In 1943, an American singer named Little Jack Little released a novelty song titled “I’ve Always Wanted to Waltz in Berlin,” the joke being that when he croons gentle, innocent-sounding things like “The way things look, we’ll be flying right in/Right into Germany/And we will drop down a present or three,” he means the bombs are coming.
Gandini Juggling, which is presenting its “Smashed” at the Kasser Theater at Montclair State University through Dec. 16 (as part of the Peak Performances series), uses this song at both the beginning and the end of the piece. At the beginning, it’s appropriate because the nine dancer/jugglers are formally dressed and move around the stage elegantly. And at the end, it works since quite a bit of chaotic violence has been unleashed.
Based in London, Gandini Juggling combines elements of theater, modern dance and, yes, juggling, resulting in something utterly unique. “Smashed” — an hour-long piece, making its American debut in Montclair — has moments of goofy humor. But it’s also a riveting spectacle, with the nine performers — seven men, including director Sean Gandini, and two women, including assistant director Kati Ylä-Hokkala — executing their routines with impressive precision.
The stage is bare except for nine chairs, 80 apples (initially sitting on the floor, in a grid), and four crockery sets. The apples get juggled and, eventually, eaten or smashed. Very little of the crockery survives intact, either.
It doesn’t look like that is where this all headed, at first, though. The performers are initially expressionless and project haughtiness. They glide around the stage like ballroom dancers who happen to be juggling, as “I’ve Always Wanted to Waltz in Berlin” is heard.
The juggling routines get more ambitious, and as the performers juggle and dance to other music — the soundtrack ranges from Vivaldi, Bach and Mozart to Tammy Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man” and The Ink Spots’ “That Cat Is High” — the action starts to get disturbing. Potential romantic suitors are rejected. One dancer is ostracized. The women are belittled by having to crawl across the stage as the men roll apples around their backs.
The carefully maintained order dissolves. Apples start to get dropped frequently while being juggled; the performers don’t seem to care. Soon they are smashing the apples, and pieces of crockery, intentionally and gleefully. The stage winds up looking like a tornado hit it.
And then, it’s back to the charming, unassuming “I’ve Always Wanted to Waltz in Berlin,” and the traditional show-biz bows.
What does “Smashed,” ultimately, mean? I can’t give you a simple answer beyond, obviously, a vision of polite society exploding in front of your eyes.
Still, I suspect its vivid images will stay with you for a long time, and I can guarantee that you’ll never see anything else like it.
Remaining performances of “Smashed” take place at the Kasser Theater at Montclair State University at 8 p.m. Dec. 15 and 3 p.m. Dec. 16. For information, visit peakperfs.org.