How to juggle and get paid for it: Be good enough for Cirque du Soleil
The juggler: a very pleasant 27-year-old Finnish guy named Johan Juslin, who decided 10 years ago that other occupations were not for him. He wanted to make a living throwing things up in the air and catching them.
The job: For professional jugglers, Juslin has hit the big time. He is a featured performer in Cirque du Soleil’s “Corteo,” which opens Thursday, Sept. 20, at the Save Mart Center. As you can guess, working for Cirque is very high up there on the Juggler Bragging Rights list. There are likely fellow graduates in Juslin’s class at the Ecole Nationale de Cirque in Montreal — yes, Mom, he went to college — who would kill to get a spot in a Cirque du Soleil show. Or at least throw a juggling club at someone.
The scene: Juslin is standing Wednesday in front of the newly constructed Cirque stage at the Save Mart as members of the media get a glimpse of preparations for opening night. Behind him, three women do astonishing acrobatics with giant chandeliers, each of them swooping and gliding through the air while hanging onto slender strings of beads as he hugeh lights are raised and lowered. (Note to self: Do not try this with an ordinary chandelier.)
The show: Cirque debuted “Corteo” in 2006 in a “big tent” format, and it was retooled in 2018 for the arena circuit. It’s described as a 1920s Italian funeral cortege, or procession, imagined by a clown at his funeral. (But it’s a festive parade, complete with angels watching from overhead, that “highlights the strength and fragility of the clown, as well as his wisdom and kindness, to illustrate the portion of humanity that is within each of us.”) Actually, I learned several Cirque shows ago not to worry too much about the flowery narrative, which I usually can’t follow anyway. The important thing is the acts, sets, lighting, costumes and overall design aesthetic. Cirque’s strength is how it immerses you in a particular world.
Back to juggling: Juslin is soft-spoken and gentle in demeanor, as you’d expect from someone who can fling nine hoops in the air and keep them all spinning. (“That’s the limit,” he says. “I try to do 10 balls myself but I keep dropping them.”) You need to be nimble and have a light touch to make that happen.
The abstract question: This is something I’ve always wondered. What do jugglers see? I ask Juslin what he focuses on when all those clubs, say, are flying above and around him. Is it all about having incredible peripheral vision? Or just great concentration? He considers for a moment, then tells me that jugglers see things in different ways. Some focus on just one object, and everything else falls into place. Others use what you might call a wider view. In that mysterious and glorious way that human brains can pull off amazing feats of coordination, Juslin often just “looks,” and everything — his hands, his body, his muscle memory, the clubs themselves — falls into place. “Sometimes I just see the full picture,” he says simply.
Finally: What did his Finnish parents say when he told them he wanted to “join the circus,” so to speak? Did they get the look parents all over the world display when their son informs him that he 1) is not going to law school; 2) is not going to medical school; or 3) is buying a beat-up VW van and plans to spend a year traveling across Europe?
He laughs. He can do that because he’s a professional juggler. “Of course, at the beginning they thought, ‘He’s just a kid, he’s just dreaming about these things. And then, oh, sh–, he’s taking it seriously.’ But so far, so good. It’s working.”
Plus: Did you know?
Because of the configuration of the stage for “Corteo” — the stage divides the Save Mart lengthwise, with each half of the audience facing the other half — there are actually two backstage areas. Performers have to get from one to the other without being seen by the audience. The solution? A “crossover machine” that is, essentially, an underground zip line on which you can be whisked from one side to the other. I got to see it up close on Wednesday. Here’s my Facebook Live recap: