Luke Wilson

I’m not sure where this is going, but I have to write something. Luke Wilson died a few days ago, and the news hit me really hard. Hopefully this can clear up, for myself and anyone interested, just what he meant to me, and what’s going to change in my life now he has gone.

Pretty often I’d meet a juggler for the first time, and after a brief introduction, they would ask me: “Are you Luke Wilson?”

“No,” I’d say, “I’m the other British professional juggler who lives in Germany, has a German girlfriend, travels and performs around the world, hosts shows at many conventions, etc, etc… and who is also called Luke. I’m the tall skinny club juggler called Luke, and Luke is the small skinny club juggler called Luke.”

I can see where the confusion might arise. Luke and I acknowledged the confusion, and our position of being the two Lukes in the juggling world, with a our online rivalry both claiming to be the Real Luke.

Back in early 2001 I invented a ring trick. You place a ring on one ear, and with a shake of the head, you transfer it to the other ear. I showed it off in a best trick competition at the BJC 2001, and it got a good reaction. Other jugglers started calling it Luke’s Ear Ring Trick, which I thought was pretty cool. Then someone said they had seen Ian Merchant doing it a few months before. Which I also found pretty cool, as so many times two jugglers build on the same existing concept to come up with the same new trick.

After writing about this on my website, I got an email from Luke Wilson saying:

“What is the trick? If it involves hanging the ring on one ear, and then
flipping it around your face to a catch on the other, then the name is
correct :-)

If the trick is another: please expand details!


Luke (Not Barrage But Wilson)”

As you can see, right from the start, we had more in common than just our name. We’d both invented the same trick! The ambiguity of “Luke’s Ear Ring Trick” seemed to make sense. We stayed in contact from then on for various reasons, including the fact that people presumed that the email address would reach the Luke Wilson, and not the actual Real Luke (why would the non-Real Luke have the address?).

Later in 2001 I attended Luke and Ben Richter’s workshop at the London Juggling Convention called “Encyclopedia of Contemporary Club Juggling”. It inspired me to write up my thoughts about ring juggling in a similar categorical way, leading to The Endless Possibilities of Ring Juggling essay/workshop guide.

I could go on and on about the small ways Luke Wilson influenced and inspired me in my early years as a juggler. I’m sure everyone has similar stories. His presence in my life grew though, into a friendship. We weren’t as close friends as others, but we were good friends, and constant friends, due to the similar paths we’d chosen in life, and due to the similar paths life had chosen for us.

It’s only now Luke has died do I realize that Luke’s constant presence became the guide for my entire life. I never thought “If I could be like anyone, I’d be just like Luke Wilson!” and, as I said, so much of life is outside of anyone’s control.

But Luke was four years older than me, and so often the same number of years ahead of me in terms of his juggling career. Sometimes more, sometimes less, I guess. If ever I wondered if I was doing okay in my progression as a juggler, Luke’s life and career was my go-to guide to know I was on the right track.

Luke Wilson performed in the BJC public show in 2000 as a Gandini, and in 2003 in his Luka Luka double act with Ilka Licht. Well, once I’d performed in the same show, I knew I’d be on my way. In 2004 I performed in the BJC Public Show as a solo act, and headlined the Dutch convention gala show… but then I met Luke backstage at the EJC that same year, and he was performing his devilstick act. In the Gala show… for second year in a row, having already performed with Ilka in in the 2003 EJC Gala.

Well, not to worry, the EJC Gala was a still a few years off for me. Pola and I performed our double act in both the BJC and EJC Gala shows in 2006.

At Bamberg Zaubert, a street show festival, I noticed Luka Luka listed as a previous winner. Once Pola and I won the main competition, I sent Luke a message about it. His response?

“I won it twice, once with Ilka and once as a solo magician.”

12 months later, when Pola and I won the same competition for the second year in a row, I felt I could continue the conversation with Luke as an equal.

“Luka Luka” and “Luke and Pola”, two English-German juggling couple duo club juggling shows. Here’s Luke Wilson and Luke Burrage similarity trivia fun fact number 83: both Ilka and Pola, our respective juggling partners and first German girlfriends, lived in Aachen. Ilka also studied architecture, and Pola worked as a graphic designer for an architecture firm.

Of course, both of our relationships with our German juggling/life partners ended, and we both had to go through the same issues that brings up, professionally and otherwise. Thankfully Luke had gone through that years before me, and while I we didn’t talk about that in depth, I remember thinking “It won’t be a problem… Luke’s been there and done that, so I should aim to be as professional about it as he was.” Pola and I went on to perform our last contracted shows together, despite the pain and annoyance of breaking up, and we’ve stayed friends since. Both Luke and I found new German girlfriends (you know, because we both lived in Germany), and earlier this year he followed my lead, for once, moving to Berlin.

So it was never conscious decision to do what Luke did, but in any professional situation, Luke was my go-to guy. Often we’d chat online or in person, and our conversations would typically revolve around our common job and work. To be clear, our work was traveling. We had ongoing battles comparing how many flights we took per year… with the loser being the one who’d flown more times.

But our common job was performing juggling. We weren’t just jugglers, we were performing jugglers. I don’t remember a single conversation in the last 6 years about juggling itself, or any kinds of trick. It was all about performing. Which is good, because we could both talk endlessly about our views on performing and our approaches to stage craft.

Here’s a random exchange from Skype:

Luke Burrage: Just found a video on an old hard drive of you performing a club routine, outside, in the wind, with trees behind, and you’re wearing a pink top. When was this?
Luke Wilson: EJC Edinburgh opening show, 1998.
Luke Wilson: I think, to my shame, that I even hold up a moistened finger to indicate the wind…

Our onstage personas and juggling style differed in so many ways, with his based on crisp precision and mine on exuberant freedom. However, at the roots of both our shows we always found similar ideas and ideals, with both of use knowing the reason for every single element of our acts, and why we included or excluded simple things such as individual blinks or turns of our hands.

In 2008 I was in charge of the EJC open stage tent, and I decided to make a list of all the possible jugglers I knew I could rely on to host a show in a professional manner. I wanted someone who I knew could do a good job, and because I’d be busy doing other work, I wanted them to be able to do it without any input or help, and more importantly, would cause me no stress at all.

When I’d finished compiling that list, Luke Wilson’s name wasn’t just at the top of the list, it was the only name on the list. Just Luke. Nobody else I’d worked with before or since at juggling conventions came close to his level of preparedness and experience.

And so, of course, I spent some of my meager budget to make sure Luke would be there to host a show. In the end Pola and I only ran four of the open stage shows, so I hosted two, Pola one and Luke the other. Luke was, of course, utterly professional, so much so that we hardly had to talk about the show itself at all. Which is exactly how it should be! The technical crew of the open stage venue said that the four shows we put on were all better organized and presented than gala shows at other conventions.

At the EJC in 2010 I once again ran the Open Stage shows, and asked Luke Wilson to host again. Throughout 2008, 2010 and 2011 (when I was running the open stages at the EJC) I was always inviting new people to host shows, with varied results, some bad and some good. With Luke though, I knew that even his worst show would be good. I knew because everything he did, and every decision he took, and every way he responded on stage, was based on a strong foundation of technical performing knowledge and a deep understanding of the concepts and philosophies of being entertaining. This was backed up by a successful career as a professional juggler and show moderator.

So often I didn’t even have to ask Luke about a subject, it was good enough to consider “What would Luke do?” Then next time we chatted online it could be about Star Wars or bikes or all the other geeky interests we had in common.

What all this builds up to is why Luke’s death it me so hard. Like I said, we weren’t close personal friends, which is why I didn’t know he was struggling with cancer until a few days before he died. Our busy work and travel schedules rarely coincided enough to schedule social visits. But Luke was a good friend, and a constant friend.

The fact is, I always presumed Luke would be around, and I always presumed he’d be a few years ahead of me as a professional juggler. Time after time I’d perform somewhere, and Luke had performed there before me. At the Israeli Juggling Convention in 2002, I found it amusing how many jugglers were doing his style of club juggling, as he’d been there in 2001. Repeat this and other similar stories over 10 years, and I gained a huge appreciation on how treasured he was in the juggling world.

More recently, Luke taught at circus schools, and he directed a show at the Leipzig Krystalpalast. My unconscious presumption was that, within about four years, I’d also be teaching at circus schools and directing shows. It’s not something I’ve been actively pursuing, but because Luke has gone there before me, I kind of assumed that it was where I’d be heading in the future. I have my own projects and plans, of course, but it’s more on the level of what I can be proud of accomplishing.

Luke Wilson has always been the standard, or the yardstick, that I’ve used to measure my own progress. He hasn’t been my guide in terms of “I have to do what Luke does” but instead in terms of “how am I doing? (glance at Luke) Okay, I’m doing just fine.”

And now I don’t have guide. I’m now the only Luke who is a professional juggler from England living in Germany… with all the other similarities we shared, those we chose and those which just came with the job and life.

In four years time, I’ll have caught up with the end of Luke’s path ahead of me. I’ll be striking out without him. Our journey together, offset as it was, will end.

The reason I’m crying as I finish writing this is that I never told Luke how much he meant to me. Partially this is because he kept his suffering private, and I simply had no opportunity to explain all this.

But the main reason is that I didn’t even understand this all until he died. I didn’t just lose a someone, a friend, I lost something else I didn’t even realize I had until it was gone.

I thought that when a friend died I’d not mourn their death, but celebrate their life. I tried to do that with Luke, but all I could think about was Luke’s future and how much it meant to me. I didn’t understand my grief over the loss of Luke’s future for a few days, but I think I worked it out. It’s selfish, I know, this presumption that he’d always be Luke A and I’d always be Luke B. I was invested in Luke’s future in a way that can only come all the facets of life we shared, and I didn’t understand that until it was too late to tell him.

Now I’ve got to get on with life myself.

Thanks for reading.

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