Kristian Kristof, is the youngest artist to receive the highest title of performing arts, given by the Hungarian Minister of Culture and Education, claimed top awards from six prestigious international circus festivals.
Kristian Kristof was once speeding down a highway in Budapest when the inevitable happened: a patrol car flagged him down for speeding.
"Why are you driving so fast?" one of the policemen asked him. "I'm a juggler and I'm late for my show. Please sir, would you let me go?" he pleaded. "A juggler?" they asked, looking at him disbelievingly.
"Yes," he reiterated, then taking out the tools from his juggling kit, he started demonstrating his skills on the roadside. His skills and performance were so impressive that they let him go with just a warning: "Don't speed again.''
This, of course, was not the first time that Kristof has been able to impress people with his talent. This is a man who can hold his audience in thrall juggling just about anything - top hats, cigar boxes, balls, chairs, tables and candle stands. "[However] one thing I would never juggle with is fire,'' he says, "which is one reason I revived the most elegant and clean style of juggling in the world - ‘Gentleman Juggling'."
Kristof, 41, is extremely approachable and down to earth. Dressed in a T-shirt and utility shorts, he could have passed off as a tourist when I met him at the Yas Island Rotana Hotel. Kristof is in Abu Dhabi to perform at the Big Apple Circus, part of the Summer in Abu Dhabi festival, organised by the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority, he took time off for an exclusive interview with Friday. Belonging to the fourth generation of a famous Hungarian circus family, he says he has been travelling with the circus since he was six months old. Both his parents, Istvan and Ilona, were highly respected acrobats.
"My parents always took me along with them while on tour. My father still works as the director of the Hungarian State Circus. One of my grandfathers was a strongman who later became an elephant trainer and the other grandfather was a gymnast," he says.
Kristof was seven years old when he saw a show by Rudi Schweitzer, a master juggler who was then performing with his parents in Australia. He was so overwhelmed by the performance that he immediately made up his mind and wanted to become a juggler. However, his parents were determined that he return to Hungary to finish his schooling before he step into the circus ring.
"The first time I got an opportunity [to show off my skills] was when I was 14 and I performed during a charity gala at the Budapest State Circus," says Kristof.
Keen to hone his skills, he enrolled in the Hungarian State Performing Arts Institute from where he graduated in 1987. The next year he obtained a diploma from the Hungarian State Circus Academy in 1988. He hasn't looked back since.Kristof has been with the Hungarian State Circus, Moscow State Circus, Circus Tihany of Mexico, Shrine Circus of Florida, Hanneford Circus of Florida, Circo Moira Orfei in Italy, Krones in Germany and Royal Canadian Circus.
He has also won several medals at prestigious international circus festivals, including the Performer of the Year award at the Hungarian State Circus; golden award at the Performing Art Festival in Pyongyang, Korea; silver medal at the Festival du Cirque de Demain in Paris; silver medal at the Wuqiao Circus Festival in Beijing, China and special award at the Circus Festival in Budapest for the technical direction of the event.
That's not all. He has juggled his way into the Guinness Book of World Records releasing three cigar boxes in the air and catching them perfectly just the way he released them after they completed four full spins - a world record. "As a juggler, balance is a very basic need for me,'' he says.
"Onstage, it is what keeps my acts intact and appealing. Offstage, I believe that without balancing your accounts or relations or time, your life would be in a shambles. It is crucial that you balance all your acts in the long run.'' In addition to pushing the limits of his juggling skills, Kristof had the honour of directing several editions of the International Circus Festival of Budapest including the innovative and modern circus production called Circus Odyssey and Rhythm Circus. "I have also directed the first variety show of the reopened Moulin Rouge Theatre in Budapest," says Kristof.
"My experiences have taught me that there is so much potential in show business that one lifetime is barely enough to live it," says Kristof.
I have broken numerous objects - plates, eggs and cups in my mother's kitchen in my attempt to perfect the art of juggling. In fact my parents had a tough time mending the roof of my room while renovating our family home in Budapest. It was pitted with holes from my attempts to keep several things up in the air at the same time. I was constantly practising at the expense of my schoolwork, much to the disdain of my mother.
I would never juggle with fire. I respect people who use dangerous objects, but it is beyond my comprehension to endanger any living being for fun or otherwise. Juggling, to me, is not just about throwing a lot of balls in the air. It is the performance and its elegance which matter to me.
I can never forget the magic of a performance, when I've awed an audience into disbelief. One incident which I'll never forget happened last year in Moscow. Usually at competitions, one person gets the accolades and becomes popular after a performance. But here, I was given the title ‘Best of the best' before the show. I was under pressure but it worked in a positive way and the adrenaline rush made me give my best. The almost tangible collective [expectation] of the audience transformed into a kind of energy for me. When an audience is worked up that way and you connect with them, it creates a beautiful memory. It's like magic, and you can bank on those moments to derive your strength and inspiration.
I am able to live my childhood dream. I have been very fortunate because I've travelled with my parents all over the world - India, Italy, Austria, Australia, New Zealand, Russia to name a few countries. I grew up in a big wonderful world of entertainment and arts. Rudi Schweitzer, my mentor, was able to grab the attention of the audience and create a very successful act with just three simple objects. This was my ambition too. His elegance and personality in the ring really impressed me. I fell in love with this career and I am living my dream.
I had the chance to learn different languages and travel a lot because of my skills in juggling. Today I can speak six languages - Russian, Hungarian, English, Italian, Spanish and German.
My wife, Anette Dezamits, is a retired gymnast. We have a daughter Noella who is six years old and wants to be an aerial gymnast. The part that I hate the most about my job is being separated from my family for long periods of time. Sometimes, it is difficult to make such choices.
Often Noella tells me, "Papa, please don't go away." I have to explain to her that if she wants new toys and dresses, I have to go to work. She then says, "Well, then I don't want them. Please stay with me." But she adores the circus performances and aspires to be a part of it. She is extremely proud of both her father and mother.
If you are successful [in the world of performing arts] you could lead a very fulfilling life and never feel like you've worked a single day of your life, because you would simply be doing what you loved every day. I would let my daughter be a circus art performer, if she has the same passion for it and if it makes her as happy as it has made me. Watching me travel to new places would probably be the biggest inspiration for my daughter to be "like daddy''.
I have great respect for my audience and real life. Even though I'm the one in the spotlight, I am always aware and grateful for the fact that without the audience who put me on a pedestal and admire me, I wouldn't be there. It is when the economy experiences a boom that people take time off and come and enjoy the arts. So it's those ordinary people who work hard every day to sustain the economy and bring in the finance that give me a chance to perform. I am supported by these real people and real life. Without them and their hard work, performers like me wouldn't exist.
If I were not juggling, I would have been an acrobat or aerial gymnast like my parents. I also love scuba-diving and I am an instructor. I love photography and have freelanced for newspapers in Hungary. I have also done some part roles in movies and in theatre. I have worked with Rudolf Nureyev, a famous Russian classical ballet dancer. But at the end of it all, I love juggling and my heart is set on it.
Me and the time I missed an act
Once I was part of a group which put up a performance for a black tie affair for around 20 very important CEOs. The theme of the dinner party was based on an Agatha Christie mystery. I was supposed to bring in a tray full of glasses with beverages balanced atop a bottle.
I had rehearsed the act several times and had perfected it but somehow during the dinner there was so much excitement and tension in the air that I broke into a sweat and upended the tray on the guests. The goof-up pretty much killed the theme and its the sort of stuff my nightmares are made of.
Do you think that one's ability to keep several things in the air has something to do with the way one's brain is wired?
It could be a special talent, but I believe it has more to do with training and practice. The fact that my childhood was within the world of entertainment must also have contributed to me developing quick reflexes. Observing the tricks and skills at a very young age makes you adept at absorbing and imbibing them. You need to have some sort of balance and loads of patience to repeat and perfect an act. You have to train your brain to register the position of balls when juggling with them and act reflexively. Before you learn to juggle, you drop and pick the objects numerous times - it can actually give you a backache before you master the skill.
How many objects can I juggle? I would probably be able to juggle up to nine objects. One of the most difficult things for me to do is an act called the spin and the catch. In the 1960s, somebody was able to do two spins and a catch and then in the late 1970s, someone else was able to do a triple spin and a catch. In 1994, I was able to do four spins and a catch. This feat was recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records. I was 25 when I made the record and I still continue performing this feat at all stages. I am amazed and extremely proud that this record still holds.
What is your definition of balance?
Balance for me is the fulcrum of life. It is the key aspect of life, like balancing the yin and the yang. I understand balance in its very physical sense like when I stack a candle stand on a coffee table on three chairs (one of them being a three-legged chair) on the tip of a cigar held in my mouth. I am able to balance the entire weight of this furniture perfectly on a few millimetres.
Is juggling perceived as less of an art than dancing or painting or music?
We, those in the circus business, have been struggling to raise circus arts to the same level as theatre or classical ballet. Circus has a history of thousands of years and it is embedded in almost all cultures of the world. The best part of circus arts is that it addresses many different generations. Everyone can find something in a circus that makes them think, as well as laugh. I truly believe it is an art form and it should always have a place within the world of cultural arts.
In one way, juggling could be considered a sport since it involves skills and performance. But on the other hand, when you juggle in the circus ring or on a stage and you juggle to entertain the audience, it becomes an art form.
I dream about making a difference to circus arts because it's part of human heritage. I am organising the international circus festival of Budapest, a competition which is an expo for the highest level of performances. I have created Maciva Master Studio, a workshop for the most talented Hungarian performers. I hope to promote and create a special place for circus arts.
What kind of show are you putting on in Abu Dhabi?
The theme of the Big Apple Circus show, which is being organised by Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority is a classic circus. We have 16 world-famous performers putting on acts. We open with a folkloric fast number which is neither Hungarian nor Russian. The opening of the show has two beautiful aerial gymnasts followed by a hand balancer. The script of my show is that of a gentleman in a hotel lobby. We have a wonderful clown, a rolla bola that swings from a trapeze and ends with the Wheel of Death, which is very dangerous. We follow a classic theme without the use of animals and fully dazzle the audience.
What is the reaction of people when you introduce yourself as a juggler?
A lot of people keep asking me what my real job is. They wonder if I can make a living out of juggling. Years ago, this question used to upset me because I did not understand why people couldn't believe that you could make a living by performing. Today the way the world economy is, it seems like a legitimate question. There are only a few people who can really claim they are full-time performers. You have to be at a very high level of performance in any kind of art to maintain a good quality of life.
Are you expected to be the life of the party?
On the contrary, many times, I have been quite disappointed that nobody has asked me to perform. If anyone requested me to perform, I would gladly do so. I am not a very reserved person but neither do I have the desire to be the centre of attention. Juggling is my profession and I probably wouldn't force it on anybody. Sometimes it's good to be like everybody else and lead a quiet life.
What is the best piece of advice your parents gave you and what would you advise your daughter?
Practice, practice and practice is what my parents have told me. They have always been perfectionists. No matter what you do, do it to perfection, with passion and love. Ordinary things are boring. It is when it becomes extraordinary that you can amaze others. I want my daughter to choose what she loves to do. But she should make her choice only when she is sure. Circus performance is a wonderful life, of course, but it is also very tough and full of ups and downs. The competition requires discipline and dedication.
My choice to be a juggler was almost predestined. I didn't think about it consciously, because I was a child, I thought juggling things was playful. By the time I came to a decision-making point, the path was already chosen. If my daughter wants to be a performer, I would help and guide her.
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
I'm a 41-year-old guy who juggles ordinary everyday objects. I want to be a 52-year-old guy who does the same. Rudi was over 60 when I saw him performing. Some of the disciplines you perform in circus are based on your physical ability. Fortunately my performance is not only based on the physical skills but also on training and disciplining the mind. Probably in my career, everything that has to do with the physical skills will diminish in a few years if I gain a few more pounds or get a littler slower in my speed.
Last year, I started taking an interest in the other side of circus, direction and talent search. I work for the Hungarian State Circus and I help my father in directing the state circus, so maybe in ten years I will be doing the same.