JUGGLING is not usually associated with prestigious performance spaces, or as part of a constructed narrative. Instead, juggling feels like an entertainment chanced upon, on the way to something else, an impromptu art form briefly stopping us in our tracks, before we move on to the main event.
United Strings of Europe’s recent production of Stravinsky’s ballet Apollo Resurrected at Kings Place in north London turns these reductive attitudes on their head, by placing Gandini Juggling performers and their balletic throw-snatch-shower-cascade routines at the heart of retelling the story of Apollo as a depressed artist, who is roused from lockdown stupor by the Three Muses.
Apollo was performed by Owen Reynolds, who started centre stage, encased in a shroud-like structure with a framework composed of three dancers, who were revealed to be Polyhymnia, the muse of mime; Terpsichore, the muse of music and dance; and Calliope, the muse of poetry. Retreating to a corner to fester, the muses staged an intervention, looping and passing balls between their six arms to awaken Apollo’s desire to live and create.
When Apollo showed signs of backsliding into melancholy, Calliope (Yu-Hsien Wu) flung a book at his head. Then the scene dissolved into Calliope’s borrowing Apollo’s trilby to sit at a Parisian café table, before dancing the polka with Terpsichore (Lynn Scott). Enlivened, Apollo raised the stakes and introduced beachball-size blue spheres to the juggling dance, which Polyhymnia (Valeria Jauregi) rolled along her flattened torso, then up on to the upturned soles of her feet and back again, in a waterfall motion.
As balls large and small passed between the performers’ hands and feet, the six musicians began their journey across the stage, until a lone cello was left out of the circle, and then was finally incorporated. At this point, a red curtain appeared, and Apollo re-entered in a red-glitter tailcoat, accompanied by the muses in red-glitter waistcoats. Apollo unpacked the tools of his trade — the juggling balls — from a case, and stepped behind the now open red curtain, revitalised and ready to perform.
Composed between 1927 and 1928, Apollo Musagète was choreographed originally by 24-year-old George Balanchine, and Coco Chanel designed the costumes for the 1929 production. Three years earlier, Stravinsky had written to the impresario Serge Diaghilev “out of extreme mental and spiritual need”, asking forgiveness for past misdemeanours, before he attended confession for the first time since he was a child.
Brought up Russian Orthodox, Stravinsky moved in Roman Catholic intellectual circles, and, because instruments are not used in Orthodox worship, all his later sacred works have Latin or English texts. In his Poetics of Music (1942) Stravinsky reflected: “all the Dionysian elements which set the imagination of the artist in motion and make the life sap rise must be properly subjugated before they intoxicate us, and must finally be submitted to the law: Apollo demands it.”
Art’s reflection of divine law is echoed in the world première of Joanna Marsh’s Another Eden. With the two violins, two cellos, viola, and double bass positioned close to the audience, Gandini Juggling’s four performers returned to the stage dressed in black and sat at the feet of the musicians. As the four-bar-ground-bass structure’s revolutions built to longer and larger patterns, the jugglers shifted into more unified and elaborate shapes.
Another Eden was written in response to the idea that, as we emerge from the pandemic, we want to regain or rebuild the beauty that we eroded: we want another chance. Another Eden had echoes of a sea shanty, as the melody was interrupted and suspended in a holding pattern before being restored. Marsh’s interest in Tudor and Elizabethan choral music shone through.
As the piece headed toward resolution, the jugglers’ individual performances merged into a human slide with large and small balls cascading along their bodies. For the finale, the performers mirrored an atom, spheres passing between them at mesmerising speed, fusing music and movement as the building block of life.
United Strings of Europe present music in a narrative structure, providing reference points for all audiences, however scant or prodigious their musical knowledge. Apollo Resurrected was proceeded by a quartet performance of the Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov’s Tenebrae. Inspired by the contrast between Israel’s new wave of violence, starting in 2000, and the beauty of a visit to New York’s planetarium with the composer’s son, the piece lifts some of the haunting melismas (vocal embellishments on one syllable) from Couperin’s Troisième Leçon des Ténèbres, with new pulsating interludes between the loops.
The ensemble leader the violinist Julian Azkoul’s relaxed, physically expressive playing style emphasised the conversation between the violin and lower-pitched strings. Tenebrae reflected Golijov’s background in both klezmer and classical music, and succeeded in his aim to present a beautiful surface, with barely concealed pain beneath. The title’s allusion to the Wednesday of Holy Week set the tone for a musical programme that fused street performance with high art, and delight in human artistry with the contemplation of suffering, sin, and redemption.