Kaskade – European Juggling Magazine No. 85, 1/2007
Luke Burrage: How did you start juggling, and how did you train to become a performing juggler?
Viktor Kee: I started juggling when I was 6 years old in a children’s circus school in Ukraine. My teacher Alex Gruzin was a juggler too, but he juggled nothing like I do now; he juggled huge objects like chairs and tables. He was an incredible person and a great teacher. For almost 10 years he taught me all he knew about the circus arts. I was a clown, a magician, a dancer, an acrobat and a juggler. Learning all about Ignatov, Biljauer, Kiss and other great jugglers from the USSR I slowly convinced myself to be only a juggler. I liked Ignatov so much that I even grew my hair very long, just like him! At that time we didn’t have access to videos, so all of the acts were described in books, move by move. The rest we had to fill in using our imagination.
When I started performing at age 11, my act was in a very traditional Russian style. Break dance was very popular in the 80s so I started to learn that, combining it with juggling 3 large balls. It became quite a successful act, so I performed at a number of youth circus festivals around the Soviet Union. I then entered the Kiev circus school to master what I had started and to become a real performer. It’s there that I started to develop my own style. I studied classical dance and acrobatics, trying to combine both into my routines. Four years in the Circus School were not enough, however, so I graduated without an act. It took another two years of practice before I had the first version of my act, the one that later became the act you know today.
But now you look nothing like a juggler and nothing like a break dancer! Tell me how you came up with the character you use on stage.
The concept started with some images I liked in the world of arts, dance and cinema. In the first version of my act I was like an alien, almost nude with veins bulging out, and I started in a transparent sphere. Of course that character had to move just like an alien, so I couldn’t move like a traditional juggler. Instead I tried to find new movements, new tricks and combinations that would fit this particular character. After a while I changed the look of the character to something more human, but the mannerisms and style stayed.
In the workshop you also mentioned the Terminator movies and how that character comes out of a sphere.
Yes, that was the first idea, the naked guy who just appears in the alley. It was a great image; someone starting with nothing, and yet developing into something special and mysterious.
Everything around relates to this character…
And nothing is by accident.
Right: you yourself have to choose everything that this character will do. The way you feel it. You can’t buy this! You can’t say to your director or choreographer, “that’s a nice idea, I’ll take it.” You risk no longer being yourself, and the audience will be able to sense this. You have to look inside yourself and develop the character from within yourself.
Let’s get back to your story again. You had an act that was recognisable as the same act you perform today, and you took it to the Cirque de Demain Festival in Paris. Take us from there to working with Cirque du Soleil and how the act developed along the way.
It developed naturally according to the circumstances I was in. My very first serious contract was in the Moulin Rouge. At that time my act was a 3 ball routine and I wore a simple black costume. Then I came here to Berlin for a year’s contract in the Friedrichstadtpalast. The stage there is very big, so I added 5 and 7 balls to my routine for the first time and the act changed to fit bigger venues. Then I worked in New York and Las Vegas for a bit and then came back to Europe for a contract with the Lido de Paris. The show there is quite erotic, and a character has to evolve to fit where you work, so the black costume was inappropriate. That’s why I changed the costume again to something a bit more nude and with more sex appeal.
In ’99 I had to break my contract with the Lido to move into the world of Cirque du Soleil where I designed a new costume and the routine you see now, adding a heart and a girl above, changing the colour of my hair, etc. Everything was done just to fit into the show.
And in all the time you’ve been with Cirque, how many times have you performed your act?
Wow! Probably I would say almost 3,000 shows. Unfortunately I’ve decided to leave Cirque du Soleil, because Dralion is going to tour in Japan and I can’t leave all of the projects that I’m building here in Europe just for the ambition of working for Cirque. It really was a great part of my career, an amazing 8 years, an amazing journey around the world, but… it’s time to move on. Right after I will go to Vegas for 3 months, then to Mexico for couple of months, and then back to Europe. I’ll post my schedule on my website at www.viktorkee.com for anyone who’s interested.
So tell me more about your new project.
I’ve created an artistic development and management company called “Dream Vision”. I cast the talent, bring in directors, choreographers, costume designers etc., providing the artistic vision myself, and together we create an act for a selected student. We put together a plan for him to become a performer. There will be one team pushing the idea forward towards perfection. Right now I have one student who has just been through this process and will be taking part in Cirque de Demain, and a second student will be ready for the same festival a year later. And I have ideas for a few more acts that will come into being over the next few years.
What is the process you have been through with your first student?
I met him a year and a half ago. He was working in an acrobatics troupe as part of Dralion. He told me about his dream to become a solo performer. I saw a great talent in this young boy, so I analysed what he did and brought him into my company to try to do something special. We hired a teacher to work on his technical skill and he moved to Kiev for an intensive year of practice on the new prop. I visited him every 8 weeks or so to direct and give what we needed, working on new tricks, choosing music and sorting out other details.
After a year and a half he was able to do the routines we needed to start creating something special. He joined me for two months here in Berlin and we worked non-stop along with a choreographer until we got closer to having an idea for an act. And recently we finalised it: he made his debut as a solo performer only this month. We had a showcase for Princess Stephanie (organiser of the Monte Carlo Festival) and other circus directors and everyone was very happy. I believe it’s a very special act. Anyone who goes to Cirque de Demain should look out for him: he’ll be performing his hand-balancing there as Dima Shine.
Has this been your dream for a long time?
That’s the strange thing; this never was my dream! I never imagined I would teach anything. Having worked so long in the circus industry I know almost everybody and almost everyone knows me by now. I’m in a great position to pass on my knowledge and experience to someone else. I think I have a lot to give, in my head I always have so many ideas that I could never realise them myself. I want to put this touch of myself into the future of circus. I think our world of circus is very beautiful and somewhat magical, but there is still a lot of room to develop and make it better.
And I don’t want that circus act to be something “you can buy”. It isn’t like buying a written script of an act, paying a choreographer and a costume designer, and making something “new”.
No, you yourself need to work for years and years on a project that you dream about with a far-off goal… that will turn you into someone unique.
I took part in your workshop “The aesthetics of juggling” at the Jonglier Katakomben in Berlin, which you said was your first time teaching a large class. What was it like?
At first I was kind of terrified, but I made special preparations and I covered almost everything I wanted. We did artistic and stage work, and I was interested to see how it would go. In fact, it was an experience for me also! I have lots of things I want to share with jugglers, and I wasn’t quite sure whether I could do that as a teacher. But now I know that it is possible and I hope I did a good job. Only the students could tell you that, though. Next time I would like to divide the jugglers into different ability levels: one workshop for intermediate jugglers and another for advanced jugglers. I found that some of the things I asked the students to do were too hard for most of the group, yet some of them could have gone even further.
You had a good reason for every piece of advice you gave. For example, you said: “Juggle your 3 ball cascade low and very wide, so the audience will always be able to see your body and face.” So what is the main point of the workshop?
The main point is that if you would practise my way, thinking during the practice the way I do, then you should be able to go on stage and do your same routine but with all those little changes in technique. Many of the jugglers said “that way is uncomfortable”. But the main result should be “how it looks” and not “how it feels”. Even if it were a lot more uncomfortable for you to juggle, it would look more beautiful for the audience. It’s all about the visual effect on stage. I always look at my juggling from the outside, from a distance and all sides, not just what it feels like to me. It might not be that comfortable, even to me! But if you are performing, everything you do is for the audience to see, and the most uncomfortable but beautiful juggling is more important than very comfortable juggling that just looks boring.
For me, the audience’s side is the most important. In a show, no matter how many people are in the audience, for me there are just two – you and them. You must respect them. The connection between you and the audience is the key to success on stage. You take that connection and make it stronger, take it higher, make it even greater. You should never take it for granted.
So does that influence all your juggling? Do you only work on things that you think you will be able to perform on stage?
No, no, no. Not at all. I do lots of things in practice that I know I will never put in the show. Even so, a lot of the things I practise are beneficial for what I do on stage: for example, doing harder versions of the same tricks gives me more confidence. I’m a performer first of all; I don’t do it as a hobby or only to show it at juggling conventions. This is my job, my life, my career.
Another thing you said was: “You must put 100% of yourself into one act.” Is that something you would recommend for all artists?
I would recommend it not only for one act. You remember when I said “narrowing in”? When you have one trick you must put 100% into that one trick, then 100% into the transition to the next trick. Think like that about every move. Which other moves could be better for that particular moment, how do you look from all around, what would be the lighting for that moment… etc.
And then I say… make the trick 11 times out of 10 before you put it on stage.
What is the one trick that you think is least aesthetically pleasing when you see it on stage?
Maybe if you throw something behind your back and your elbow and shoulder lean too far forward like this…
Your miming isn’t working too well in text. I guess you could just say “uncomfortable movement in body tricks”.
Let’s be honest here – it just looks ugly. Actually I was thinking about this when you asked me this at the workshop. I don’t like the trick where you go “two up, three down low”.
They’re called siteswaps, a mathematical notation for juggling patterns.
Mathematical whatever. I don’t like them because to me there is no harmony there. If the balls are flying beautifully in a line together, then I understand, but most of these patterns just look like a bunch of objects flying up and down. For me that’s not beautiful, there have to be lines and form, not just in the props, but also in your movement and in your body.
What does the future hold for Viktor Kee?
I’m going to keep performing my act for the next few years, as long as I feel comfortable with it.
Then, when the time is right, I will work full time on my company and develop some beautiful talent. I’m planning to build a studio in Switzerland where I live for the moment. Who are your biggest heroes?
First of all, Francis Brunn. If it had not been for that man I wouldn’t be where I am right now. He gave me the strength to put down all of the props I had and just take three balls and do something different, something I feel and something that comes from within myself. No spangles, no beautiful costumes, just something simple.
That’s what I saw in him when I first saw Francis perform. Later on, meeting him personally was an amazing experience, and to become his friend was a gift from heaven that I will cherish for the rest of my life.
Otherwise there are many great performers who have inspired me, like Michael Moschen and Michael Menes, and of course, my first teacher, Alex Gruzin. Once he said, “When you are no longer nervous before going on stage, it is time to give up.” I truly believe that.
And you are always nervous before you go on stage?
Always! Sometimes before going on stage at a premiere I feel like I am going to puke, I’m so nervous! And if I know there’s a juggler in the audience I know I’m going to freak out. That’s normal, I feel like it’s my way. It means that I care about what I do and I’m a perfectionist.
You’re one of my big heroes, and many other jugglers’ hero too, for being so different and unique. Is there a final message you want to share with everyone reading this interview?
Let’s all together think about how our beautiful juggling world can be better.
While you practise, think about how you can develop something so it is better than you already know.
If you see something on video, it’s great to try it for yourself in practice, but if you put it on stage you have to do it your way and much better.
Improving is beautiful, copying is ugly. I’m really against plagiarism.
I see the circus world becoming more creative and theatrical and I’m really glad that you guys see me as being a part of this process.
And thank you for the interview.
Interview by Luke Burrage, Kaskade – Magazine No. 85, 1/2007 ( www.kaskade.de)