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Why did Anthony Gatto, the greatest juggler alive — and perhaps of all time — back away from his art to open a construction business?

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. I assume you may bail at this point, which is fine; I almost bailed a few times in the writing. 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. We’re probably staring at a frozen lake here.

A few juggling videos are embedded below. I hope they help. We may fall through the ice anyway.

♦♦♦

The greatest juggler alive, maybe of all time, is a 40-year-old Floridian named Anthony Gatto. He holds 11 world records, has starred for years in Cirque du Soleil, and has appeared as a child on The Tonight Show, performing in a polo shirt and shorts, juggling five rings while balancing a five-foot pole on his forehead.

His records are for keeping certain numbers of objects aloft for longer than anyone else. Eleven rings, 10 rings, nine rings, eight rings, and seven rings. Nine balls, eight balls, and seven balls. Eight clubs, seven clubs, and six clubs. To break this down a little: There’s one person in the world who can juggle eight clubs for 16 catches,1 and that’s Gatto. As for seven clubs, maybe a hundred people can get a stable pattern going — for a couple of seconds. It’s difficult to even hold seven clubs without dropping them; your hands aren’t big enough. Gatto can juggle seven clubs for more than four minutes. “That’s insane,” says David Cain, a professional juggler and juggling historian. “There’s no competition.”

Three years ago, Gatto posted a video to YouTube called “Anthony Gatto 7 Ball World Record.” The video shows a man of medium height with short dark hair and a W-shaped goatee. He wears a gray tank top, athletic shorts, a headband, and sneakers. He doesn’t look like a circus performer; he looks like a bro heading to the gym.

Standing in a residential driveway, he juggles seven balls for 11 minutes and 38 seconds, for thousands of catches, as his tank top darkens with sweat and three neighborhood kids look on with increasing boredom. (In a gag at the beginning of the video, Gatto pays the kids $5 to be his audience.) When he drops a ball, Gatto says, with mock grandiosity, “And that’s how you break the world record, kids. One day you, too, can be world champions.” The previous record was 10 minutes and 12 seconds — also set by Gatto. The message of the video is basically, I can set whatever record I want, anytime I want. See how boring that is?

Since 2010, Gatto has juggled in Cirque du Soleil’s La Nouba, a show based at Walt Disney World in Orlando. Recently, though, I heard a rumor that Gatto was getting ready to retire from juggling to open a coffee shop. I did some Internet searching and discovered he now runs a concrete company in Orlando. It’s called Big Top Concrete Resurfacing LLC. The “T” of the Big Top logo is in the shape of a circus tent, but otherwise there’s no hint of Gatto’s achievements on the company website. “We are committed to offering a cost effective solution to tearing out and replacing old, damaged and deteriorating concrete,” reads the “About” page. “From stained micro-toppings to metallic floor finishes, counter tops and garage floor epoxy coatings, we have the solution for you.” A small head shot shows what looks like a smiling Gatto. Next to the head shot is a name. The name is not the one that has amazed audiences for the last 30 years. “Owned and operated,” the page says, “by Anthony Commarota.”

How did the greatest juggler in the world end up working in concrete?

♦♦♦

Commarota is his birth name, but the vast majority of jugglers don’t know that. They know him only as Gatto, the name of his stepfather, Nick Gatto, an ex-vaudeville acrobat. It was Nick who first taught Anthony to juggle, in 1978, a few months before Anthony turned 5 years old. As a younger man, Nick had traveled and performed with a three-man comedy acrobatics troupe called Los Gatos, and now he ran a tobacco shop in Baltimore. He kept a trunk of circus props at the store. In the beginning, Nick showed Anthony how to balance paper cones on his head, and to bounce a ball on his head and shoulder; it wasn’t until Anthony had shown a knack for balance that Nick taught him to juggle three balls. It was just for fun. “I noticed that after a few weeks, his progress was becoming more and more rapid,” Nick later said in a documentary about the two men, Gatto: From Vaudeville Acro-Cat to the King of Juggling. “So rapid that at times he didn’t even have to learn to do the higher number. Like when he went from three to four, he never had to practice four balls. He could do four balls. He never had to practice five balls. He could do five balls.” (I wasn’t able to reach Nick for comment.)

The juggling world first learned about Anthony in 1981, when Nick brought him to an International Juggling Association convention in Cleveland. Anthony was 8. Part of the annual convention is a juggling contest, and when Anthony competed in the junior division that year, no one could believe how good he was. He crushed the field of 14- and 15-year-olds, taking first place.2 After that, word got out, and soon Anthony and Nick were traveling around the world, performing for startled audiences. They met a seasoned professional juggler named Dick Franco, who invited Anthony to join his show and helped him develop a casino act. When Anthony was 10, the family moved from Maryland to Vegas, and the boy began performing at the Flamingo Hilton.

I’ve watched a number of home videos of Anthony from around this time. They were shot by a man named Barry Bakalor, a juggling fan and Internet archivist who used to bring a video camera and tripod to all the conventions. In one video, from November 1983, Anthony, age 10, stands on a stage in front of a large maroon curtain at the Reno Hilton, juggling five balls. He has curly brown hair, a black T-shirt, and black jeans. The room is almost empty; this is just a practice session. Nick shouts instructions from off camera, trying to help Anthony execute a certain difficult trick correctly — a five-ball, five-up 360, in which he juggles five balls, throws all five high in the air, spins around 360 degrees, and then continues to juggle as if nothing happened. Anthony, though, keeps dropping balls with his left hand after he pirouettes.

“There you go,” Nick says after a drop. The ball “was over there a little too far, you just barely missed it, but it’s in the right position. It will work.”

Anthony tries again, drops again.

“Oh, you’re just having tough luck with your catches. That’s five of ’em you should have had easy. Now you’re missing it on the right … Well, we’ve gotta get rid of our frustration to make it. OK, just take a breather.”

“I’m not tired,” Anthony says, clearly tired. He flubs the next two attempts. “No, it’s not gonna work if you do it that way a thousand years!” Nick says. “A thousand years. Even after you make it, it’s wrong … You can’t open the door by putting the key into the window.”

Anthony keeps trying, and eventually he lands the trick without dropping. Nick says, “That’s no good.”

“But I got it,” Anthony says.

“Huh?”

“I got it.”

“OK, I don’t care if you got it or not, honey. That doesn’t mean anything to me. I want you to do it correctly. I want you to have some technique with it.”

I’ve watched hours of these practice videos, and a couple of things stand out. One is Nick’s eye; you can see that his advice to Anthony, while sometimes severe, is almost always correct. Also remarkable is the surprising physicality of juggling at this level. Anthony complains from time to time that the rings hurt his hands, and you can see why: Rings are hard plastic, and he has to throw them high to make a nice visual for the audience. Then gravity takes hold and the planet jerks its string, yanking the rings toward the ground, and they smack against the soft webbing between his fingers, slicing it raw. He deals with it by wrapping tape around the webbing so the rings hit the tape and not his skin. That helps some, but then there are the clubs. If he makes the slightest miscalculation, they graze each other in midair, and then he has to duck to prevent five or six clubs from crashing down on his head. His neck also gets sore from spending so much time with his head tilted back to see the traffic he’s trying to control in the air. Dust gets in his eyes. He seems to hate that, because then he has to blink out the dust, and his eyes start to water, blinding him, and then all the stuff up there hurts even more when it comes down.

But Anthony endures. I’m not tired. On the tapes, he tells lots of jokes. (“Friends at home, don’t try this. If you swallow a club, it’ll hurt. Twice.”) He knows that Nick is hard of hearing and too proud to get a hearing aid, so he often speaks in a register that everyone except Nick can hear. “He would only raise the tone loud enough for Nick to hear him when he wanted Nick to hear him,” recalls Bakalor.3

Nick doesn’t limit his coaching to the technical stuff. He spends just as much time teaching Anthony about performance. In another video, also from 1983, Anthony wears blue shorts, a white T-shirt, and striped socks pulled way up. He and Nick are working on Anthony’s five-ball routine. Nick wants Anthony to end the routine a certain way. Anthony should throw four out of five balls to Nick. Then he should bring the fifth and final ball to his lips, kiss it, and lob it gently into the crowd — a gesture of fondness and respect between performer and audience.

Anthony asks, “Why kiss it?”

“’Cause I want you to kiss it, Anthony,” Nick says. “You don’t have to understand all the logic.”

They get into an argument. Anthony doesn’t want to do this cheesy move. He throws four balls to Nick, reluctantly kisses the fifth, then quickly chucks it across the room. “That’s too fast,” Nick says. Anthony tries several more times. “It has to be sold,” Nick says, still unsatisfied. “You go one, two, three, four. You bow.” Nick kisses the ball. “And zoom.” He lofts it on a gentle arc.

The videos also capture many moments of paternal warmth and praise. (When he speaks about Nick to others, Anthony calls him “my dad.”) On one tape, Nick marvels at an athletic lunge that Anthony makes to rescue an errant ball, then launches into a meditation on the nature of genius. “I think there’s some kind of magic,” Nick says. “Crazy, isn’t he? Would you believe there’s a guy in this world? … You can’t explain Mozart. You can’t explain Beethoven’s pages. And you can’t explain Shakespeare. You can’t explain [Anthony]. No joke.”

Toward the end of the Reno Hilton tape, Anthony picks up seven balls: four in one hand, three in the other. Crammed into his small hands, they look like cannonballs stacked on a courthouse lawn. He launches them toward the ceiling. Ten-year-olds aren’t supposed to be able to juggle five balls, let alone seven. Ten seconds pass, 20 seconds, and all seven balls are still aloft. Nick counts the number of catches out loud: 50, 60, 70. After 35 seconds and 100 catches, Anthony finally drops. Nick approaches Anthony, shakes his hand, and gives him a hug and a kiss on the cheek.

♦♦♦

In interviews, Anthony always said he liked juggling. On The Tonight Show in 1985, guest host Joan Rivers asked what he’d like to be when he grew up. “A juggler,” he said. “Still a juggler!” Rivers cooed, to audience laughter. “That’s wonderful. Well you’re certainly on your way … What a lovely boy you are.” Another interviewer asked if he thought he’d be juggling all his life. “Yeah,” Gatto said. “And maybe a boxer.”

He grew bigger, stronger. In later practice videos, he’s more dismissive of Nick, more impatient at taking direction. He interrupts his stepfather, cuts him off. Maybe he’s just becoming a typical teenager, or maybe he’s getting so good that he no longer needs Nick’s coaching.

In 1986, at age 13, Anthony performed at the IJA festival in San Jose. The man who introduced him said, “You know, there’s only once in a lifetime that you get to experience total magic in your life, and you get to watch an individual who just takes your heart and lets it soar away, and this young gentleman has done that for millions of jugglers, if there are millions of jugglers.” Anthony jogged onto the stage in a white vest, white pants, and white shoes. He bowed and launched into an act set to a medley that included “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” and “It’s a Small World”: five balls with pirouettes; a complicated series of tricks with five, seven, and eight rings; five clubs crossing behind his back (an elite-level trick for any juggler, much less a 13-year-old); a pirouette with five clubs where all five clubs are in the air during the pirouette (again, elite). At one point, Anthony balanced a tall pole on his forehead. At the top was a Wile E. Coyote doll. While balancing the pole, Anthony juggled five rings, then tossed each ring up so that it landed on the doll’s nose and right hand. He did a similar trick with a balance pole that contained five small billiard-pocket-size nets. While juggling five balls, he threw the balls into the nets, one by one, with astonishing accuracy.

In juggling, “it’s very, very easy to fail,” says Boston College economics professor Arthur Lewbel, an enthusiast who has written about the history and science of juggling. “You’re making four throws a second. In a minute, you might have more throws and catches than an entire baseball game. So doing something for even a minute without a mistake is enormously hard — like a whole baseball game without an error. Anthony is able to just do extremely difficult tricks and do them with an incredible reliability. He can have them in his act and do them day after day.”

Through his teens, Gatto continued juggling at Vegas hotels — and the occasional basketball halftime show — but his novelty had started to taper. “You’re not really a kid,” he says later in Gatto, “and you can’t get away with just being cute and doing difficult things. You had to start being a performer.” He found steady work with a magician who called herself Melinda, First Lady of Magic. Meanwhile, he stayed connected with the juggling world, making himself available to other jugglers, having lunch with up-and-comers, practicing alongside the hobbyists. David Cain, the juggling historian, remembers one year, 1991, when Anthony was 18 and he showed up at the IJA convention in St. Louis. Anthony took out his juggling objects and ran a practice session in the big communal gym. “Everything would stop,” Cain says. “We’d have 1,500 or 1,600 jugglers stop what they were doing and sit in a big circle and just watch him practice for an hour and a half.”

In 1996, when Gatto was 23, Melinda’s magic show closed down. Unsure what to do next — and feeling burned out — he decided to leave juggling and work as a landscaper. For two years, if you wanted to hire the greatest juggler alive to stand in the 115-degree desert heat and install a sprinkler system, you could. A joke cycled through the juggling community: I was working in Vegas the other day and someone came up to me after my act and said, “That was nothing. My gardener can do eight.”

Gatto’s break was “the best thing I could have done for my juggling,” he says in Gatto. It made him remember what he loved about juggling in the first place. “I didn’t hear one person clap when I was landscaping,” he jokes. “That was kind of bothering me.” When he returned to juggling in 1998, Gatto “was better than ever,” says Cain. In 2000, at the International Circus Festival in Monte Carlo, Gatto won the festival’s top award, the Clown d’Or, or Golden Clown, becoming the first juggler in history to pull that off.

By now, though, Gatto’s relationship with the juggling community had shifted. He no longer regularly attended conventions or entered competitions. Gatto didn’t want to impress other jugglers. “Nobody cares about good jugglers in the performance world,” he later wrote in an Internet forum. “They care about entertainers.”

So he joined the circus — and not the circus he was born for. Given Gatto’s juggling style, his natural home should have been Ringling Bros., not Cirque du Soleil. The Ringling style is this: Here’s a hard thing, and here’s another hard thing, and I’m doing it all under the bright lights. Jugglers in Cirque are more like mimes; at some point they discover these straaaaaaange objects in their hands and decide perhaps they’ll throw them in the air.4 But Cirque is the ascendant show, the one with the money and the power to draw big crowds, so that’s where Gatto went, joining Cirque’s traveling Kooza show in 2007.

Even as Gatto was moving away from the pure juggling world, though, juggling was starting to move away from him. For one thing, jugglers seemed to be getting better, faster. Partly this was an illusion created by the combination of affordable video equipment and the Internet; young jugglers now kept their cameras running all the time, so if they hit a trick one time out of 100, they could upload the proof and make themselves look like gods,5 even if they’d never be able to execute the trick onstage, like Gatto could. The avatar of this new generation was Vova Galchenko, a Russian-born prodigy living in California. Galchenko disliked performing and admitted to suffering from stage fright, but when juggling alone, he was almost as good as Gatto in some respects, not to mention 14 years younger, and his YouTube videos regularly drew millions of clicks.

It wasn’t just that the pace of juggling achievement seemed to be accelerating. The patterns of the objects themselves were also changing. In the ’80s, a few jugglers with academic backgrounds had developed something called “siteswap” — a mathematical notation for objects in motion. Siteswap is to juggling what a musical score is to a piano player. A juggler conversant in siteswap can look at a string of numbers — say, 7 5 3 1 — and know that the numbers are telling him to juggle four objects so that their arcs peak at four different heights. (The numbers refer to relative altitude.) Gatto never took to siteswap, but others did; the notation helped them imagine and execute wild new patterns, and through the ’90s and 2000s the aesthetic of high-end technical juggling started to change. You can see it in the work of a modern juggler like Thomas Dietz, a lanky German who uses a lot of siteswap patterns. Watching Dietz is like walking through a gallery of Sol LeWitt paintings; you know that the patterns come from math, but you also know a human is painting them.

Even while performing with Cirque, Gatto did make an effort to stay in touch with the Internet juggling scene through an online forum branded in his name. Still, he kept a certain distance. There’s a clammy intensity to many online communities, and the juggling world is no different. Many of Gatto’s interactions with hobbyists on the Anthony Gatto Forum were friendly and gracious; he sponsored video competitions, praised young jugglers, offered advice and encouragement. But some exchanges were more hostile. Fans would wonder whether it was OK to film a trick 100 times to get that one perfect execution, and Gatto would tell them no: “If you can’t do a trick within 3 attempts, you can’t do it. You may have DONE it, but you can’t DO it.” Fans would ask which jugglers they should study for guidance, and Gatto would urge them to look at tapes of old performers — Dick Franco, Paul Ponce, the Errani Brothers, Kris Kremo, Francis Brunn.6 “I was fortunate to have Nick instilling an appreciation for talent,” Gatto wrote. “He would describe some of the great jugglers to me and sort of paint this picture of them having nearly magical ability.” Again and again on the forum, young jugglers would try to goad Gatto into attempting crazy records, and he’d reply that he could give a shit about records. He complained of carpal tunnel syndrome and back problems. He often invoked his family commitments as a way of declining challenges. By now he was married, to a woman named Danielle, a onetime professional dancer who had become his onstage assistant. They had a son together. “Can you answer what that would do for me?” Gatto wrote in 2009 to a commenter who had asked him to set a record for juggling seven balls in a particular way, throwing and catching them above his head:

Will it get me another job? Will my wife have a newfound respect for me because I can do seven balls overhead for a minute? … Beside the fact that when you become a real juggler and just having the knowledge that you can do something is enough satisfaction, there is also this: I have a practice regimen that I do in order to do the best possible performance I can in the evening. I am at work for 10-12 hours per day. I am integrated into the show in other ways than just my act. I am a back up artist for one of the characters as well. I get about 20 minutes per day to cram in a lunch and dinner. I now have a baby to take care. I get about 5-6 hours sleep per night. I have to walk my dog twice per day on top of all this. If you can’t understand why I don’t waste my energy on doing seven balls overhead for a minute to make a youtube video for people to watch, then you haven’t entered the real world yet.

Gatto’s frustration with young, Internet-native jugglers boiled over in 2008, when he got into a sort of arms race with Galchenko, the YouTube phenom. It began when Galchenko appeared on an NBC show called Celebrity Circus. He was there to set a record for doing as many five-club, five-up 360s as he could in one minute. He ended up doing the trick 21 straight times without dropping, breaking the previous record. After the show aired, Gatto posted a video of himself doing 24 five-ups in a minute, breaking the record Galchenko had just broken. Galchenko then posted footage of himself doing the trick 29 times in a minute. It went on like that for several more rounds.

A reporter for the Boston Globe called Gatto at the time and asked why Galchenko’s TV appearance had bothered him. Gatto praised Vova as a “great juggler,” but he also said of younger jugglers, “Until those kids grow a personality, they’re not going to wow anybody. The audience doesn’t care if you juggle 20 rings.” The reporter added, “Gatto now says he regrets getting involved in the 360s competition — though he says he can still go higher — because it sent the wrong message. The only way to judge a juggler, he says, is to watch him onstage, under the bright lights, over the course of a career.”

♦♦♦

Last summer, I sent Gatto a message through a contact form on his website, asking for an interview. I didn’t know how else to reach him directly; he appeared to have deleted his @AnthonyGatto Twitter account, and the main page at the Anthony Gatto Forum said, “The forum is closed. … The forum is unlikely to be raised from the dead, but feel free to use it as you see fit.”

When I didn’t hear back from Gatto, I reached out to Lakiya Arrington, the public relations manager with Cirque du Soleil’s La Nouba, the show in Orlando where he was performing. I told her I wanted to do a piece on Gatto and asked if I could meet him and see him perform. She said she’d check. A few days later, Arrington replied that she couldn’t help; Gatto’s schedule was too busy.

I decided I was going to find a way to do the story anyway. It seemed natural that a 40-year-old athlete might want to retire, but I couldn’t believe he could do it without anyone writing the sort of admiring, curtain-closing piece on his career that I thought he deserved. Could the world’s greatest juggler really slip into anonymity with hardly anyone noticing? I called a friend, Mark Bakalor, whom I knew from a juggling story I wrote in 2008. Bakalor is the adult son of Barry Bakalor, the juggling fan who shot the Gatto practice videos in the ’80s. Both men are also close with Galchenko, having essentially adopted him when he first moved from Russia to the United States without his parents. The Bakalors know juggling, so I pitched Mark an idea: What if we traveled to Orlando? What if we watched Gatto perform in Cirque, then tried to talk to him afterward? Bakalor would come along as a sort of consultant — a guy who could help me understand and describe the feats in Gatto’s act. We’d see Gatto under the bright lights, one last time. Maybe we’d get to meet him, maybe we wouldn’t, but it would be interesting either way.

Bakalor said it sounded like fun. He was excited to see Gatto perform; it had been years.

We got tickets for a Friday-evening show in October and booked our flights. That night we checked into Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge,7 drove into Downtown Disney, and walked to the Cirque theater, a soaring ivory structure designed to look like a circus tent, with a giant video screen playing clips of Cirque performers on a loop. Mark pointed to the screen. “There’s Anthony” — a flash of a man in sparkly clothing and thick makeup, juggling three clubs between his legs. We got our tickets and took our seats. The lights went down.

There’s not much to say about the show. If you haven’t been to Cirque du Soleil, you’ve absorbed it through pop culture. There were tightrope walkers and trapeze artists. There was a ballerina and a bald ogre in a bodysuit and men and women dressed like figures in Russian constructivist posters. A shirtless dude with eight-pack abs soared through the air on a ribbon of red silk. At one point, a “rola bola” guy emerged from the wings — a performer in a jesterish costume who stood atop a board balanced precariously on a tall stack of shiny metal cylinders. Mark frowned. This was bad news. The art of rola bola is close to juggling, which meant the rola bola guy had probably taken Gatto’s place in the show.

The finale came; the performers bowed. No Gatto.

We returned to our hotel and started searching the Internet. Mark found the page for Big Top Concrete Resurfacing and its listing of Anthony Commarota as owner. “Maybe there’s the name change because he doesn’t want people to know he’s moved on,” Mark said. “I don’t know. That’s kind of the mystery.”

The next morning, Mark and I watched a YouTube video of one of Gatto’s Cirque performances, to see what we had missed. Gatto swaggers onstage in a sparkling skintight silver shirt, silver pants, and silver shoes, accompanied by a woman in a red sequined dress. She hands him six balls — five small, one large — and he begins juggling the small ones while bouncing the sixth on top of his head.8 A few moments later, he does some tricks with seven balls, then switches to a smooth, wicked routine with five rings. The crowd murmurs and applauds uncertainly when he shifts patterns. He dances the whole time, grinning, kicking his silver shoes, throwing out his arms. The woman produces a long pole containing five billiard pockets at varying heights — the same type of prop he once used as a kid. Gatto balances the pole on his forehead. Five balls go up in the air; five balls land in the pockets, one by one.

I tried to take in the video as if I were watching Gatto live, in person. The tricks were happening too fast for me to name them, even mentally, but I got a powerful sense of extreme complexity boxed and tamed — that what would be the hardest trick in the world for even a very accomplished juggler was, for Gatto, just a platform for building another trick. I recognized bits and pieces of tricks I’d seen on the practice videos, only here they were mastered, nailed beyond question, and stitched into long skeins of ooooh and aahhh, one trick melting seamlessly into the next, every throw and catch and gesture designed with a savage economy, like the words in a short story that slivers through you and leaves a melon-size exit wound.

Toward the end of the video, Gatto walks to his prop stand. He wipes his brow, tosses chalk on his hands. He grabs five clubs; the red lady tosses him two more. Drumroll. Seven clubs fly skyward into the bright lights.

“It’s hard to imagine how much precision is required for something like seven clubs,” says Lewbel, the economics professor and juggling author. “Literally the difference in angle of your hand of a fraction of a degree is enough to completely destroy it. If you sat down with a computer and plotted out how accurate the trajectories have to be, you wouldn’t believe anybody could ever do it.”

The clubs fall toward Gatto, then rise again. Ten catches, 15, 20. A stable pattern. Gatto catches the last club with a flourish. He bows. The music swells. The whole performance lasts only 11 minutes — 11 minutes honed over 30 years.

When the video was over, I called the number on the Big Top Concrete website. Anthony answered. I told him who I was. I said I had come to Orlando to see him perform. I asked if he’d meet me for coffee to talk about his juggling career.

He sounded irritated. Who was I again? What was Grantland? What was the story about?

I asked again if he’d meet me. He said there wasn’t a chance. He had to spend time with his family. I asked why he hadn’t performed in La Nouba last night. “Herniated disk,” he said. “I’ve been out for four months. No way I could talk to you today.” He said he could talk on the phone later on, but he didn’t seem thrilled about it. I’d have to arrange it through Cirque’s PR department.

Later, I called Cirque’s Lakiya Arrington and asked to schedule a brief phone call with Gatto. “He’s on leave,” she said. “We don’t grant interviews while they’re typically on leave … We try to respect when they’re not working.”

♦♦♦

Pure technical jugglers peak in their twenties, according to Lewbel. As they get older, they survive by developing personality. “Most jugglers don’t retire, they just modify their act appropriately,” he says. He tells me about a Russian juggler named Gregory Popovich. As a young man, he juggled large numbers of clubs atop a tall ladder. He still does, but now he’s best known for an act featuring trained cats.

Jugglers don’t have to perform difficult tricks to entertain people, because audiences generally don’t know what’s difficult. Juggling five objects is 10 times harder than juggling four, and six objects is 10 times harder than five, but to most people, five objects in the air looks like six, and six looks like five. A truly difficult juggling trick doesn’t necessarily register intuitively as difficult. It just looks like a bunch of weird shit crossing in the air. A blur of startled birds. Whereas tricks that do look difficult are actually easy, like chain saws. You disengage the chain so it can’t move. The chain saw makes a scary noise, but there’s no danger.9 Same with torches. The torches that jugglers use are shaped and weighted exactly like clubs. Juggling three torches is exactly like juggling three clubs. A 5-year-old can do it. The biggest danger is smudging your hand with soot.

The fact that juggling audiences can’t tell the difference between hard tricks and easy tricks means they also can’t make any meaningful judgments about jugglers. It would be as if basketball fans couldn’t recognize the difference between LeBron James and, say, Trevor Ariza. Imagine living in a world in which Angel Cabrera’s golf swing is exactly as elegant as Adam Scott’s, and Ryan Harrison’s tennis forehand is as devastating as Juan Martin del Potro’s, and LeSean McCoy is just another guy running in staggered patterns on a grass field. The whole multibillion-dollar machinery of sports enjoyment depends on the audience’s ability to make fine distinctions between similar-seeming athletes. That’s where the fun and the money are. A sport minus an educated audience is just a story. Maybe a bullshit story. It’s competitive eating. It’s the mortgage-backed securities market circa 2008 — people trying to convince you that they’ve spent a lot of time mastering a certain set of arcane rules and are therefore worthy of your cash and your trust. And jugglers have always taken advantage of audiences’ ignorance. Instead of performing hard tricks, they perform easy tricks that look hard. They lie to delight.

But then came a guy who wasn’t interested in lying, who wanted to do stuff that was hard because he could. This was his power in the world and he wanted to exert it — the basic impulse of any athlete. Yet he never really found his audience, even though he conquered juggling’s demands like no one before him. Gatto learned how to stand calm and straight-backed beneath sick, dizzying multitudes of spinning, arcing objects and conduct them with model-train precision into his hands. He also learned to charm people, even though it didn’t come naturally to him, as the kiss-the-ball video shows. He gave in. He grew to accept the necessity of kissing the ball and lobbing it gently into the crowd with a grin. He also learned to make hard tricks look hard, to pantomime the exertion and self-doubt of a man working at the edge of his ability even though his ability stretched on and on. He learned to entertain, because for some reason, even though we exist in a physical universe defined by the relative attractive powers of massive objects, the mere demonstration of a lush and lovely control of gravity is not enough. He labored to please an audience that could never appreciate his greatness. Then he got older and watched a new wave of jugglers abandon the stage for the flicker of computer screens, sneering at the bright-light mastery he’d worked so hard to gain.

That’s my impression, anyway. Gatto didn’t talk to me. Maybe he wants to focus on running his business. Or maybe he got so used to performing for people who couldn’t understand his gift that when he decided to back away from juggling, he felt no need to help them understand why.

♦♦♦

Before I left Orlando, I watched a few more videos. They’re on YouTube under the name “Anthony Commarota.” One is called “Countertop | Refinishing | Resurfacing | Orlando.” It shows Gatto working on a countertop in a garage, wearing a baseball cap backward and a white T-shirt that says “Got Ugly Concrete?”

He spreads denatured alcohol on the countertop to clean it, then trowels down a coat of grout mix. He uses a hand sponge to make the side of the countertop look like it has a chiseled edge. “We got the second coat on,” he says. “We’ve chiseled the edges. Once that starts to set a bit, I’m going to poke at it with a stiff-bristled brush to give it some more natural look.” He sands the countertop a bit. “The chiseled edge came out really nice.”

Almost no jugglers get rich. Many work other jobs on the side. Salaries at Cirque start at $50,000, which is decent for the circus world but hardly cozy. I’m sure Gatto is working in concrete because it’s the best thing for his family. Still, the countertop video is jarring, because it represents the perfect inverse of a classic Gatto performance: not a bewildering splay of virtuosity for an audience that will struggle to understand, but a how-to lesson for viewers who will immediately grasp each simple step.

The video ends with a shot of the final countertop. It’s painted a deep bronze and has a rich, glossy finish. It looks like quality work. It looks respectable. It looks just fine.

Illustration by Ken Garduno.

Filed Under: Juggling, Anthony Gatto, Cirque du Soleil

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Jason Fagone is a contributing editor at Wired and the author of Ingenious, a book about inventors and cars.

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