It began with a chance encounter in Covent Garden over 30 years ago. Kati Ylä-Hokkala, a former ballet dancer and gymnast, had moved to the city in search of a new creative path. Sean Gandini was the street performer who caught her attention, setting in motion a personal and professional collaboration which would take the pair – and later, their troop of jugglers – to stages across the world.
Kati had previously incorporated juggling into her gymnastic routines, but Sean’s use of clubs, rather than leather balls, was novel - though you wouldn’t have guessed so. “She just picked up two clubs and did things that I've never seen before,” Sean says. From there, they began trading skills and experiences. “I had seen a bit of rhythmic gymnastics, and I had always thought this could feed into my juggling. I was doing street shows, but I felt like there was something else to it all.”
Months and years of nurturing this “something” led to Kati and Sean co-founding Gandini Juggling, now one of the world’s most prolific circus companies. Their unique fusion of juggling and dance marries mathematics, rhythmic choreography and synergetic sequences, with provocative humour punctuating the complex cross-armed patterns. They landed on this innovative style by following their playful instincts, rather than adopting a commercial mindset. “Ironically, some of our more successful pieces have been ones where we just made whatever we wanted,” Sean laughs. “We're not good at making commercial pieces on purpose.”
Impressively, one of their most popular shows, Smashed, was created in just one week. Performed more than 800 times in venues globally, the hour-long routine explores conflict in relationships through a combination of traditional juggling (though untraditional in its use of 100 red apples) and contemporary circus. The meticulous surges of solo and ensemble juggling have delighted and captivated audiences across 25 countries – a response the duo hardly imagined when they first formed the “throwaway” idea.
“One of us has a million ideas per day and then the other tries to distil them into something usable,” Kati explains. “But you can never know how your audience is going to respond until you do it.” The reactions are always changing, so they make sure to tune into the crowd with every performance, recognising the ephemeral nature of each audience member’s experience. “You have to be careful that it doesn’t become an activity where you just go through the motions. For the audience, it's the first time.”
This has its advantages for the performers, too. They appreciate how it prompts them to pay closer attention to small, forgotten details in the pieces. By staying present, they hold on to rhythms and movements which a cursory rendition of the show may diminish.
Gandini’s intuitive approach continues to take the troop in new directions. Their next show will bring in elements of magic in an ode to Sean’s earliest encounters with circus arts. As a child growing up in Havana, he often performed rudimentary magic tricks for his mother – one day, in a taxi, the driver took notice. “Oh, your child loves magic. I'm a magician.” He went on to become Sean’s mentor, and his first street shows in Covent Garden incorporated magic techniques cultivated since his youth.
The unlikely fact that this boyhood hobby progressed into a decades-long career is not lost on Sean. “We're lucky that we play for a living. And we're lucky that the results of our play somehow appeal.” Mirroring the sentiments explored in our Autumn Winter collection, Everyday Theatre, Gandini is a testament to the necessity of spontaneity and exuberance taken beyond childhood; the company’s global success proves the appetite for stagecraft is there, theatrics too often laying dormant beneath everyday stressors.
Travelling from place to place, Kati and Sean have met differing attitudes to this type of circus act. “In France, as little children, they go and see lots of theatre and dance performances, so they're very used to being in a theatre and they have references,” Kati says. People from small French villages have approached them post-show, comparing their techniques to those of other companies, demonstrating a keen interest in the art form. “But there have also been places where they really don’t get it, and they received it differently. In a way that’s healthy for us.”
Despite debuting previous pieces in the UK to four- and five-star reviews, the majority of Gandini performances are scheduled abroad due to a lack of government funding. For this reason, London is a kind of resting place for the pair in between long periods of travelling. They have lunch in the city, go to daily dance classes and train for upcoming tours. “For work, we would probably be better off in Paris or Amsterdam,” Sean admits. “But we have a nice space here and we love London. For a big city, it’s not that stressful.” Kati agrees, saying “It’s the fact that I could go and see 17 different shows if I wanted to, and the choice of food, the multiculturalism – it’s great.”
Speaking to Kati and Sean, it is clear that the synchronicity of their on-stage partnership extends to their personal relationship. They present almost as a joint entity, finishing each other’s sentences and nodding along to shared sentiments. From the ballet classes they attend together to the amusing juggling challenges they tackle in their spare time, theirs is a life where the lines between work and play are blurred, and for that, they are evidently thankful.
Sean Gandini wears our Grandad Collar Stripe Organic Cotton Shirt, Wool Cotton Gilet and Alfie Houndstooth Drawstring Trousers; Kati Ylä-Hokkala wears our Blanket Stitch Stripe Cotton Top and Embroidered Textured Cotton Skirt.
Words by Bébhinn Campbell.