Review: The Inspired Poetry of Gandini Juggling

MONTCLAIR, N.J. — Even though Gandini Juggling owes much to many other artists, this British group’s work feels like a whole new genre. Here, juggling becomes flights of inspired poetry, musical choreography with strong dance elements, crazy-comedy surrealism, breathtakingly dexterous virtuosity, darkly absurdist drama. Gandini opens windows in the mind.

I discovered this troupe in 2016, when it played a vital part in Phelim McDermott’s spellbinding English National Opera production of Philip Glass’s “Akhnaten,” which is coming to the Metropolitan Opera next year. Why didn’t I know of Gandini before?

Gandini Juggling was founded in 1992 by Sean Gandini and Kati Ylä-Hokkala “to filter juggling through a dance aesthetic.” With “Smashed” (2010), an enchanting — and dumbfounding — hourlong production, the troupe makes its American debut, in the Peak Performances series at Montclair State University.

Mr. Gandini, the troupe’s director, and Ms. Ylä-Hokkala, the assistant director, are among the nine “Smashed” performers (seven men, two women). Mr. Gandini has said that the death of Pina Bausch, in 2009, inspired this show; and yes, Bauschian elements proliferate here from first to last. Yet the larger mind-set in this show, with its love of rhythmic subtlety and geometric intricacy, is entirely un-Bauschian. The Gandini directors are also said to be fans of Merce Cunningham and Trisha Brown; I hope we get to see Gandini works inspired by those two.

In “Smashed,” the stage is lined by neat rows of apples. The nine performers, elegantly attired, jauntily saunter through these lines in single file, perfectly synchronized — and wittily musical — as they juggle, three apples each, to the Little Jack Little song “I’ve Always Wanted to Waltz in Berlin.” This let-us-entertain-you way of smiling at the audience is Bauschian; so is the stage environment, which will eventually be wrecked. Gender, as in Bausch, is an issue: Men often take comic advantage of women, trying to impose themselves or steal credit.

Yet the patterns, games and rhythms in “Smashed” are astoundingly original and detailed. Even though the stage order eventually comes unstuck — crockery and apples are smashed, performers are drenched by tea, chairs are knocked over — “Smashed,” like the “Akhnaten” production, has created a beautiful image of civilization, brilliant if precarious. (Teapots are among the objects juggled, in astounding arcs.) The mathematical wit and musical timing here remind me less of the choreographers I’ve mentioned than of George Balanchine.

The music includes popular 20th-century songs — by Al Bowlly, the Ink Spots, Tammy Wynette and others — as well as Bach, Mozart, Vivaldi. Always it forms a rich counterpoint to the stage action, which is often metrically fast when the accompaniment feels slow. The physical response to a tragic aria by Vivaldi is especially imaginative: The dark frustration in the music seems to fuel the tense mayhem onstage. Especially when “Smashed” shows you how the center cannot hold, it demonstrates how much skill, idealism and harmony still achieve.

Through Sunday at the Alexander Kasser Theater, Montclair State University;

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