|ICON: Thoughtstyle, June 1997|
| Michael Moschen: Whatever you
want to call him, Michael Moschen has redefined what it means to juggle.
Michael Moschen wins a MacArthur “genius” grant
of nearly a quarter-million dollars for juggling?
First David Copperfield marries a supermodel. What’s next? A
mime winning an Oscar? It’s
difficult to call Michael Moschen a juggler because his act is so
distanced from traditional techniques.
Reviewers have called him a dancer-physicist, an animator of
objects, and a kinetic sculptor. Usually,
he is grouped with neo-vaudevillians like Blue Man Group and Penn &
Teller, but “high art” claims him as well. The prestigious MacArthur
“genius” grant – the foundation taps highly creative individuals,
regardless of field – followed several NEA grants and spots on PBS’s
Great Performances and Lincoln Center’s Seriously Fun
series. Still, he juggles.
Moschen’s routines incorporate elements of dance,
mime, philosophy, and architecture.
Ideas emerge from what he sees and the objects he surrounds
himself with (the town dump is a favorite source).
He plays with them, sculpts them, lets them hang in the wind, and
studies them. He tries to
recreate in his work the angles, movements or feelings he has observed
– the motion of the sea or a parent-child relationship – seeking
“the structure of poetry within the field of juggling.
Making it possible requires the investment of my life to come up
with a new technique.”
Now 41, Moschen began to juggle at age 12, first
learning with his brother and next-door neighbor, Penn Jillette, from a
library book. Jillette and
Moschen skipped college for theme park gigs and constant practice. When Jilette became half of the magic duo Penn & Teller,
Moschen continued juggling as a street performer.
He worked with the Big Apple Circus, then formed
the Alchemedians with clown Bob Berky, a touring partnership that lasted
10 years. During that time,
Moschen’s conception of juggling gravitated toward performance art;
bowling balls and chainsaw cascades didn’t interest him.
“I have a very bad feeling about a lot of people in my
field,” he says. “Most
of the time they’re interested in the adulation of doing something
that other people can’t, which is a useless attitude onstage.”
Last time he taught a master class, he threw out every student
The 1990 MacArthur grant, an unrestricted award of
around $230,000 over five years, allowed Moschen to move with his wife
and daughter to Cornwall Bridge, Connecticut, and transform the property
into his workshop. Now with
the grant expired, he keeps a steady schedule of live shows.
When not touring, he practices, looks for new ideas, and
exercises – sit-ups, hand exercises, stretches – in preparation for
his physically demanding performances.
In one signature routine, Moschen stands inside a
10-foot equilateral triangle bouncing one to three balls at increasing
and decreasing speeds against the sides, which are miked.
He uses lighting, performance (body movement, dance, facial
expression), and sound to create the desired sensory effects. The piece took eight years to develop; he says it’s not
Another, titled “Sticks/Vectors,” features a
set of speak-like rods amidst architectural curves and cornices inspired
by the Parthenon. Moschen
twirls the oversized vectors as he gently rocks the curves. “The routine implies a ruin of something that is not all
that massive, but something which has had importance,” says Moschen,
though he doesn’t intend for the audience to discover an exact
narrative in the performance.
Jillette predicts Moschen will be the only contemporary juggler remembered a hundred years hence, but Moschen cares more for juggling itself. Moschen, who wanted to be a pro golfer as a child, wishes Americans would appreciate juggling as the British do golf: “They will love a star – Nicklaus, Palmer, Hogan – but the game itself is to be cherished above all individuals. That’s the very old notiono f respecting the discipline more than any particular exemplar of it, no matter how great they might be.
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