YANGON — Weekend visitors to Yangon’s Maha Bandoola Park can hardly fail to have noticed the arrival of a colorful crew of performers who have been providing plenty of laughs and entertainment ahead of the city’s first international juggling festival next month.
Keeping three balls or other items in the air by hand is something everyone can try. Many park-goers have been giving it a shot. Others just sit back and enjoy the spectacle of flying ribbons, balls, and curious s-shaped staffs known as buugeng skillfully manipulated by French juggling master Julien Ariza.
In Myanmar, juggling has typically been the province of the feet, not the hands. Local practitioners of chinlone, a traditional Myanmar sport that involves one or more players keeping a small rattan ball in the air without using their hands, are some of the most spectacular ball-manipulators of all.
Chinlone “jugglers” from Myanmar impressed audiences in Europe and the United States in the late 19th century when they toured as traveling entertainers, according to research by British academic Jonathan Saha.
Among the most famous was Moung Toon, “The Marvelous Burmese Juggler”, who was noted for his ability to move balls all over his body without using his hands.
In 1896 audiences at the Crystal Palace in London were amazed by Moung Toon’s abilities with a cane ball that “appeared to be endowed with human knowledge, so cunningly did it lend itself to the design of the performers.” Moung Toon went on to tour in the United States the following year.
“He starts to juggle two glass balls, such as we would hang on a Christmas tree, but all his work in throwing, catching and tossing is done with those eloquent feet…the audience stares in wonder,” according to a review in a San Francisco newspaper in 1899.
However the minstrel life, then as ever, was a vulnerable one. Dr. Saha also found letters to the Government of India regarding “a troupe of Burmese jugglers who were stuck in the north-west of England having been abandoned by their employer in 1898.”
And in 1900 it seems that Moung Toon had other problems too. Reportedly he had fallen in love with an English woman and she had agreed to marry him. But the clergyman refused to conduct the ceremony after the chinlone player’s manager informed him that Moung Toon already had a wife in Myanmar.
The organizers of the International Juggling Festival have been tracking down more information about juggling and circus performances in Myanmar in the past, according to Jude Smith of the Serious Fun Committee. They hope to find out more from old movie footage and from Myanmar puppetry experts, and welcome information from any other source.
The committee organized similar juggling festivals in Laos in 1996 and Thailand in 1993 and is keen to connect Myanmar enthusiasts with the international network.
Comedian Zarganar introduced Serious Fun to Omega Mime, comprised of two young comedians Thura and Jo Ker, who also juggle. Omega Mime will emcee a big free public show featuring international and local performers from 6:30 pm in Kandawgyi Park on Feb. 12.
Entertainment at the Day of Fun to be held at Maha Bandoola Park on Feb. 14 will include a Juggling Olympics as top jugglers, including one-time seven ball champion Haggis McLeod from the United Kingdom and “Venus, Goddess of the Diabolo” from the Netherlands, compete for medals.
Local community groups are organizing play shops and games, and the festival activities will include flash poetry and story readings from PEN Myanmar, action painting with artists from Pansodan Scene, performances from the New Yangon Theatre Institute and singing from the Global Harmonies choir.
And watch out for a potential “match” between the international jugglers and local players from the National Chinlone Association.
The juggling events have the support of the Mayor’s Office and Yangon City Development Committee—whose committee member U Soe Si discovered that he too can do the three-ball cascade with just a few minutes instruction.
“One of the wonderful things about organizing this juggling festival is that it brings together diverse groups of people, bridges the gaps, breaks down barriers,” says U Myo Win of Smile Education and Development Foundation, a local NGO partnering with the committee.
Meanwhile, this month the organizers are continuing a community outreach program bringing fun and teaching juggling skills to disadvantaged children in orphanages, hostels and schools. Community Juggling Coordinator Jules Howarth starts his sessions showing how to make juggling balls with balloons and pigeon pea for filling, overcoming any need for expensive equipment.
“Anyone can juggle,” says the Welsh performer. “Juggling is a great leveler.”
The writer is the Yangon Coordinator for the International Juggling Festival. For updates, contact: [email protected] Tel: 09-250 156 750 or 09-972 129 645. This story initially appeared in the Jan. 2015 issue of The Irrawaddy Magazine.