Gandini Juggling: Life review – Merce Cunningham tribute is a little gem

By Lyndsey Winship
Kati Ylä-Hokkala in Gandini Juggling: Life at Sadler’s Wells, London.
Tricksy … Kati Ylä-Hokkala in Gandini Juggling: Life at Sadler’s Wells, London. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

There have been many tributes to the great choreographer Merce Cunningham, whose centenary was celebrated in 2019. But I think this one might be my favourite. It sounds like a fringe concern, contemporary juggling meets modern dance (with an experimental sound score thrown in), but at root it’s all about rhythm, and, as per the title, rhythm equals life.

From director Sean Gandini’s opening chat with the audience, where his wife and co-founder Kati Ylä-Hokkala demonstrates the basics of juggling’s art, he has us listening to movement, tracking rhythm and metre as leather balls fly and land with satisfying thump. Cunningham’s choreography asks us to do exactly the same thing – listen to movement, watch rhythms unfold in the body – and there’s a beautiful synergy between the two forms.

Beautiful synergy ... Benjamin Beaujard, José Triguero and Kim Huynh in Gandini Juggling: Life at Sadler’s Wells, London.
Beautiful synergy ... Benjamin Beaujard, José Triguero and Kim Huynh in Gandini Juggling: Life at Sadler’s Wells, London. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Life was created with Cunningham dancer Jennifer Goggans – she makes her juggling debut – and the multi-talented performers slide and bend into Cunningham’s stark geometries, reinterpreting sections from the likes of CRWDSPCR and Split Sides. It all becomes ultra-complicated, the performers coordinating juggling rhythms, arm and leg sequences at the same time, catching balls while in deep pliés or balancing in arabesque. Watching them master these tricksy puzzles is immensely pleasing, but despite the complexity there’s something very pure about it, magnanimous, even.

They expand into tossing rings and clubs in the air while composer Caroline Shaw layers up vocal and string sounds in a live score that’s adjacent to the action rather than related to it – although there are some serendipitous moments – all of which is very much in Cunningham’s spirit. You can imagine the ever-curious choreographer would have loved this little gem of a show.


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