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.

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.

There's not much else in the room to indicate that Book is one of the top young jugglers in the nation. No clubs piled in the corner, no juggling books, no balls on the floor or unicycle propped up against the wall. Instead, he has a group of collectible Pez dispensers lined up on a shelf and CDs by his favorite bands -- the White Stripes, the Flaming Lips and the Beatles -- stacked next to his computer. (He does have a playlist of good pop songs to juggle to on the computer.)

Despite the dearth of obvious signs, much of Book's young life has been defined by his juggling. His father has juggled for 30 years and spent the years after college as a professional juggler and magician. These days Richard Kennison is a freelance juggling instructor; he also serves as Book's coach, manager and agent.

Nearly anyone can learn to juggle three balls. But the ability to move beyond three balls, to do tricks, to keep track of balls and clubs and rings as they fly through the air in front of you, depends on both training and innate agility. Book has been blessed in both areas. Thanks to his dad, he was surrounded by juggling and juggling lore as a child, and he first picked up three balls when he was six. By the age of nine, he could juggle five balls. That's often considered the mark that separates a hobbyist from a serious juggler, one with the potential to juggle professionally, and Book reached it at a remarkably young age. The same year, encouraged by his father, he started juggling in front of audiences.

Performance, of course, requires showmanship, a quality Book has steadily developed over the past four years. At thirteen he is already a veteran of the stage. He's done 127 shows this year alone and hopes to make it to 150. He's a regular with the Everydaycircus, a weekly variety show at the City Museum featuring acrobats, jugglers, stilt-walkers and clowns. He also competes in occasional talent shows (he won the $500 grand prize at the annual contest at Eckert's Farm in October), travels to juggling conventions and performs at churches and corporate events.

Last year Book made the cut to perform at the International Juggling Association's annual convention. In January he'll audition for Circus Smirkus, a youth circus based in Vermont that trains and tours children and teenagers for nine weeks every summer. Book spends about twenty hours a week juggling and performing, more some weeks. (After the show at Velvet, for instance, Book went back home, slept for four hours, then headed back downtown for the Everydaycircus. When he finally got home that night, he slept for thirteen hours.)

He admits his schedule can get grueling but says he can't imagine a life without juggling. "I don't know what else I'd do on Saturdays."

As it is, Book spends most Saturdays performing at the Everydaycircus, held on the third floor of the City Museum inside a small-scale replica of a big-top circus ring. The audience, which comes and goes during the course of a full day but remains steady at about four dozen, is made up largely of children and their parents. Most of the performers are under the age of twenty. The circus is run by Jessica Hentoff, a 25-year veteran of the circus world and former aerial acrobat who just happens to be the daughter of journalist Nat Hentoff.

Book serves as an in-house warm-up act for the circus, performing the same basic shtick as at Velvet -- though, it should be said, with far more confidence. Everydaycircus is basically Book's home turf. He gets to choose his music (a cover of Jimi Hendrix's "Fire," which he says has a solid, steady beat that's perfect for juggling), and he's very clearly the center of attention. The kids are riveted by his feats, and Book, as a regular, has developed into something of a celebrity. He doesn't speak during the act, but there are several moments of interaction with the crowd, like when he waves to them with his foot (which happens to be lodged behind his head).

Book keeps a log of all his performances in a blue hardbound book, listing date, time and place, plus a notation of how much he was paid, in a schoolboy scrawl. Most of the entries offer a brief assessment -- "good show," "bad show," "two or three drops" -- and notes on the crowd and its response. After one show this fall, he wrote about his attempt to bring the audience into the act by tossing a ball into the crowd. He hoped someone would throw it back to him. Instead, he wrote, "The first guy I threw it to was a bastard who was too cool to catch it."

Offstage Book is introverted, with an air of fragility. He looks more like a skateboarder than a circus pro, favoring baggy jeans and faded black T-shirts. His hair hangs down in his eyes, and he wears braces. He's a little awkward, nervous when he's the focus of adult attention and far more eager to toss clubs with his friends than work on his act.

Richard Kennison says Book was painfully shy as a child, and he encouraged him to perform as a form of therapy. Onstage Book's shyness is apparent, but it becomes part of the charm of his act. There's a moment near the end of his routine, after he has pulled himself through the tennis racquet, when Book holds a pose, one arm gripping the racquet extended out and above his head. He shakes his head to get the hair out of his face, and the grin he flashes then doesn't seem so much for the crowd as for himself.

"Being onstage is more fun than just juggling for practice," Book says. "Especially in front of laypeople. Whatever you do for them is amazing. Usually they're there to love you."

The money Book makes from performing is his, minus a small agent's fee kept by his father. ("It's for gas to get there, or to buy new equipment," Richard says. "I want him to learn that he's going to have to pay an agent when he does this on his own.") Most of the money Book makes -- $5,000 last year -- is earmarked as tuition for Circus Smirkus, if he's accepted for next summer's tour. Book also puts part of his money in a college fund. He's interested in the National Circus School in Montreal, which emphasizes academics along with tricks. And he sets a small amount aside to buy CDs and Converse All-Stars.

Book's juggling moves are solid, but the tricks that make up the bulk of his seven-minute set wouldn't be much of a challenge for an accomplished amateur -- except Book's performing them with one arm wrapped around the back of his neck, or with both arms stretched underneath an upraised leg. Being a great juggler, the kind who can pull off tricks with a high degree of difficulty, impresses other jugglers, but there's not much money in it. Richard and Book both see Book as an entertainer who happens to juggle. At one time, when juggling and so-called variety acts were mainstream entertainment, skills like Book's would have meant the vaudeville circuit or, later, nightclubs and television variety shows. Now the options are less obvious but more numerous -- halftime shows for the NBA, amusement parks, Las Vegas and, if Book's lucky, a traveling troupe like Cirque du Soleil -- especially considering that Book combines juggling and contortion in his act.

"You're seeing the birth of a brand-new act," says Everydaycircus executive director Jessica Hentoff. "If you look in a book about the history of juggling, you might find something about someone who combined contortionism and juggling, but I don't know about it. Most people who are great technical jugglers remain hobbyists. Richard wants Book to be a performer. He wanted Book to get as many shows in front of people as he could. And he's been well-received. He's kind of a boy next door, but with one unique talent and one unusual talent."

Richard Kennison grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Hazelwood. He and a friend taught themselves to juggle at fifteen, and Richard gradually moved on to magic. After he earned the adulation of his friends by jumping off the roof of his parents' house onto a stack of mattresses, he added acrobatics and tightrope-walking to his repertoire. After college he moved to St. Charles and worked as a magician and juggler; he also learned how to motivate other people. He met his wife, Renee, when he worked at a now-defunct St. Louis-area variety-show restaurant. "We talked for two minutes, and then I told her I wanted her to perform in two weeks. I coached her and in two weeks we went onstage together."

Richard can be considered something of a benevolent perfectionist. He has never forced any of his children to juggle or take part in any activity, but once they start something, he wants them to take it seriously and do it well. He has taken particular interest in Book because of his son's potential, but also because of the role that juggling has played in his own life.

Even though his adult life has been spent inside the world of circus and magic, Richard regrets that he didn't have more formal training. He applied to the Ringling Bros. Clown College in the 1970s but wasn't accepted. "I did shows. I performed. But I never traveled," he says. "That's the only thing I encourage [Book] to do -- to go out and see the world."

At age 45, Richard hasn't performed in the past few years, in part because Book's career takes so much time, but also because he's self-conscious about the pounds he has put on in middle age. (Book and his sister, Tea, take after their mother. "She's very flexible," Richard says. "And skinny.")

While Renee Kennison works as creative director for a local ad agency, Richard spends much of his day ferrying Book and his three sisters to and from school and doing the housework. At night his life becomes something of a juggling act in itself. His daughters -- Zoe, who's eleven, Tea, who's nine, and Nadia, eight -- are all involved in extracurricular activities ranging from music and theater to gymnastics. Tea, in particular, has shown many of the same talents as her brother, both for juggling and contortionism, and has done a few small performances. Richard would like her to perfect a routine and get onstage more often in the next couple of years.

Combined with his coaching, Book's performance schedule and weekly meetings of the St. Louis Juggling Club, Richard's evening routine is a more-than-full-time job. "Book keeps me busy," he says. "I'm his coach, dad and chauffeur."

As the oldest and most accomplished of the Kennison children, Book is clearly the star of the household. His paying performances take precedence over his sisters' activities -- but not by much. The Kennison girls may not be out-and-out prodigies, but they're all talented and active enough to resemble a Midwestern suburban version of The Royal Tennenbaums. (The youngest, Nadia, even writes short stories and presents them to the rest of the family.)

Talent, of course, can lead to weighty expectations, and Richard seems conflicted about his hopes for Book. He often tries to sound deferential, insisting he wants Book to make his own choices about his future. But other times his enthusiasm gets the best of him, and he talks about his son as a revolutionary force in juggling. "My goal is for Book to bring juggling into the mainstream," he'll say. "Not just a juggler. Like David Copperfield, who was the first magician to make everybody care about magic, to open it up to other things."

Richard says in the past he coached kids whose parents were jugglers and always wondered why they wanted an outside instructor. Now he understands. "Book and I have our moments," he concedes. "There are boundaries there, times when I'm his dad and times when I'm his coach. But we're good together. One good thing about Book is that he'll do what I tell him, and when he sees why that's the way to do it, he'll say, 'Hey, that does actually work the way my coach said it would.'"

Book's act has been perfected largely by performing. He doesn't juggle much at home. In fact, the bulk of his practice comes during the weekly Wednesday-night meetings of the St. Louis Juggling Club at Hope Presbyterian Church in Creve Coeur. Richard coordinates it, and Book and Tea attend every week. The Kennisons are former members of the church, and Richard keeps a key to the sanctuary.

During meetings, up to a dozen jugglers -- from beginners to serious hobbyists to Book -- walk around the high-ceilinged room, tossing clubs and balls in the air, against the amber-lit backdrop of religious banners hanging from the rafters. The light's bad, but there's plenty of room and everybody gets a once-a-week chance to pass clubs, which allows jugglers to interact and serves as a welcome respite from the tedium of solo practice sessions. ("I wouldn't let Book do it for a long time," his father says. "You get seduced by it and don't want to work on your other stuff.")

Still, Book spends most of his time this night passing clubs with a handful of slightly older teenagers. Book is a much better juggler than most of them, but the dynamic is not one of hero worship; their subdued admiration for his juggling is offset by Book's desire to fit in with them.

Richard generally keeps the atmosphere at club meetings casual, letting everyone work on their own as he drifts around the room, offering advice when it's needed or requested, or talking to parents. With his own children, though, he's more intense, pushing them to focus and make the practice time mean something.

At a recent meeting, Book, wearing a T-shirt that reads "We Make Every Day a Circus Day," is standing near his father in the church hall. The club is crowded this week, with a dozen regulars filling the room, intently staring at the balls and clubs whirling before them. Book repeatedly balances a white plastic ball on his forearm, lets it drop and snatches it out of the air beside his hip as it falls.

He finally hands the ball -- a new toy, brought in by another juggler tonight -- to his father, who's chatting with Jessica Hentoff. Richard hands the ball to his nine-year-old daughter, Tea.

In a few years Tea may challenge Book as the star of the Kennison household. Her juggling skills are good, though not at the same level Book's were when he was her age. But she shares her brother's long, lean body type, and she's even more flexible than he is. Tea is also shy like her brother and bends to her father's direction.

Richard gives Tea the ball and instructs her to balance it between the thumb and forefinger of her left hand and spin around, keeping the ball still as she rotates. Book wanders off to pass clubs with a partner, and Richard returns to his conversation while Tea turns three slow, hesitant circles.

"Did I do good?" she asks, looking up at her dad.

"I didn't see you," he says. "Go do it again. Put your arm out and focus."

She tries, but hesitates before she starts.

"Just go," Richard says, softly but firmly. She turns twice, slowly. "One, two," Richard counts as she spins. "Now go fast."

The ball rolls off her hand and drops to the floor as she speeds up. Richard, growing quietly frustrated, picks the ball up, places it on his own hand and spins around on his toes, surprisingly graceful and agile. The ball stays perfectly in place as he makes seven or eight turns, his feet dancing lightly, moving faster and faster.

When he stops, he's forgotten about the lesson. He holds the ball in his hand, tosses it gently, catches it. He turns to Hentoff and smiles. "It just sits there," he muses, amazed. "I love this. We've got to get some of these."

Book is guarded about his juggling career. Most of the kids at his school know he juggles, but few of them know how serious a business it is for him. "From time to time I'm in the newspaper or something," he says. After a recent appearance on a local television morning show, he was pelted with questions from classmates.

Still, Book doesn't juggle at school. He rarely invites friends to the juggling club or to see him perform, wary -- especially in the treacherous social terrain of eighth grade -- of how his craft might be perceived. Juggling, after all, doesn't exactly scream cool.

One of Book's favorite jugglers is Jason Garfield, a sort of extreme-sports variation on what might be seen as an old-fashioned skill. "He's this buff, pissed-off juggler," Book says. "He's probably the number-one or number-two technical juggler, but his persona is kind of like, 'Piss off.' It's hilarious."

Above all, Book seems determined not to allow his talent to distinguish him as different. He didn't make a big deal to his classmates about getting into Velvet and brushed off their admiration. "I'd guess I'm a thirteen-year-old who juggles," he says. "I'm a lot different when I'm at school than when I'm juggling. I read, I go to school, I listen to music. Juggling's a big part of it. It's my main extracurricular activity. But it's not everything."

Even though juggling takes up so much of his spare time, Book can't imagine what else he would do if he weren't juggling. He has come to expect the charge of performing over the weekend. "I guess if I didn't juggle, I'd be into sports," he says. "If not sports, I don't know what I'd do. I get bored a lot, just sitting around the house. I like to have things going on most nights."

It's a good thing he likes variety. Being a professional juggler, if that's what Book chooses to do as an adult, isn't a nine-to-five job. He'll spend a lot of time on the road, going from gig to gig, just like most other entertainers. There won't be a steady paycheck, unless he lands a permanent job at a nightclub or as part of a circus. And even then, the drudgery of show business can be just as oppressive as the constant toil of an office.

Kevin O'Keefe, artistic director of the youth-oriented Circus Minimus in New York, says there's little question that Book has the talent to perform full-time.

"For a young man who's only thirteen or fourteen, he has a very unusual twist on a solo kind of juggling act that the audience loves," O'Keefe says. "He has a way of engaging the audience beyond most thirteen-year-olds, which is why he's one of the most exciting young jugglers in the country."

O'Keefe saw Book perform at the American Youth Circus Organization's annual festival in St. Paul this past August. After his show on Friday night, the crowd gave Book a standing ovation. O'Keefe invited him to juggle again the next evening, as the next-to-last performer on the festival's most prestigious night. "Based on the reaction of the crowd and the other performers, we decided to make space for him in the Saturday show," O'Keefe recalls. "He was astounding. He has lots of options. There's a lot of opportunity for a young man like himself. I don't know what his long-term professional goals are, but there's no reason he can't have a decent, middle-class life just by being a juggler and entertainer that way. It's a realizable goal, considering where he is now."

At thirteen, Book is trying not to think too far ahead about much of anything, especially not a career. But he does seem to have an idea of what his options might be, and of the price he might have to pay.

"Sure, if I could make a living as a juggler, that'd be great," he says. "In a circus, you travel around in a box for a long time. But otherwise, you just have some boring job. You really get to see the world if you're in Cirque du Soleil. You just have to do two shows a day."

For a kid who's done six shows a day every weekend for three months, that doesn't sound too hard.

Richard typically sits back and watches during Juggling Club meetings, letting the others practice. But on a recent night he and Book get together to pass five red-and-white plastic clubs back and forth. After a few perfunctory passes, Richard decides they can add tricks to the game. Book lets one club drop gently down so that its curved neck rests on top of his right foot while the other four clubs spin through the air. He hitches his hip and raises his leg with a jerk, intending to send the club right back to Richard. Instead, the club slices and spins off to the side.

"You're not turning your hip far enough," his father says matter-of-factly. Book doesn't reply. He keeps his eyes focused on the flurry of clubs in the air between him and his father.

They get the cascade of clubs going again, and Richard alerts Book that something special is coming. "My trick," he says.

As the exchange continues, he grabs a club from the air and holds it in his right hand, parallel to the floor. Then he catches another club and balances it upright on the fat end of the first club. Before it falls, he snags a third club in his left hand and bats the teetering club, hard, toward Book with a backhand swing. It's a tricky motion, and Richard seems barely in control of it, falling back on his heels as he tries to manage all three clubs at once. He's trying to get the club back into the passing exchange, but it spins well out of reach of Book, and the remaining clubs clatter to the floor.

Richard laughs and picks up his clubs. They start again, and Book nails the drop-kick back to Richard, who keeps the passes going uninterrupted. "That was nice," Richard says. A few more passes whiz by. "My trick."

Again, the batted club spins out of Book's reach. It's not as funny this time, and Richard's laugh is more grim. "Let me do it again," he says. On his third try, the club flies back without spinning, slapping sideways into Book's chest. It's not a violent blow, but it is an abrupt interruption to the game. Book stands still, a little stunned, his mouth open, holding his clubs at his side.

But the fourth and final try is almost perfect. Book catches the club and flings it back to his father, who seems more relieved than thrilled to have finally pulled off the feat.

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