Innovations in Juggling

How many ways are there to throw balls in the air?

Several years ago, I met professional juggler Luke Burrage. He makes a living juggling. Yep, that’s an actual job people can do to pay their bills. And Luke is very good at it. He performs all around the world, on land at and sea.

When we met, Luke was developing a new act unlike anything I’d ever seen in juggling. It was a variation on the classic rotating-room illusion, like the one used in the movie Inception. The idea was that Luke would be on stage performing his act in a revolving room, and the audience would see it live while it’s simultaneously projected on a screen, allowing them to see both the illusion and behind-the-scenes at the same time. Luke even built a rotating room in his apartment as a proof of concept and workshopped a few ideas where balls appeared to behave unnaturally.

This revolving room was a massive and unwieldy contraption. For a sense of scale, it’s the large round object in the background of this shot:

A traveling juggler would have a difficult time hauling that around the world and setting it up for each performance. I asked Luke recently what ever happened with the rotating room routine and he said:

I began working on it when the idea felt fresh and interesting. Then Inception and “the making of inception” was released, and there were suddenly loads of things with rotating rooms. Movies, shows, art projects, dance projects… Now I work on new projects that are more easily transportable like the magnet machine.

The “magnet machine” is a contraption that lets Luke control how long a ball stays up before it falls down. Here’s what it looks like:

You can imagine that this opens up possibilities for interesting new routines.

All this got me wondering about innovations in juggling. How many new ways can there possibly be of throwing a bunch of balls up in the air and catching them? I mean, people have been juggling for thousands of years. There’s even an ancient Egyptian tomb that includes this wall painting of what sure looks like juggling:

So as a modern juggling performer, how do you keep your routine fresh? Is it all about the patter and the performance? Or is there still room for innovation in the art and craft of throwing balls to yourself?

I asked Luke this question, and he gave me several examples of people who actually are developing new ways to juggle.

Balls in Space

My favorite example is Adam Dipert. Adam is a scientist and mathematician with a PhD in physics and a special interest in zero gravity movement. He has given talks on the dynamics of the human body in weightlessness at venues like the International Astronautical Congress.

Adam is also a circus performer. For 20 years he has been a juggler, a fire spinner, a stilt acrobat, and more.

Now he has found a way to combine his two passions as the Space Juggler, having developed a juggling routine designed for zero gravity. It’s beautiful.

On Earth, when a juggler throws a ball in the air, it follows an arc and comes back down. But in zero gravity, of course, thrown balls travel in a straight line:

Now let’s add some complexity. Without gravity, a person can spin cartwheels in place. If a juggler is spinning in zero gravity, this allows for a new way to juggle as he can throw the balls in straight lines to the position where he will be rather than where he is. And if the viewer is spinning along with the juggler, then those balls appear to follow arcs as they travel:

Despite how it looks, those balls are all traveling in straight lines. The arcs and loops that the balls appear to follow are explained by mathematics and can be controlled depending how far their paths are from the center axis. As Adam describes on the “Math” page of his website:

It took me a few reads to understand that, but now I get it. This lovely short film explains it even better, and shows off more of Adam’s Space Juggling:

Check out Adam’s website for videos that go deeper into the math behind it all, plus a behind-the-scenes look at how he manages to simulate weightlessness to perform his routine. You didn’t think he was really juggling in space, did you?

And if you really want to get nerdy, visit Adam’s Wolfram Mathematica notebook “Juggling in space using Archimedean spirals and complex algebra” where you can simulate different throws and see what patterns emerge.

Who Owns Juggling?

If I work hard to develop a new method of juggling, should I get to perform it exclusively? Or should you be able to expand on it and perform your own version? Is using someone else’s method like stealing a joke? Or is a new way of juggling more like a musical instrument that can be played in many different ways? It turns out that just like other creative fields, there are arguments in juggling over who “owns” innovations, and who gets to perform them.

Take Greg Kennedy, for example. Before becoming a juggler, Greg was an engineer. This background helped him develop what’s become known as the Kennedy Cone, a clear inverted cone that uses physics to bring balls around the juggler to be caught and thrown again. In 2006, he posted a video to YouTube demonstrating his invention:

The novelty of this act caught the eye of Cirque du Soleil who worked with Greg to turn his invention into a routine with a much more polished look:

But what of the underlying concept? Should anyone get to juggle in a cone? Or is that ripping off the man who invented it? Apparently this is a matter of some controversy in the juggling world.

See also Michael Moschen. You may not know his name, but if you remember the scene in Labyrinth where it looks like David Bowie is doing incredible handwork with crystal balls, those are actually Michael’s hands performing “contact juggling.”

Several years ago, Michael (the only juggler who is also a MacArthur fellow) developed a novel method of juggling inside a triangle. Here he is juggling on Donahue back in in 1990:

There have been so many variations of this routine since then that, despite people in the industry knowing this is a Moschen original, I had no idea that this was associated with any one individual. I’ve seen it performed and assumed it was just part of the great juggling songbook.

Luke has an interesting theory about what makes some tricks more prone to “ownership” claims than others. He made a video essay on the topic, focusing specifically on the Kennedy Cone and Moschen Triangle:

What do you think?

When DALL-E Learns to Juggle

Since we were discussing innovations in juggling, Luke shared with me another interesting video he made about the current state of juggling robots. He makes the distinction between automata which just follow instructions, and robots that think for themselves. While automata can be made to juggle by performing predetermined repeated motions in perfect conditions, thinking robots have not yet reached the point where they can juggle for very long and account for changing real-world conditions. In all his research, he only found one example of a robot juggling three balls, and that was only for around 5 or 6 throws:

He ends his video with this conclusion:

Demonstrating precision is the entire goal of a juggling automaton, and because they work so flawlessly and their actions loop so perfectly, they are weirdly satisfying to watch. Juggling robots on the other hand are clumsy, prone to making mistakes, and have reached the same level of skill as a talented dog. They are abstractly impressive, but not satisfying to watch at all. And this is all good for me as a professional juggler and entertainer.

And yet. Every week we see Artificial Intelligence demonstrating new skills, doing things that look a lot like creativity. Can juggling robots really be that far away? And when they get here, what innovative juggling techniques will they come up with? And what happens when juggling robots start doing tricks that humans can’t replicate?

I, for one, welcome our juggling overlords.

And that’s it for another issue! I noticed a lot of new subscribers in the past week, so if this is your first time reading the newsletter, please be sure to check out the archive. Most of the content there is evergreen and was written just for you.

Until next time!



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