His juggling style is energetic, complex and playful. He combines impressive technique with boundless creativity. He pushes the limits of juggling in every video and each performance, with infectious enthusiasm and an untethered imagination. An interview with a phenomenon. An interview with Wes Peden.
[This article was published in Dutch in CircusMagazine #54 – March 2018]
[Author: Bram Dobbelaere // Translation: Craig Weston // Pictures: Jan Castermans – all rights reserved]
[Copyright: Circuscentrum – please contact maarten[at]circuscentrum.be for more information]
Let’s start at the beginning: where and when were you born?
Wes Peden: “I was born in 1990 in Rochester, New York, which is just on the other side of the lake from Canada, a medium sized town with a population of about 1 million inhabitants.”
Was it a good place to grow up?
“Yes, but it’s a bit hard to say what the city is actually like, because I was schooled at home. I was usually in and around our house, either studying or juggling, and from the age of 11 I had already started to tour with my father. So I feel like I don’t know that much about my own hometown… can’t tell you much of anything about the place, beyond the fact that all the Kodak cameras were made in Rochester.”
Was home schooling a conscious choice of your parents?
“The schools in our neighbourhood had an incredibly bad reputation, and my parents were very religious. They wanted to give me a good catholic education. But they were pretty relaxed about how the home schooling happened. I was very quickly planning my own days. As soon as my schoolwork was finished, I could juggle. By Tuesday evening I had plowed through most of the week’s work and so the rest of the time I was juggling.”
What made you choose to juggle?
“There were a couple of things. As a toddler I could play with all the juggling stuff that my father left around. When I was 5 I learned how to really juggle with balls and clubs and rings and I thought that was fantastic. It was also a good excuse for spending time with my father. When it later became clear that I was dyslectic and that my asthma was way too bad to ever excel in any other sport, juggling became the thing I could fall back on. It was something I was good at, in spite of all the other problems I had. Later I fell in love with juggling for the pure sake of it.”
What kind of performances did you do with your father?
“He had an hour-long solo show. He would play in schools, libraries, or for the scouts and groups like that. I helped him set up, and also had a short solo piece in the middle of the show. When I was 14 we made a show together and put more duo-acts into it. From that point on the show belonged to both of us. We were a great team.”
Did that raise your status among other kids your age, or did they see you as the ‘juggling nerd’?
“Because of the home schooling, I really didn’t feel the need to impress anyone, but juggling gave me and still gives me a sort of basic confidence. With my dyslexia I still forget how to spell the simplest of words, or I start to write my own name backwards. That would really get to me if there wasn’t something else I was good at. So in a way juggling has helped me convince myself that I am actually worth something.”
The American juggling scene is incredibly competitive. Have you taken part in competitions?
“Twice I really went for the ‘Junior Competition’ of the IJA (International Jugglers Association). The first time I wasn’t selected, but when I was 14 I won the competition. The real bonus to winning was that my father and I started to get more attention and he could finally start to work fulltime as a juggler. I also twice entered the WJF (World Juggling Federation) competition. I think I was third in the category ‘Advanced club juggling’. I recently came across the notebook I had used to write down my routine for that competition. Among the other notes was a tally that showed I had practiced the routine 300 times. You can certainly question that competitive aspect, but at any rate it motivated me to work like crazy to improve my technique.”
The first time you appeared on the radar of the European juggling world was with a video ‘Peden to Sweden’. Do you still remember that video?
“That’s the video I made to earn money to go to Sweden, it was also the first video that I offered for sale. I knew that I wanted to go to the circus school in Stockholm, and already just the ticket to go for the auditions was crazy expensive. I had made a couple of YouTube videos and I thought that it would be a good way to earn some money and show the school how determined and motivated I was.”
What made you choose for DOCH (School of Dance and Circus)?
“I only really knew that I very much wanted to go to a circus school. My ‘training’ at the time mostly consisted of watching Jay Gilligan, Sean McKinney and some other unknown Scandinavian jugglers on video. I wanted to go to Stockholm from the moment I heard that Jay Gilligan was teaching there. I had an exchange of mails with Jay, who tried to convince me that I didn’t necessarily need to go to a circus school to get a good education. He advised me to first figure out what it was that I wanted for myself, before deciding whether or not to enroll in the school.”
How do you look back on that school?
“There were certainly some lessons that I could now say were probably unnecessary, but I was only 18 when I began. Everything was new to me. I mostly learned to use my entire body, not just my arms and shoulders. I tried to keep an open mind and learn all I could. It was a fantastic place to discover who you wanted to become and how to get there. My fellow students were a big part of that, and that was completely new to me. I had never been to school before!”
The juggling gods were smiling on you when they put you together with Patrik Elmnert, Ron Beeri and Tony Pezzo in the same school…
“Absolutely. I was the only juggler in my class, Patrick and Ron were a year after me, and Tony came after that, but we often had juggling lessons together. At a certain point I was living together with Patrick and Jay in the same house. We formed a kind of juggling sect, where Jay would leave juggling objects he had just designed in my room to experiment with. It was an incredibly inspiring place to live, that apartment and the entire city of Stockholm.”
How would you describe Jay Gilligan’s teaching style?
“The school lasts for three years and the juggling program is divided into three different stages: technical training in the first year, composition in the second, and a combination of the two in the third year. Because of the technical skills I already had, Jay decided to begin earlier with the composition part of the training. Jay had such a good eye for what I was lacking and he pushed me really hard. I often came out of an acrobatics or dance class I could barely keep up with, and the moment when I thought ‘Ah finally, my juggling lesson’, was the moment that I got the most difficult assignments from him. ‘Make a ten minute act in three minutes’ or ‘Invent 30 new movements without using your juggling objects, only pen and paper’. One of the most important things I learned from him was not to let myself be defined by one kind of technique or one kind of style. He freed up my thoughts about juggling. For him a juggler is someone with the mental and physical capacity to give form to an idea with absolutely any object presented to him.”
When you were at school you continued to make and sell videos. Why?
“I had time and I wasn’t performing outside of school. I made the videos to earn money to pay the rent. When I graduated and began performing, I no longer needed to make videos for the money, but I wanted to continue. I realised that money, or creating and stocking up new material for performances yet to come, were not my real motivation. I just love juggling so much that I want to film the movements from the perfect point of view, with the perfect number of throws or repetitions. If I film it then it will exist forever, even if I myself end up forgetting it. It’s been captured.”
You graduated in 2010. How did it feel to leave school?
“I certainly had more freedom afterwards, but I never felt bad or bored in school. In my final year I actually wanted to start all over again. I had been never away from home on my own before I went to Stockholm, so my first reflex was: ‘Uh, I can eat pizza whenever I want?’ My family was really catholic, and so for the first time I asked myself ‘What do I actually think about all of that?’ I had never drunk alcohol, I still had so much to discover about life, about girls, … It took me two years to get over the shock and actually start to concentrate on juggling, and by then I only had one year to go. I was 20 when I graduated, a lot of the others were almost 30. It was then that I decided I would continue learning, and never believe that I knew it all. As soon as I was out of school, I replaced Jay Gilligan in a production of Cirkus Cirkör, took part in Cirque de Demain and afterwards went on tour with Jay in the states with our Shoebox-tour, where we showed our acts in strange locations. During that tour we created a lot of new duo-material and we played that in Germany when we got an offer from the GOP variété-theatres. My career has so far been a mix of very different projects.”
Have you in the meantime discovered what you like doing the most? Solo or working in a group? Making videos or performing live?
“The mix works really well for me. Sometimes I come up with something new and realise it will take me way too much time to show it live on stage, but that in a shorter period of time I can get it on video. I think if video wasn’t part of what I do, then that sort of material would just be thrown away and forgotten. It’s also like that when I am working in a group. If the others don’t appreciate a fantastic new trick as much as I do, then I just keep it for a solo project. In the end, what I like doing most of all is to go into a rehearsal space and make up new juggling material. If I’ve thought of a new concept for a 3-club-routine, or found a new throw for which I can make up a million variations, then the ensuing hour is pure pleasure. I return to my apartment as happy as a kid with a cell phone full of short clips, things that worked and things that didn’t. If I could earn my money just making videos and performing once in a while, that would be paradise. Then I would never have to drop!”
Every juggler has a complex relationship with drops, how do you deal with yours?
“The importance or impact of a drop depends a lot on the context. If I am performing a four minute number and I drop twice, then that is horrific because the audience doesn’t know me and judges me on how well I perform in those few minutes. But if it happens halfway through a longer performance, then the audience has gotten to know me better so it’s less serious. Jugglers with a well-developed character can even turn a mistake to their advantage, as opposed to someone who has a juggling act in which each throw corresponds to a beat in the music. I firmly believe in creating a context in which it’s acceptable to make mistakes.”
Nice theory Wes, but your act in Cirque de Demain was technically incredibly difficult. The context: an important competition, and international jury and more than 2000 spectators…
“For sure, and in those sort of situations you have to figure out the best way to deal with an eventual mistake. That routine was not supposed to be comic, my character was largely determined by the way I moved. There is no point in reacting to a mistake that doesn’t correspond to that character then. I just try to stay in the atmosphere of the act, even if things go wrong.”
For a lot of young jugglers, it’s nerves that diminish what they are capable of doing in a performance. How do you deal with that?
“I try to fool myself. In ‘Water on Mars’ (his trio with Patrik Elmnert and Tony Pezzo, red.) the end is really chaotic, but also easy. It’s technically simple, but we throw around water, toilet paper and chocolate bars. It’s a guaranteed success, so I have the feeling that even if we screw up the entire show, we can always score in the end.”
Of course you’re lying to yourself because you know that’s not entirely true.
“Yeah, of course, but we still have the feeling that even if we play our worst show ever, we can always save it at the end with that routine. When I am making something new I always try to give myself that sort of ‘emergency exit’. I trick myself into relaxing. It doesn’t always work. If at the beginning of the routine I make a string of mistakes, then I start thinking, ‘If I can screw this up, then everything can go wrong!’ What you must avoid at all costs is getting into a state of ‘I have to save this’. For my graduation piece in Stockholm I juggled five clubs while running around in a circle. When I was working with my dance teacher on the act she suddenly asked me: ‘Wes, do you love that 5-club pattern? If you do then think about that every time you juggle it, love it and make it perfect, and then we’ll also love it.’ So I try in every performance to think about how much I love every throw and I strive for perfection, for every figure, instead of thinking: ‘Wes, your image is at stake here!’ I try to be in service of juggling. I am only here to present the figures in their optimum form.”
Let’s talk for a moment about your creation process and your never-ending search for new material. In your video ‘Throw Joy’ you tape the clubs together… At first that seems like such a dumb idea, but you get a lot out of it. Do you ever have any bad ideas?
“For that sequence I drew up all the possible forms and combinations I could think of, and then tried out the most interesting ones. I really like the idea of creating figures for every ‘new’ object. After a while you start to understand the unique qualities of an object, and more easily skip the first twenty uninteresting ideas and more quickly get to the essence. The better you can get at that, the quicker you get to the good stuff.”
But you’re always willing to try something out – no matter how stupid it might seem.
“Yes, maybe because on occasion I have taken what seemed like a dumb idea and got some good new material out of it. By now if I think I’ve found something good, when I watch the video I am seldom proven to be wrong. You get better in recognising when something is good. You can practice the art of finding new material just as easily as any other technique.”
I know you get a lot of energy and inspiration from rappers like Eminem or Kendrick Lamar and fashion designers like Jeremy Scott. How do they influence your work as a juggler?
“For me both of those worlds are very close to juggling. In rap you have one person who composes with word sequences which to my mind is very close to the way you compose a juggling routine. The rhythm that gravity induces on the thing, the fact that you try to impress with your technique and at the same time try to talk about something outside that technique. And it’s all open to your interpretation, you can make it aggressive or smooth, low or fast, …
As far as the link with fashion goes: I have become really interested these past years in repetitive patterns, whereas in the past I tended to make things in which all the movements only happened once. In my last video ‘Gumball’, patterns return with surprising rhythms and strange forms. When I juggle those figures I have the feeling that I am actually ‘wearing’ the juggling pieces as gigantic and invisible jewelry which gives my body a particular form. Just as a certain piece of clothing can do. A fashion show is also a series of forms and patterns, which often have a common theme that the designer has chosen. Someone like Jeremy Scott mixes themes like Coca-Cola and wedding dresses, and that makes me want to do things like mixing ‘slap-backs’ (a fast technique in which clubs are struck while juggling, red.) with the old style of someone like Kris Kremo.”
For some people juggling is a technique unto itself, not necessarily tied to circus. What are your thoughts on that?
“Well, it’s really difficult to attain the same effect with juggling as you can with a figure on a Chinese pole, for example. In juggling real danger is almost never part of the equation. Historically, juggling has always been tied to the circus, but to my mind that is one of the only things that ties them together. It does stand on its own, and maybe in the future the two will grow even further apart. It’s important to be strong and flexible in every circus discipline… unless you’re a juggler. You may be fit, but it’s actually not necessary.”
In this interview it’s become clear just how much you love juggling. Are there days that even Wes Peden doesn’t feel like juggling?
“Of course there are days… There’s a difference between who I am now and who I was as a young teenager. In those days I loved the feeling of juggling, and it didn’t matter if the trick wasn’t working because I was juggling. Now I am crazy about working out ideas and the creative side of juggling, but if I can’t get something right I get really frustrated with myself. ‘This is taking too long, I am smarter than this, I just want to get it now so I can go on to the next idea. I’ve been doing this for 23 years, let’s go!’ And the time I have to devote to all the practical things means that I’m always happy when I can get back to the essential act of juggling.”
A real juggler’s question: clubs, rings or balls?
“Now I would have to say ‘clubs’, last year I would have said ‘balls’. Balls give you a chance to explore all the physical possibilities you have with your body in relation to the objects because they leave you a lot more room, but clubs give you more possibilities with the object itself.”
Finally: if you could choose another discipline that you could master just like that, which would it be?
“I think I would choose the one that’s most difficult: to learn and speak all the languages of the world. There are so many Japanese and French jugglers with whom my conversations could then be so much more nuanced, about how they create their work or the way they have developed a new trick. Or drumming, or being able to recognise and name all the plants and trees. Being able to predict the evolution of the Bitcoin would also come in handy…”