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juggling sidenote

Post #294 • June 8, 2004, 7:34 AM

Francis Brunn died on May 28. Douglas Martin for the New York Times:

Large numbers of objects posed scant problem. He was believed to be the first juggler in the world to put up 10 hoops.

Tyler Green has hockey; I have juggling. I was a professional juggler for a while and ended up choosing grad school over clown school, but it was a close decision.

Hoops are easier to manipulate in large numbers than clubs or balls because mid-air collisions aren't fatal; the flat hoops tend to skip off each other. The ten-object pattern is the same for all props, though: a circular pattern of five in each hand. (Others are possible but that one's the easiest; making ten hoops cross from hand to hand is pretty insane.) That said, let me walk you through this photograph from the NYT website. The one they put in the paper cropped the ring in the top left corner.

Brunn has a ring around his right knee and right instep. He's spinning them, but you don't spin rings in the same direction - it's too easy and it looks bad. One of the rings is spinning clockwise, the other counterclockwise. The same is true for the two rings around his right elbow.

The ball on his right finger could be a in a static balance, but the photo in the paper seemed to indicate that it was spinning. That finger position is typical of a spinning balance, in any case, and a spinning balance would be easier to maintain in complex trick like this because the gyroscopic action on the ball tends to be a bit more stable. Of course, he has to whip the ball back up to speed periodically with his other fingers without messing up the rings on his elbow, so I mean easier in a relative manner.

A ball is resting on - not adhered to - a column balanced on his forehead, and a similar arrangement is on his upper lip. (Probably the top of the column is cupped.) A higher object like this is theoretically simpler to balance than, say, the same ball directly on the forehead, but the fact that the balls are just sitting there at the top of each column makes this a difficult balance to execute. How one might correct for the two columns falling in opposite directions, I have no idea.

Lastly, he is juggling three rings using only his left hand. There's just one problem - the caption says that Brunn is maneuvering eleven objects. I count ten. (The columns don't count - that would be twelve.)

There are three possibilities. One, I missed something. Two, the caption is mistaken. Three - and this is totally psychotic - Brunn is actually juggling four rings in his left hand, and one of them is cropped. That's not impossible - he could do five - but the difficulty in going from three to four on a trick grouping like this is astronomical.

After one masters technique, one can go on to master art. After completeness, economy.

At the beginning of his career, Mr. Brunn, a former gymnast, was celebrated for lightning speed in juggling a dozen objects simultaneously. But later, he perfected an austere but demanding minimalism. He was fascinated by controlling just one ball, and virtually compelled audiences to share this fascination. "It sounds like nothing," he said, "but it is quite difficult to do properly." Especially if the one-ball trick was to defy gravity by making the ball travel from his toe up his entire body by moving only his legs and torso.

In another dazzling trick, Mr. Brunn would spin a ball on his right hand and hold another ball on the back of his neck. He rolled the ball down his back and kicked it with his heel over his head to a dead-on balance with the spinning ball.

To what end? For its own sake.

Mr. Brunn did not hope for applause. "I do not consider myself doing tricks," he said in an interview with The New York Times in 1983. "There is one movement for eight minutes. It's supposed to be, let's say, like a ballet. It would be impossible for me to start in the middle. I would love if the audience is so fascinated that nobody applauds in the end."

But the end has come, and I applaud you. Rest in peace, Mr. Brunn.

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