Teenage Bender

Some people can juggle with one hand tied behind their back. Thirteen-year-old Book Kennison can do it with one foot tied behind his head.

At 1:15 a.m. on a cold and rainy Friday night, Puretone's house anthem "Addicted to Bass" is pumping through Velvet. The dance floor at the downtown club is packed. Book Kennison, wearing a black suit, white shirt and black Converse All-Stars with orange flames on the sides, walks in, three white juggling clubs cradled in his arms. His father, Richard Kennison, trails behind, holding a cardboard box full of props and dragging a big plastic chair shaped like a hand. They stop in front of the bar, near the entrance to the women's restroom.

"They wouldn't let us in," Richard grumbles as they climb the steps out of the foyer toward the dance floor. "The guy at the front door, even though it had all been cleared, wouldn't let us in."

Five-foot-five and delicately thin, with shaggy blond hair that hangs in his eyes, Book looks shell-shocked, not least by the emergence of a pair of nearly naked go-go dancers. This is his first time in a place like Velvet. After school this afternoon, the thirteen-year-old slept until midnight, when his father woke him for the half-hour drive from St. Charles.

Jennifer Silverberg
Book's performance itinerary centers on the Everdaycircus at the City Museum, where he does as many as seven shows every Saturday
Jennifer Silverberg
Book's performance itinerary centers on the Everdaycircus at the City Museum, where he does as many as seven shows every Saturday

Book is one of about a dozen St. Louis performers invited to Velvet for Circus Night. The club is paying him $100 to hang around and juggle, wherever he can find the room, and be a sort of exotic ambient presence for 45 minutes. At the end of the evening, he'll have a few minutes on the dance floor to perform his act, a jaw-dropping combination of juggling and contortionism.

Richard points to a spot on the floor, in front of the fortune-teller's table and near the bar, and tells Book to start juggling. Sleepy and disoriented, Book tosses his clubs in the air but can't complete more than a few throws in succession -- the light's bad, the music distracts him, and drunk clubgoers knock into him on their way to the bar.

"There's nowhere to perform," his father complains. "They need a platform or a stage if they're going to have circus performers here."

Just then the club's promoter shows up and escorts the Kennisons past a surly-looking bouncer into one of Velvet's VIP rooms, where Book warms up in front of a table full of curious twentysomething partygoers.

Half an hour later, Book's on the dance floor, underneath a spotlight. The music continues, but the folks on the floor turn to watch as Book begins his performance. More people move over from the bars and line up against the railing around the dance floor as he calmly juggles three balls. The audience claps when he reaches his right arm behind his back, keeping all three balls in the air. He tosses one ball high up, spins around and glances worriedly from side to side. The ball drops down into his hand, right where it's supposed to, and he wipes his brow. (It's all part of the act.) The applause gets louder when Book, without a pause, lifts his left knee flush to his face, balanced perfectly on one foot, and juggles the balls with both arms under his raised leg.

Book's act reaches a peak when Richard, who has been watching his son from behind a nearby pillar, pushes the hand-shaped chair out onto the floor. Book holds three clubs in one hand, balances a spinning plate on the end of a metal rod and steps gingerly onto the chair. Once he's up, he tilts his head back and puts the rod on his chin. He lets the plate spin above his face. Then, without looking, he starts to juggle the clubs. When he lifts his left leg and does the whole thing balanced on top of the chair on one foot, the crowd bursts into applause again. Book beams as he steps down from the chair and bows, the plate still spinning on an extended hand.

For three minutes, Book has held the club rapt. But after the chair trick, the crowd, induced by bass and booze, grows restless. Unfortunately, Book still has four minutes left in his routine. His final feat goes all but unnoticed, even though it's his most astonishing: He twists his entire body though an unstrung tennis racquet. Having completed this act of mind-boggling contortion, Book looks up hopefully, his eyes darting from one side of the room to the other. No one seems to notice he's there.

By the time Richard and Book leave the club, it's 2:30. Later, Richard will urge Book to think of the gig as a learning experience. Book's only real complaint is that he has to be back downtown in six hours for a full day of performances. Such is the life of a juggling prodigy.

Hidden on the top of the bookshelf in Book's bedroom, behind a trophy from a Lego contest and a collection of soccer trophies, there's a small ceramic groundhog. The statuette, with the words "Most Astounding" hand-painted across the front, looks cheap and inconsequential. But it's one of the most prestigious awards in American juggling circles, from the Groundhog Day Jugglers Festival, an annual competition held in Atlanta. Book won the Groundhog in 2002, at the age of twelve, beating out nearly a hundred other jugglers of all ages.

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