Review from: Catch! Festival, Appleby; 25th July 2018
Sometimes a show hangs off its title, especially when the content is something as artistically abstract as juggling. Zebra, the latest live show from manipulation master Wes Peden, offers more than just a black and white colour scheme. Its 50-minute duration allows me to reflect on nature, evolution and evasion of binary distinctions. And it’s a showcase of spectacular jugging patterns that makes me write ‘aarrrggghhjjhh dribble!’ in my notebook.
In a stark departure from his trademark lurid hypercolour, Peden’s set is dressed with the minimum of sound system, portable lighting equipment, cables and store-bought white rings and clubs. Admittedly, there’s a judicious amount of fringe jazzing up the proceedings (I promised Russell Wells I’d credit him with the tagline ‘tassle-tastic’), but the only other non-traditional items with a role in the show are a series of record sleeves, also decorated with crisp black and white designs.
Mesmeric moods are conjured, by each recorded track that crackles from an amplified record player, then are broken by the flick of a switch for Peden to address us sombrely through a microphone. This show is part of the events at Catch! Circus & Juggling Convention and, in a separate workshop, Peden talks about his parallel practice of making artistically led juggling videos. The editing process on stage affects his editing choices on film and vice versa; particularly pertinent is his recognition that brains can become oversaturated with non-stop juggling pretty easily. In Zebra, innovative methods of changing record become the light-hearted palette cleanser between sequences of evolving shapes, formed from clubs circling in towards the torso or balls that bounce between hands and forearms. Manual adjustments to the lighting kit re-align our focus to the next section.
An early track suggests a Serengeti soundscape beneath the ambient music, and I see fluttering birds in the rings that Peden spirals up and down his arms, a rhinoceros in the combinations he balances vertically from his face, or a flash of elephant trunk and ears in the patterns that move smoothly around and about his forearms, arcing now and then through the air. Later I watch the extent of human control as clubs are tossed from arms stretched to their full reach, up, down, or out from the body, releasing only at the peak of their swing. With his back turned to us, Peden creates a complicated pattern of five clubs in the air whose beauty is not immediately apparent but emerges with time and attention. Aerobics style, he puts a plastic beaded skipping rope through its paces to an EDM refrain that sounds to me very aptly like ‘So Perfect’ (although I find out later it’s actually ‘Somewhere Else’). There is plenty of wit in this show, however it is kept in a lower, more elegant key than in smash-hit Water On Mars; proof that Peden can dress his outrageous talents in ‘grown-up’ too.
Over the course of the convention, I’ve had several conversations that mention object manipulation historically diverging into two distinct paths of magic and juggling. Zebra, for me, brings them back into one. The purity of this juggling, for all the experimentation that brought it here, is magic, and the beauty of it brings a tear to my eye.