Who Brought the Jugglers to the Metropolitan Opera?
Sean Gandini explains how a dozen acrobats keep fifty-nine balls in the air, in rhythm with Philip Glass’s music, in “Akhnaten.”
By Fergus McIntosh
Published in The New Yorker
Online: December 2, 2019
Print: December 9, 2019
See original story here
When the curtain rose on Philip Glass’s opera “Akhnaten” last month, Sean Gandini was sitting twenty feet above the Metropolitan Opera’s stage, dressed as a walrus-headed god. Along with a cast that included the countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, Gandini was about to engage in a complex ritual: resurrecting the titular pharaoh (a sun-worshipping iconoclast best known as Tutankhamun’s father) through several hours of minimalist music and high-intensity juggling.
“Some people who aren’t used to seeing juggling think that there’s a lot of it in the show,” Gandini said two weeks later, in a bar near the Tony Dapolito Recreation Center, in Greenwich Village. “There is a lot—there are twelve jugglers—but it’s quite pared down, quite un-tricksy.” Gandini, who has curly gray hair and a garrulous enthusiasm, grew up in Havana, where his Irish mother and his Italian father—Communists who met in an anarchist club in Geneva—moved when he was four. “It was the late sixties,” he said. “They thought that there was this better world.” In elementary school, a teacher asked Gandini’s class to write about what they wanted to be when they grew up. “People were, like, ‘I want to be the first Soviet astronaut,’ ” he said. “I wrote that I wanted to be a clown and make everybody laugh.”
In choreographing “Akhnaten,” Gandini collaborated with his wife, Kati Ylä-Hokkala, who is also in the show, taking inspiration from a wall painting of ancient Egyptian entertainers. At one point in the opera, Gandini’s jugglers have fifty-nine balls in the air, and during a battle scene silver clubs flash across the stage. “I think at first Philip saw it as decorative,” he said, of the composer. “But after seeing Kati demonstrating juggling on these rhythms, he said, ‘It’s exactly like the music, rhythmically—it makes perfect sense.’ ”
When Ylä-Hokkala first saw Gandini, juggling on the street in Covent Garden, in the nineteen-eighties, she was hooked. “I was twenty,” she said. “I did gymnastics when I was little, in Finland, but Sean was the first juggler I ever saw.” She turned out to be his technical match—they can both keep seven balls aloft, though Gandini could manage nine when he was younger—and his artistic foil.
“Kati is a perfect thrower,” Gandini said. “She’ll throw and never need to move. Whereas I’m more of a catcher.”
Ylä-Hokkala raised an eyebrow. “You’re in a better situation,” she said. “I expect perfect throws, so if I don’t get them I can drop, whereas you can catch anything.”
The couple had come downtown to visit the Carmine Street Jugglers, an amateur group that meets every Thursday at a municipal gym. When not on tour, they live in Clapton, in East London; they’re now renting a place in Harlem. This month, they’ll be in New Jersey, at Peak Performances, opening a run of their show “Spring,” which mixes circus skills and contemporary dance. (They count, among their influences, the composer Steve Reich, the choreographer Merce Cunningham, and the fashion designer Alexander McQueen.)
In the gym, Gandini bounded into a room with a vaulted ceiling, where fifteen jugglers had gathered, dressed in drab sportswear and novelty T-shirts. A game of basketball on an adjoining court filled the space with squeaks and shouts. Gandini chatted with four jugglers, while practicing a right-left pentagon, lobbing clubs in two directions. Ylä-Hokkala, in a denim jumpsuit, tilted her head back and began to toss five colored rings, eyes fixed ten feet above. Apart from her arms, nothing moved.
Nearby, Kelsey Strauch, an acrobat from Montana and a member of the “Akhnaten” cast, was balancing a silver hula hoop on her forehead while throwing three more from hand to hand. In the opera, she enters walking atop a giant wheel, just before the Pharaoh’s coronation scene. “It’s cool to cross worlds,” she said. “The amount that singers practice is similar—the amount of work to get that one note.”
Tyler Sharkey, a copywriter with a sharp fade and horn-rimmed glasses, was toying with four white clubs. “My dad was actually a clown,” he said. Sharkey, who grew up in Staten Island, started out doing magic, but a few years ago, when his father became ill, he began helping out with his shows, juggling in between acts. Now twenty-six, he’d retired from performing. “Advertising’s a little more reliable,” he said.
Jack Hirschowitz was bouncing five green rubber balls. “I’m a joggler,” he said. “I run and juggle.” Hirschowitz, a seventy-four-year-old psychiatrist, recently ran the New York City Marathon with his son, juggling three balls for almost five hours.
At 9 p.m., the regulars strung a net across the room and began a game of volley-club. Gandini looked on wistfully, but he had a Met rehearsal in the morning. He’d been teaching the conductor, Karen Kamensek, how to juggle, and she had promised to try it during a curtain call. “It would be so amazing if she did it,” Gandini said. “She’d bring the house down.” ♦
Published in the print edition of The New Yorker
on December 9, 2019, with the headline “Balls in the Air.”
Fergus McIntosh is on the editorial staff of The New Yorker
Illustration of Sean Gandini and Kati Ylä-Hokkala by João Fazenda