Why did Anthony Gatto back away from his art?
March 19, 2014 5:55 AM   Subscribe

I feel like I should let you know what you’re in for. This is a long story about a juggler. It gets into some areas that matter in all sports, such as performance and audience and ambition, but there’s absolutely a lot of juggling in the next 6,700 words. ... The usual strategies of sportswriting depend on the writer and reader sharing a set of passions and references that make it easy to speed along on rivers of stats and myth, but you almost certainly don’t know as much about juggling as you do about football or baseball. Dropped: Why did Anthony Gatto, the greatest juggler alive — and perhaps of all time — back away from his art to open a construction business?
posted by metaBugs (30 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
The writing on Grantland seems to have a pretty predictable narrative framework - here's why person is amazing, here's what they're doing now that stands in stark contrast, read on for how they got from A to B. I feel vaguely like should I should be upset about that, like it's the long-form version of the Upworthy "This person did something that seems kind of nuts, and you won't believe what happens next."

But man, when Grantland writers do that, somehow it's just unreasonably compelling reading. I'm not invested in sportball of any kind, but I've just enjoyed the hell out of an article about why a juggler retired to become a cement contractor. Just like I've enjoyed every article I've seen on that site.
posted by mhoye at 6:15 AM on March 19, 2014 [8 favorites]

I'm guessing because juggling is not the most lucrative career, perhaps?
posted by jonmc at 6:15 AM on March 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think that this would have been a great article if I hadn't been thinking to myself the entire time "so why'd he quit, so why'd he quit, so why'd he quit." I still never really found the answer to my question. When you frame something with a question like this, please try and answer it. Otherwise you build resentment from your readers.
posted by oceanjesse at 6:20 AM on March 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Having known someone previously who tried to make it as a juggler, years and years ago, to be quite honest, my not-at-all-shocked assumption upon reading that question was that, well, he probably wanted to actually send his kids to college. The thing about not being able to tell the difference between LeBron and some presumably inferior basketball player--well, this isn't basketball. If you're the best basketball player in the world, you've got a lot of motivation to keep being a basketball player as long as possible. If you're the best person in the world at doing some novelty stunt on Youtube, you have no reason to want to occupy that spot for more than fifteen minutes.

It's cool what he used to do, and all, but--what should it be, now? Perform a few more years and then open up a school for jugglers that will never break even while people quickly forget about you in favor of some new novelty? Or put the same effort into doing something else very well and finally make a comfortable living?
posted by Sequence at 6:25 AM on March 19, 2014

When you frame something with a question like this, please try and answer it.

He did that, and did not find an answer.
posted by LogicalDash at 6:46 AM on March 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

I imagine it's hard to make a living as a juggler. You need a lot of... rings.
posted by oulipian at 6:47 AM on March 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Don't let Grantland's annoying headline stop you from watching those videos.
posted by enn at 7:23 AM on March 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

Oh, man. I juggled as a hobby for years (turns out that when you're doing PhD work, sometimes you want to turn your brain off, and juggling is a great way to make sure you HAVE TO CONCENTRATE ON THE THINGS IN THE AIR). Gatto was a hero, truly and really superhuman in what he could manage. I'm completely bummed that he's not juggling anymore.

Some of the problem with exactly how good he really was that a the very high levels, you really had to be a juggler to be able to tell how hard it was. Partially because he made it look so easy, and partially because to an observer juggling 7 of something and 9 of something doesn't look that different.

Gatto really was (is) completely in another league though.
posted by griffey at 7:27 AM on March 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

This was, as mhoye said, a strangely compelling article. And it's true...if you're not a juggler, you have no appreciation as to how difficult those tricks are that he was performing. Honestly, it got a little boring because he made it look so easy.
posted by Kokopuff at 7:37 AM on March 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

I am not a juggler but holy crap that video of Gatto juggling in the Cirque was astounding. I dunno, maybe it's all the years of animation training giving me an ability to comprehend video quickly and get a sense of "that is a shit ton of stuff moving in the air". And he just kept piling flourishes and other bits on top of it.
posted by egypturnash at 7:46 AM on March 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

It seems to me that he found his answer and just didn't accept it as the answer.

Cirque du Soleil is simultaneously the best, most stable job available for circus performers and not a very good place to work. They're notorious for being not at all friendly to injured performers, and the guy was injured.

(Also, that countertop refinish was amazing, and I need to know if it's possible to get that done in Toronto.)
posted by jacquilynne at 8:04 AM on March 19, 2014

griffey: "Partially because he made it look so easy, and partially because to an observer juggling 7 of something and 9 of something doesn't look that different. "

The main thing I remember from my attempt at picking up juggling was reading that each object added is an exponential increase in difficulty. Even going from 3 to 4 objects is a big change.
posted by Chrysostom at 8:13 AM on March 19, 2014

Reading that article on a real computer instead of on a cellphone and watching the videos has changed my attitude in a way that I didn't expect. Holy shit.
posted by oceanjesse at 8:15 AM on March 19, 2014

I've juggled for years, in a completely amateur manner, but going to conventions and joining the local club wherever I lived. Gatto's always been in a class above; I went with a bunch of jugglers to see him in Kooza years ago, and we all wondered if the rest of the audience had *any* clue of the greatness they'd just witnessed. The guy just does not drop, and he has more chances to than anyone (in terms of # of items and level of difficulty of trick). It's not just that he does amazing things; it's that he does amazing things perfectly, every time.

It actually made me really wonder if *I* wasn't appreciating the other Cirque performers enough. Are they all as much at the top of their game as Gatto was? I really don't know.

I've seen a few great jugglers quit over the years, including one of my favorite passing partners (I could keep nine up with this partner.. but he was doing most of the keeping. Note this is nine clubs with another person, as opposed to Gatto's # by himself, lest you accidentally get impressed by anyone else). This friend of mine quit for a whole host of reasons; he had back pain, had no interest in performing, and had complicated set of personal relations within the juggling community, which is not that large.

The author also speaks about some of the changes in the community, and certainly Vova as a foil for Gatto makes sense, but I think mentioning WJF is also pretty important when discussing the change in juggling. WJF was started by Jason Garfield to try to make juggling more of a sport, in direct opposition to IJA. Vova's won both IJA and WJF competitions before; Gatto, although his athletic ability is second to none, is more of an IJA guy (in that he's a good performer as an artist, too). I'll try to find a good article about the history but I'm at work right now.

Lastly: the WJF dudes all have the same hairstyle. Or did, for a while; maybe they've moved on in the last 2 years or so (I have been working instead of juggling these years). It was kinda weird because younger jugglers who looked up to them would cut their hair the same way.
posted by nat at 8:56 AM on March 19, 2014 [4 favorites]

I used to juggle in the park with a buddy of mine every day one summer and got pretty ok with 3 clubs. I can't imagine trying to make a living as a performer.

Gatto is a master of his craft and he's walking away from a physically demanding performance based career like so many acrobats and dancers and others before him. It's a little heartbreaking, but also a part of life.

Shoutouts to Grantland for doing a nice keyword-friendly link to his concrete video though, That should help his search presence. I hope this guy has an awesome life and comes back to the spotlight every once in a while to dazzle us.
posted by freq at 9:06 AM on March 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Another amateur juggler here.* Excellent article about an amazing juggler. And just to put things into some perspective for people here is a breakdown of difficulty that I read many years ago and that I agree with. On a scale of 1 to 10 learning to juggle three balls in two hands is a 1. I've taught so many people to juggle three items in my life that I've lost count. Anyone can do it and all it takes is about three solid hours of practice.

Juggling four is a difficulty of 10. I've been juggling off-and-on (mostly off) for the past 30 years and can barely do four -- badly. Juggling five is about a 100. I know the technique and have even mastered aspects of it but putting it all together in an attempt it's so impossible that I cannot ever imagine actually being able to do it. And I'm a good 3-ball juggler. (By the way, juggling even numbers uses a different technique than odd numbers of items. Thus it is conceivable for a person to master five but not four items.)

You get past juggling five items and, well, I don't know. Crazy amazing shit. And yet people do it. If you are unable to dunk a basketball imagine going to the court right now and trying to dunk. You realize you are physically incapable of doing it. Not just right now but maybe forever no matter how hard you try. That's where these people live.

* Learned to do three balls by watching a biography of W.C. Fields that spent a good bit of time showing him juggling (balls, cigar boxes, etc.). This was before the VCR so I only had a couple of moments to figure out what the hell was going on when you throw three balls up in the air but by the end of the bit I had figured out the pattern. Then came the practice. Anyway, I always tell people that W.C. Fields taught me how to juggle. About 1 in 10 people know who he was. Sigh.
posted by bfootdav at 9:58 AM on March 19, 2014 [4 favorites]

Interesting article. I was a very enthusiastic juggler about a million years ago, and I think that the article (and other commentators here) give a pretty good indication of how good Gatto was. He was very, very good. Probably the best pure technical juggler that has ever lived.

There were a few problems.

He couldn't really attend conventions because it was like Usain Bolt showing up for the local 5K Turkey Trot. He was always the absolute center of attention. He couldn't grab a slice of pizza without followers.

The pure technical juggling is a hard sell. He was able to inject some art and humor into it later on, but that was never really his thing. Comedy juggling sells, but Gatto is just not a particularly funny guy. He's Michael Jordan, but the entire world is much more interested in watching the Harlem Globetrotters or a slam-dunk competition.

His particular area of expertise is very accessible to amateurs who have the inclination to focus on one thing. I was a numbers juggler and I was much more interested in adding more objects than getting the lower numbers more consistently. I never performed, so it didn't really matter if I could do 7 balls every time. I got a legal run about every other time and very good runs about one time in twenty and that was great for me. Gatto would never work on 11 balls for fun, but that's the only reason I (and others) did. It's not surprising that they (not so much me) had more success at it than he did, but I think there's little doubt that if he had worked on it he would have been more consistent at it. He looked at it as something that wasn't likely to be worth performing, so it never got his attention. I looked at it as something that would be pretty darned cool to do even once.

Injuries. He's been performing for over 30 years.

I hope he's happy.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 10:02 AM on March 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Another extremely amateur juggler here, though most of my knowledge of the scene is at least 10 years old. The article captured really well the difficulty of impressing a lay audience with juggling. I expected a mention of that Chris Bliss video that circulated a few years ago where he juggles JUST THREE BALLS, but it was synced really well to Beatles songs and people thought it was awesome.

My most technically difficult move is a 4-ball shower, but I would never do it to impress a non-juggler. For that I'd probably juggle 3 balls and periodically bounce one off of my head. (I mostly perform for my toddler these days.)
posted by Xalf at 10:08 AM on March 19, 2014

This is a nice article, dredges up some nostalgia. Back in the day, a little after child prodigy Gallo and those videos, Mom took me to the library to read up on my burgeoning juggling hobby. I pored over this one book, filled with lots of photos, daydreaming about all the tricks I might be able to do someday. Specifically, the photos of Gallo in that book sparked my imagination; a kid, roughly my age, juggling five clubs! I can learn to do that, too! Maybe the extent of my performances were a few talent shows in our church basement, but juggling has been good for various social and recreational opportunities over the years. Very indirectly, thanks, Mr. Gallo, for helping inspire me towards that.

My nostalgia aside, this is a very nice article. I consistently enjoy Grantland's profiles, and this one's no different. Plus, this being Grantland and home to plenty of basketball (over)analysis, I had a double take reading about a juggler named Gregory Popovich. (who, IIRC, was in that same juggling book I had featuring Gallo)
posted by Theophrastus Johnson at 10:15 AM on March 19, 2014

I had to learn to juggle years ago in order to get cast in 'Barnum' which, incidentally, is one of the worst shows ever written. It was right when Gatto was just appearing on the scene as an unbelievable child prodigy and it was both very daunting to watch him AND inspirational. Anyone who eclipses everyone else in their field at such a young age is inspirational.

I hope he's happy to: he gave me hours of happiness, both in seeing him perform, and in being inspired to practice an arcane art just for the joy of being able to do it. Also, because he inspired me to keep juggling past that wretched show, I got to pass pins with Penn once, back when P&T worked the Renaissance Festival circuit and so did I. So even more Gatto proppage.
posted by umberto at 11:40 AM on March 19, 2014

I remember buying the video from the IJA festival (St Louis?) where Gatto did a run of 7 clubs.... for 4+ minutes (was it 5, I don't remember). You could see the clubs hit the same peaks at the same speed in precisely the same way. And he clean caught it at the end. If you're a non-juggler, this is kind of like doing hurdles or keeping a volley in tennis or ping-pong going... for an hour.

The thing about that is that after all these years of WJF, Vova Galchenko, Dietz, etc., it's *still* insane. I still think that showed more than anything else what kind of level he is on -- like no one else.

I still juggle (now being past 40), and I still practice 5 clubs (took me only 10 yrs to get there! :-)) and try to invent new tricks to amuse myself -- but I will never perform, and never understood people (even in the juggling community, people do this) who think performance is a requirement once you get to a certain level. I have taken to heart the advice about keeping your hobbies and job separate after being burned by my other hobby turned job. I'm happy Anthony has a construction gig to fall back on -- maybe we'll see him at a juggling convention again someday.
posted by smidgen at 11:49 AM on March 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

This article kind of makes me sad, because it runs so counter to the whole 'do what you love and the money will follow' narrative we're always hearing from... people who love doing lucrative things. I mean, this guy is the best in the world, maybe the best ever, at something that there just doesn't seem to be a market for.

Well, and there's the fact that it's so athletically demanding that you're definitely going to lose something as you age, and you can't teach, because there's no market for that either and maybe that's not even a thing- knowing how to juggle, and being able to do the things he does, appear to be very different. "Here's the skill, now just practice it for thousands of hours until you get perfect at it (and you probably won't)" doesn't make for much of an instructional video I guess. Some things just aren't scalable.

I don't know, why isn't there some kind of MacArthur grant for a guy like him? I'm sure that's nothing new, I'm sure performers of all kinds have always faced this. But it makes me wonder how many people there are like this- who are the acknowledged best at something I'd never thought about, legendary to their peers but unknown to most everyone.
posted by hap_hazard at 12:17 PM on March 19, 2014 [6 favorites]

Most of us are lucky enough to make our own choices in life.

Many people aspire to be 'the best' at something, and cannot understand why you'd walk away from it. However, if you've ever been the best (especially at something where there's no real reward, other than awards and accolades), you realize that it's a hollow victory. Once you get there, there's nowhere to go that's interesting.

He is quite clear in the article about why he no longer juggles. It doesn't contribute anything meaningful to his life at this point. He wants to focus on his family, and love and be loved by his son. He knows what his priorities are, even if you do not agree with them.

He gets to make his own choices - and once you reach the top, there's nowhere to go, unless you forge a completely new path.
posted by grajohnt at 12:18 PM on March 19, 2014 [6 favorites]

Almost no jugglers get rich.

It seems to me that if this is the takeaway, then the writer has missed the whole point of Gatto arc so far, no matter what bollocks he writes about the handicraft of the concrete countertop.
posted by chavenet at 12:40 PM on March 19, 2014

It doesn't contribute anything meaningful to his life at this point.

There is that. It seems to be kind of a theme in sportswriting- I feel like I remember a lot of stuff about Michael Jordan, sort of marveling that he didn't seem to feel a lot of joy from playing basketball. Like you look at him, and think, he's so amazing to watch, it must feel even more amazing to do that stuff. But it doesn't seem to work that way.

It seems a little unjust I guess- it's not enough to amuse us, to amaze us, to do stuff people shouldn't be able to do, you also have to be happy and fulfilled by it!

"But doctor, I am Pagliacci!"

Possibly I am overthinking this.
posted by hap_hazard at 1:18 PM on March 19, 2014 [3 favorites]

I don't think they should have published this article. For all the amount of words and video it has, it just feels like a fizzle.
posted by jenfullmoon at 2:09 PM on March 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Well, it's not like he's got anything left to prove.
posted by LogicalDash at 3:30 PM on March 19, 2014

I don't know, why isn't there some kind of MacArthur grant for a guy like him?

There is exactly that, and it went to Michael Moschen. Moschen's skills are different from Gatto's, but he's amazing at inventing things that audiences with any level of juggling knowledge find amazing. Examples: the Triangle and Contact Juggling (which he is credited for inventing or at least developing into what it is today).
posted by cubby at 10:23 AM on March 21, 2014 [4 favorites]

Just discovered this article, thanks for posting it. Totally disagree with jenfullmoon; it's a long, fascinating piece about a world-class athlete and his retirement from performing. I really liked the stuff about Siteswap, the notation system for objects in motion, and the parts about the new generation of jugglers and Gatto's online debates about them.

Great article.
posted by mediareport at 5:51 PM on March 23, 2014

There is exactly that, and it went to Michael Moschen.

That's great, but it was 1990. It would be wonderful to see the MacArthur folks honor Gatto in 2014 for his career accomplishments and perhaps encourage him to continue to refine his astonishing talent as he gets older.
posted by mediareport at 5:55 PM on March 23, 2014

« Older the big musical history of a little island   |   I Am Kawehi Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments