The Dynamic-Contact-Spehereplay-Fushigi Controversy

The Dynamic-Contact-Spehereplay-Fushigi Controversy
Brad Weston

The show, like thousands before it, started strongly. Everyone was focused, and I built up their excitement. There was a collective gasp from the audience when I “magically” transformed a soap bubble into a crystal ball. That’s when everything started going wrong. Young boys in the crowd start yelling something, but I didn’t understand what they were saying. “Fushigi,” they yelled. “We saw that on TV!”

Fushigi magic anti gravity ball that used to be called contact juggling.

This is what caused all the trouble.

So there it was, a part of my show that was so strong that it had been a sure fire opener for years, had been reduced to a toy, as seen on TV. I got curious about how this had happened so I started making phone calls. What I uncovered was one of the most controversial product launches that has ever affected the juggling world. It will likely also become the most sold juggling prop in the history of the world.

When I began my research, the Fushigi Ball, marketed by Zoom TV, was only available at their online website or by calling an 800 number. Now, there are piles of them at the checkout counter at my local drugstore. Suddenly, it seems like they are pretty much everywhere.

Let me back up and give you a little history, because this subject is a controversy based on a fracas, based on a dispute. Getting to the bottom of the history of a juggling style is not as easy as it seems. Everyone’s version is slightly different. Here is mine.

First of all, certain aspects of the art form are quite old. Palm rolling (moving several balls around each other in a single hand) dates back to the Ming Dynasty in China, sometime between 1368 and 1644. Body rolling, another element of the art form, although probably ancient, was made popular by Cinquevalli and was described in The Strand Magazine in 1897. Rhythmic gymnastics, which had previously used objects like clubs and hoops, added ball manipulation to the form in 1929.

In more recent times, it seems that a number of jugglers were creating this new juggling form simultaneously. Tony Duncan was performing forearm rolls in 1978 and multiple ball palm spinning work in 1983. He called his work “Dynamic Balance”. In 1985, Michael Moschen performed his routine of ball manipulation using clear acrylic balls. Later, in 1986, the non-juggling public became aware of this juggling style, when Moschen performed it as a stand-in for David Bowie. Ironically, he called his style “Dynamic Manipulation”, surprisingly similar to the name that Tony Duncan had used. It may be that the two were aware of each other’s developments, but it is also possible that they were inventing the form in isolation. There are many examples throughout history of an invention being worked on by numerous parties with no connection to each other. The camera, television, telephone, and airplane are all examples of this. Most people, however, now attribute the development of this juggling style to Michael Moschen.

In any case, this is where the controversy really gets going. James Earnest comes along in 1991 and writes a book about this art form, which he re-names Contact Juggling. The juggling world was up in arms about this, and there were two schools of thought. One group claimed that Michael Moschen’s work had been re-branded and marketed for a profit, and that was wrong. The other group felt that, because the elements of what became known as contact juggling existed already, no single person could claim ownership of a style of movement.

The form was re-branded yet again in 2002 when Michael Glen created the how-to video “Sphereplay: Art of the Sphere”. Although the name didn’t catch on in a big way in the juggling community, Glenn claims to have personally introduced half a million people to sphereplay, and his videos have sold in the tens of thousands.

And now Fushigi. If you haven’t already noticed, a national advertising campaign has begun. In typical infomercial style, it’s flashy, kind of cheesy, and very convincing to their key demographic, in this case pre-teen boys. The claims in the commercial are very strong and the implication is that the ball does all of the work for you. I am quoting the commercial now- “Is it magic, maybe, an illusion, you decide… anyone can Fushigi from the minute they pick up the Magic Gravity Ball… It floats?” Time Magazine even voted Fushigi to be one of the 25 worst infomercials ever. Also included on that list were BluBlocker Sunglasses, the Ginsu Knife, and Snuggie blankets.

The end result is that young people believe that the ball does all the work. Not bad when you want people to buy a product. It becomes more of a problem when you are a performer trying to convince them that what you are doing is a hard earned skill and that they should be impressed.

The man in charge of this product is John Cammarano. He told me that he had never seen contact juggling until January of 2010. He was already a very successful direct marketer, with several products already on the market. He once partnered with the advertising legend Billy Mays, the man famous for selling OxiClean. Within a month of seeing his first contact juggling performance on Youtube, Cammarano had created a brand name- Fushigi, a Japanese word meaning “beauty and mystery”- and was shooting a commercial.

Kenny Toombs became the self proclaimed “Face of Fushigi”- he’s the guy on the box). He is happy with his involvement with shooting the commercial and has since created a fee-based membership website where he gives contact juggling tutorials. According to Toombs, at the commercial shoot he explained that the ball focuses the rays of the sun into a point and therefore posed a danger to children.  That is when Mr. Cammarano came up with the idea of putting a ball within a ball. He immediately applied for a patent for this innovation. It is because of this late discovery that the early commercials and the first how-to Fushigi dvd were shot using regular clear acrylic balls, and not what has come to be known as the Fushigi Magic Gravity Ball.

There has been a lot of discussions on the internet about this new product, much of it very negative. One site where the discussion has been raging is www.contactjuggling.org. I just did a search on that site using the search term Fushigi and there is a current total of 2,899 messages. One thread was so long that it reached 100 pages before the moderators sealed it off. That is a staggering amount of time spent discussing a product rollout.

I called Mr. Commarano up to find out what was going on:

Weston: Did you know what to expect when you launched Fushigi?

Commarano: It’s completely by accident. No one ever imagined it would go mainstream, especially the contact jugglers. They protect the art very passionately. It was a lot of controversy in the beginning. We fell in love with the art itself and decided to see if the consumer, the average kid who is not privy to contact juggling would be enamored with it, as enamored with it as I am. We have a very specific talent here. Our core competency is direct response marketing. Not all products lend themselves to our platform. But, we never know until we build a commercial and test it, we never know if the consumer will accept the product. We get lucky every once in a while.

Weston:How did you test market it?

Commarano: The Fushigi campaign follows the exact same formula that any direct response short form campaign lives out. The commercial is produced and marketed through a national test with a dynamic demographic test across several different networks, all those different spots run on a very tight rotation, which is generally a week if not shorter…We don’t do any regional testing we go right to a national spot. We analyze that data the following week. We look at the response, who’s buying the product.

Weston: Did you create the commercial?

Cammarano: We did it right here. We are fully vertical, we have the ability to produce and reach out to our media buyer. We can see a product from conception all the way to retail sales.

Weston: Were there problems with your website and the handling of people’s orders?

Cammarano: When fushigi started, it was in very high demand; we literally could not keep up with demand and people had to wait 6 weeks or more. We did take a couple of lumps, but I think we handled any complaints that actually reached us directly. We handled each one individually and to the consumer’s satisfaction.

Weston: Where there any surprises along the way?

Cammarano: Yeah there were several. Like I told I you, I was not a juggler, I’m a product guy. I love new products it’s what we do here. I’m also, obviously, an inventor. My passion is bringing new products to market. I have never been involved in a campaign where I was personally thrust into it to this magnitude. There was a very outspoken contingency of artists, and I was sort of being labeled as the guy who let the proverbial cat out of the bag. I’ve been the bad guy on the [contact juggling] dot org site. I tried early to engage and get feedback and to accommodate all the community’s needs. We did the best we could.
Our marketing was perceived by the community as puffery, or possibly misleading. I disagree, but there was some items we got rid of, like the “magic gravity ball thing”. I quickly learned what was important to the artist is that it’s not the product, it’s not the ball, it’s the artist that makes the illusion.

Weston: One of the problematic claims was that anyone can learn it in 3 minutes.

Cammarano: That’s a judgement call, nobody can learn [that quickly] to the degree of what the artists are doing in the commercial, but you can pick up a contact juggling ball ball and do basic maneuvers and be just as enamored with the illusion as I was when I first picked one up. Like any skill toy or skill art, it takes dedication and practice. Unlike a magician who can’t do a card trick at the beginning, you can pick up a contact juggling ball and actually witness the illusion.

Weston: Jugglers have expressed their concern that every time they practice their art, they are doing a commercial for your product. What is your response?

Cammarano: That was the concern of a lot of jugglers in the beginning. I do respect that comment; it’s absolutely true. That’s a consequence of marketing; that’s the downside. But I gotta tell you, this campaign really tugged at my heart. I got really close to it because I saw and understood and respected the position of the artist. Their request was, “If you care about us, take the commercials down.” We couldn’t do that… Eventually they may get their wish and we’ll just go away, but Fushigi will always be around
The upside is there should be a whole new respect for the art, because there are literally thousands upon thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of new contact jugglers out there who are learning, who are just as enamored with the art as you guys were when you first started, but they didn’t know about it till Fushigi. I’m a 47 year old guy, I had never seen it once until January.
You guys are the mentors now, you are the teachers. You are going to also see several new maneuvers, several new routines, all different types of moves. It is a wonderful, safe alternative for people that want to start contact juggling, and then when they get more proficient, they respect the art more, and the ones that stick with it will end up with clears [clear acrylic balls, as opposed to the Fushigi Ball with the metal sphere inside].

Weston: Have you had to deal with complaints about the quality of the Fushigi ball?

Cammarano: It’s a constant evolution. You know when you put a ball inside of a ball, no matter what you put in there you are going to erode the illusion that a clear will give you, it’s a different type of illusion. For a master contact juggler, a clear acrylic is the best way to go. But there had to be an introductory item, a safe alternative for a young demographic coming into the art.

Weston: Are you aware of the irony in the fact that jugglers are angry about the name change away from contact juggling, which is not the original term?

Cammarano: I learned the dynamics and all the players. There is an internal struggle within the contingency of artists; they carry this baggage of self judgment that they have knocked off Michael Moschen. There was no name for this art. Just because we gave our product a name, it wasn’t meant to re-brand or hijack contact juggling- it was just a name for a product. However when you are marketing a product, people by default call the product Fushigi. It was something I couldn’t help. There was nothing I could do.
Hey, I can bring out an incredible product and sell a lot of them. This is something that is so magical and I believe that people will love this. I didn’t realize this was such a guarded art. It was like walking head first into a bee’s nest.

After I talked with Mr. Cammarano I wanted to get a little more background information on what the controversy was. So I gave James Ernest a call, the guy who wrote the  Contact Juggling book that coined the term in 1990. (A revised edition has just bee published in November 2010 on on www.lulu.com.) Ernest worked as a juggler from 1984 through the mid -‘90s, performing at amusement parks, fairs, conventions, and cruise ships. For the past seventeen years he has worked in the hobby games industry, designing games for his own company and others, as well as authoring two books on poker.

When Ernest first wrote Contact Juggling there was a hoopla that Michael Moschen had been ripped off- not just by Ernest, but by everyone doing contact juggling. When asked how he felt about the re-naming of contact juggling, Ernest commented, “It’s silly but it’s commerce. People feel like they can own something so I’m not going to begrudge them that. It’s funny to watch as an outside observer. They are looking for a brand that they can trademark and sell. I think the old name is gonna stick around; I don’t think a brand name could ever supplant a generic. But good luck to them.”

Having been accused of ripping off Moschen’s work in the past, how does Ernest feel about Fushigi usurping the field he named as “contact juggling?”

“There is one thing I don’t share with Michael Moschen: I really don’t care,” says Ernest. “I was writing about how to perform a mechanical trick and how to learn it. The people on the nascent internet who decided to back me up said information should be free. I find myself in that camp. The people who chose to back up Michael Moschen said, “not if Michael said you can’t; people should be able to own their intellectual property.  I’m not gonna come down on the side of protecting the name ‘contact juggling.’”

I started wondering how this was affecting others that were making a living from contact juggling. I talked to Sphereplay creator Michael Glen,who said that it has affected his performances, but he has been able to deal with it by simply talking about the controversy during his show. He says the affect of Fushigi is very dramatic when he is in his festival booth where he sells crystal spheres. “I used to hear the Labyrinth comment; we would hear that 30 or 40 times a day. That’s nothing like the Fushigi comments that we get now. We hear it 2 or 3 times a minute.” In regards to a toy fair, Glen said, “Our biggest problem with no one knowing what our product is is solved. I sold a lot of spheres this summer because of Fushigi.”

It was finally time to ask Michael Moschen what he had to say about the whole thing: “I must say that the irony of the situation, as you presented it to me in your missive, is not lost on me. I can do nothing to clarify my position on all of the above mentioned issues that I have not already done both at the Montreal Juggling Convention and in person after all of my performances. Each individual person has the opportunity to think for themselves..or not.”

Following Moschen’s workshop/ lecture for the IJA, an edited version of his remarks were printed in Juggler’s World Magazine (Fall 1992), quoting in part:  “One of the biggest treasures you have is that you never forget how difficult it was to learn something. The things most meaningful to me took me through entirely new directions of technique. But if you just see someone else doit and imitate them without going through the process, it takes a severe slice out of your imagination. I don’t think anyone’s creative process is enhanced by taking the easiest route. Process to me is the most sacred thing any artist can have. I consider myself an artist because I take risks, and it means more to me than life itself to plow through those risks.”

Michael went on to explain that he created his crystal ball piece after learning that someone close to him was going to die, and spending six years “with every kind of ball I could find and [learning] many techniques with them.” After settling on a crystal ball, Moschen determined that he would follow the rule of never closing his hand around the ball, “Because I felt such a tightness closing in inside of me because someone was going to die that I had to find a way of opening up. Closing your hand around something gives you power over it. If you choose not to close your hands around it, you leave it free and make yourself more vulnerable.”

From letting the ball rest on his palm, Moschen gradually learned he could move his hand beneath the ball, apparently leaving the ball stationary. He moved on to rolling the ball from hand to hand, and around his body, making the decision, to never throw the ball in the air, “Because it cuts that connectedness between you and the object.”

In Michael’s opinion, “If people want to be interpretive artist on someone else’s creative efforts, they should at least understand that process. The process isn’t a commodity, something for sale or that you buy… I’m very proprietary about those explorations that I’ve given up a great part of my life for. I respect others who do the same and I cringe when I see someone who has simply stolen a technique.”

It is still unclear how the marketing of Fushigi will affect the art form. It seems to me some of the magic, the rareness of obscurity is no longer available with this prop. It took an outsider, a non-juggler to see the money making potential, perhaps at the expense of making the prop look like a toy.

Brad Weston is a writer, juggler, and  contact juggler from way back. For more information about him and his work check out his website at http://www.bradweston.com

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7 Responses to The Dynamic-Contact-Spehereplay-Fushigi Controversy

  1. I figured folks would buy the thing, be disappointed, there’d be an uproar, then I could get mine at the 99 cent store. See: Penn and Teller’s “The Invisible Thread”.

  2. Brad Weston says:

    The uproar has definitely started with this prop. At first, as I was performing it, kids would yell out that I was fooling them, that it was a magic gravity ball. Now they are yelling that the prop is a scam, lifting their little indignant voices to the sky during my act. Progress? Yeah, it’ll die down.

  3. I really enjoyed this article. I have been a big fan of contact juggling since I saw Moschen’s PBS special back in the day and used to practice with a grapefruit form backyard. A few adult friends bought me one and they were incredulous when I opened it up and was able to “make it move”. They tried and “it wouldn’t work”.
    I think this controversy is fascinating. I love contact juggling and I love really manipulative marketing. The Fushigi is a perfect storm of both. (Though Kenny is not a great juggler and the DVD should have had retakes of a few shots)
    I was thinking of adding my Fushigi to my set list and blending it with magic and mime and the feedback is good to know while designing my act.

    Thanks for all of your work on this blog entry!
    I write an infrequent showbiz variety arts blog as well on Blog spot.
    Check it out! All the best!
    http://christianfitzharris.blogspot.com/

  4. Joan says:

    Thanks for all the research, Brad, and for giving these perspectives….I’ve always been a great fan of ‘contact juggling’ and how mesmerizing it is–it really does seem magical– but I also know how much practice it takes…

  5. Griffsnog says:

    I’m looking to get into contact juggling and the fushigi has only helped to keep me from taking the plunge. I have been an avid return top (yoyo) and spin top player for a few years and have no problem playing and performing in public. But this takes the cake. I love how all the answers in the interview are PC for “I’m using you to make money and devalue your artistic skill and I don’t care!”

  6. Brad Weston says:

    Yes! That is what I had been hoping to get across with the article! I tried to stay relatively neutral with my writing, but it seemed pretty obvious to me that things were said that were obviously untrue. A number of people on the contact juggling site were upset with me because I didn’t point out what I felt to be lies, but I assumed that they all had a reading level well above the average. I’m glad you saw through the P.C. B.S.

  7. Rich Shumaker says:

    Amazing article. Having lived through all the controversies first hand it is very helpful to read it back.
    Don’t do that trick or use that ball. Why would you have a competition? Why are you calling it Sphereplay? The Fushigi is a fraud.
    Funny story and I can’t find the forum post which is odd. The Fushigi ball was a ball I wanted and could not get made. The elusive ball inside a ball that appears to magically float above your hand. Yes that is how we described it. There were several people discussing on the forums and several people and companies trying to make it. Now you can buy it anywhere and mainstream modern contact jugglers think it has ruined the art form. That is hilarious as all it did was accelerate the concept to the mainstream and it’s tipping point.
    Another thing I would like to point out is that Sphereplay has fundamental teaching differences compared to contact juggling as taught in the book of the same name. Certain key elements are never taught to contact jugglers.
    I am always learning and contact juggling has been a great tool for teaching me about language, commerce, how we learn and create, and life itself. Contact juggling has introduced me to many incredible people and I am very thankful that I learned it.