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Novel Act Is Poetry in Moschen

Juggler Extraordinaire, Who Performs Friday in Irvine, Tries to Reach Harmony With the Items He Employs

May 18, 2000|JON MATSUMOTO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The word "juggler" usually conjures up such images as a unicycle-riding entertainer frantically tossing juggling pins into the air. It rarely inspires thoughts of a great artist.

Michael Moschen has elevated juggling to high art. His solo performances, geared to people of all ages and cultures, are imbued with elements of dance, performance art and theater.

Just as Cirque du Soleil helped bring a sense of sophistication to the circus world, Moschen has contributed a mesmerizing dimension of artistry to the juggling profession. The 45-year-old workaholic, who performs Friday night at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, has spent decades honing his craft. It is his unquenchable desire to lead and not follow that fuels his fertile imagination.

"Early on in my career I challenged myself to create new vocabularies" in juggling, he explained from his Connecticut home.

"I do a lot of research into the history of juggling and related fields. It made sense to me that if I was going to do something that meant something, I would have to do my homework and let new vocabularies happen. When I work with an object, I don't want to work with it in any way that I've seen done before."

One of Moschen's best-known pieces involves a large triangular frame. Hard rubber balls ricochet off the inside walls of this wooden structure. Moschen's dexterity in manipulating these rapidly moving objects--by hand and foot--is impressive, but so are the captivating rhythms and geometric visual patterns he creates within this kinetic piece. He even manages to execute a soft-shoe while the balls fly about.

Another piece involves four crystal balls, which glide poetically over his body. At one point, they appear to follow one another around his chest and over his head. This piece isn't superficially spectacular like someone juggling a plethora of pins while a piece of furniture is balanced on the forehead. What Moschen accomplishes is unique and far subtler.

Other jugglers set out to conquer the objects in their act. Moschen's goal is to reach a harmony with the items he employs, which range from teardrop-shaped hoops and crystal balls to torches and cylinders formed from outdoor plumbing pipes. It is a mind-set that helps separate his shows from the flashy but sometimes unimaginative juggling exhibitions one might encounter in Las Vegas.

When Moschen was in the early stages of developing his triangle piece, he even spent nights sleeping in the structure.

"I did [sleep in the triangle] early on," said Moschen, the only juggler ever to receive a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant. "I had to know it in every way possible. If you talk to a classical musician, I'm sure at some point they did the same thing with their instrument. You have to give it your all."

Moschen appears to be consumed by his art. He is a tireless worker who can spend as many as 17 hours a day rehearsing, creating, fine-tuning his body and taking care of the business aspects of his vocation.

Several years ago, his 12-year marriage to Danielle Mailer, the daughter of author Norman Mailer, collapsed. He acknowledges that his obsessive schedule contributed.

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Moschen's pieces usually take about two years to fully develop. His triangle piece--his biggest challenge to date--took four years of study and trial and error. Sometimes he appears as if he is as much a physicist and cultural anthropologist as an artist. The triangle piece came together thanks in part to hours spent studying the physics involved in building the ancient Egyptian pyramids.

Moschen's work in progress involves cylinders that turn and spin on one another. The project came about after studying cylinders that existed 5,000 years ago in Samaria.

"Let me tell you, it's hard work," he said. "But hard work is OK if it means something. If I believe it's important, I will just work, work, work until what's supposed to happen happens."

Moschen's life in recent years has been plagued by setbacks and tragedies. His father died after a bout with Parkinson's disease. His sister was diagnosed with cancer, and his mother no longer recognizes him because of Alzheimer's.

He says his art reflects the up-and-down nature of life.

"Life is unfair sometimes. But right now I'm sitting in the Berkshires. It's a beautiful spring evening. I just saw my daughter a little while ago. I'm going to have her tomorrow evening again.

"Life has different terrains for everybody. When you're in the middle of it, you can have intense joys or sorrows. I look at life as a teacher. It's part of my job as an artist to let it do what it's going to do to me and then go in and find out what happens [creatively]."

His fascination with balls began when he was growing up in Greenfield, Mass. Golf and pool were early interests. At age 12, he began to explore juggling with his brother, Colin, and their neighbor Penn Jillette, now half of the comedy-magic duo Penn & Teller.

In 1975, Moschen and Jillette formed an act called the Tumescos. When Jillette left to begin a partnership with Teller, Moschen started performing as a New York street juggler. He subsequently joined the Big Apple Circus for three years. This was followed by a stint with Lotte Goslar's Pantomime Circus. In 1988, he performed his first solo show at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's annual Next Wave festival. This led to his own PBS special.

After more than 20 years of professional juggling, Moschen isn't about to slow down or take an extended breather.

"There are too many pieces I want to make," he said. "I just want to keep working. I love the job of creating. It's interesting. It's hard. It's fulfilling to research and learn about the world. But as a performer it's also a gas because you get to go out there and show the stuff you think is cool."

BE THERE

Michael Moschen, Friday at Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive. (949) 854-4646. 8 p.m. $26 and $32.

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