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For Jugglers, It's All Up in the Air

Amateurs and pros gather at UC Santa Barbara for an annual celebration of skills.

May 24, 2003|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

Enrico Rastelli has been dead 72 years now, but his spiritual heirs are alive and juggling.

Revered as the greatest juggler of the modern age, Rastelli could juggle seven balls with his hands while spinning other balls from a pole in his mouth, twirling three rings on one leg, and balancing on a teeter-totter board.

Even in an age of multi-tasking, nobody today matches Rastelli. That may be one reason Rastellis-in-waiting roam from festival to juggling festival, crossing the land with bags full of balls and hearts full of hope.

At the recent Isla Vista Jugglers Convention in Santa Barbara, a crowd of more than 100 filled a UC Santa Barbara gym and spilled into a grassy courtyard, the plastic clubs they were tossing glinting in the sun as they tumbled from hand to hand and juggler to juggler.

The scene looked like an experiment in effervescence, with colorful balls, clubs, rings, hula hoops and unlighted torches swiftly going up and coming down, like bubbles fizzing in a psychedelic drink. Dozens of jugglers knit their brows, driven by internal rhythms. In their midst, 18-year-old Joe Sonnenburg worked his hands like the blades of a blender, keeping nine beanbags in the air at once.

Sonnenburg was unlike most others in the crowd -- hobbyists hoping to hone their skills, talent-show types seeking a bit of polish, students looking for a party. The lanky high school senior from Lake Forest had a loftier aim. He hopes to pursue a lucrative career as a juggling professional.

"When people ask me what I want to do," he said, "I tell them, and then they laugh, and go, 'No, really: What do you want to do?' "

Really, he wants to juggle.

He has been at it since he was 11 and he says he just can't stop. Pedaling a unicycle, he juggles curved swords. He juggles at home, at school, at Bible study groups, at international juggling conclaves. And he knows that a good juggler with a compelling gimmick -- he is experimenting juggling pingpong balls with his mouth -- can clown his way into a six-figure income on cruise ships and at corporate functions.

On the sidelines, Joe's dad, Larry Sonnenburg, a former executive with the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, said he was OK with his son's post-college career goal.

"Jugglers," he said, "are the nicest, kindest, most inclusive people you'd ever want to meet."

For a time, juggling in the United States was mainly a sport of the streets.

"It used to draw lots of hippies," said Alan Howard, a professional juggler who also edits Juggle Magazine, circulation 2,000. "Annual conventions were held at universities so that everyone could stay in the dorms."

While "there are still people who meditate on the spheres," Howard said, many jugglers are drawn by their interest in math, engineering or computers.

Taking a break at the annual convention in Santa Barbara, two graduate students from Stanford -- Sara Harriman, in electrical engineering, and Lauren Schmidt, in cognitive sciences -- agreed about the lure of juggling.

"There's a lot of mathematics to this," Harriman said, intently watching half a dozen sweaty young men standing in a circle and tossing clubs at each other. "There are interesting patterns involved here."

Nobody knows that better than Ron Graham, a former president of both the International Juggling Assn. and the American Mathematical Society.

"Math is often called the science of patterns," said Graham, who now teaches at UC San Diego. "You can think of juggling as the art of controlling patterns in time and space.

"In a way it's like computing," he added. "The problem there is that a computer does exactly what you tell it. The problem in juggling is that the balls go just where you throw them."

Of course, there are other problems, too.

The knives sold for juggling are duller than steak knives but can cut nonetheless. And the torches that have excited so many crowds have burned many a juggler, as Kenny Kahn, a.k.a. "Kenny the Clown," has painfully learned.

Checking out the unicycle video on a vendor's table at the Santa Barbara convention, the Bay Area novice clown spoke of juggling's harsh lesson when it comes to the common torch.

"You learn not to catch the wrong end," said Kahn, who last year dropped out of a graduate program in social welfare to find his true calling at children's parties and county fairs. "Either that or you let it go real quick."

But a minor burn is nothing, next to the sacrifice of the great Rastelli.

At 34, Rastelli is said to have died from an infection. The presumed culprit: a contaminated mouthpiece that held the stick that twirled the balls that were a small part of one of the biggest acts in all of juggling.

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