was so guarded about it. It was like, ‘Mine, mine mine!’ I didn’t have kids then and you get perspective (after kids). I really believe we all have a certain amount of knowledge that has been discovered by people previous to us. And we’re starting off on that part and our job is to build upon that and move it to the next level.” He does this not just by setting up the environment at school for success, but also with encouragement and practical skill sharing. At that prop building class for example, he can pass on tricks of the maker’s trade. “As part of this prop class, I like challenging people to go through that process of starting with a sketch book… (and asking) “What do I like to do?’ Do 15 versions of those sketches. Are any of those practical to build in a month? And it’s hard because we all get stuck in patterns. Especially jugglers. That’s why we can juggle really well.”
But Kennedy’s goals with these first classes at Circadium are more lofty than conveying design principles, “I’ve got a few more creative years before you put me out to pasture. But I’m slowly getting to the point where I’m teaching these students and I can only give them a little bit of my process, but I don’t want them to be me. I want them to take a little bit of my process, maybe a little bit of this, you know, and someone else’s process and someone else’s process and then create their (own)process.”
When he talks about the school he and Shana Kennedy have created, he seems hopeful, “We took a big risk to do this and in certain ways it’s turned out really great. It’s a little bit of a hub, (and) it’s really nice to see people coming in. I got an email from Wes (Peden) a couple of days ago saying he had a show…could he come rehearse and I said ‘Of course, come on in.’ That’s what I’m talking about. I think with the circus school, it creates a magnet for people to trade ideas. Within the emerging circus schools…there’s a lot of them (that) bounce it up. We’re trying to lead a little bit here, but also…we have a lot of support.”