Sporting scarlet wristbands, a bright yellow shirt and a hip pack emblazoned with the American flag, Alex Krempely ’13 carefully navigates his unicycle outside of the JRC. He rolls forwards and backwards, chasing a center of balance that is disrupted by his arms moving to catch the three balls that he is juggling. After a moment, a ball drops, and he comes down from the three-foot high unicycle, flashing a smile.
“Unicycling can be extremely painful,” Krempely said. “When I was learning, I had to do it in the dark so people couldn’t see me. I was always black and blue.”
While Krempely once had to sneak out at night to practice cycling in private, it is clear that he is now comfortable in the spotlight. In addition to performing a show every Friday during the noon hour, Krempely has applied for a Watson Fellowship to observe the ways that street artists relate to their communities in different countries.
Krempely’s introduction into the world of street performance has been novel. He only started juggling last year, and the unicycle was a gift from his parents for his 21st birthday. He says that he is wholly self-taught.
“The Internet has been a huge resource for learning—particularly YouTube,” Krempely said. “You can watch juggling tutorials in slow-motion over and over again.”
This summer, Krempely was able to hone both his juggling and bantering skills at the Bristol Renaissance Faire in northern Illinois.
“It was nerve-wracking at first,” Krempely said. “I had to attend six weeks of classes to learn about 16th century Elizabethan England so I could form a proper dialect and learn about the history…but once the Faire opened it was really a lot of fun. I spent hours on the weekend just walking around, talking to people, reciting Shakespeare and juggling.”
Back in Grinnell, Krempely performs outside of the JRC. The shows are a combination of his talents—juggling, unicycling and magic tricks. The show last week climaxed as Krempely tossed three burning torches over the prone body of an audience member.
“Juggling flame torches is the coolest,” Krempely said. “I learned over the course of the summer. I covered every part of me—wore a hat, gloves, jeans, long sleeves, everything. As time went by I would feel comfortable enough to shed layers.”
Krempely himself has never been burned, but he did learn that there are risks associated with the act.
“The first time I did it I dipped the torches in fuel and left the bottle next to me,” Krempely said. “Then my dog came over and started drinking from it. He didn’t have much, but we took him to the vet and they called poison control. Fortunately, he’s okay.”
Krempely has strived to get better at audience communication during his shows here.
“It’s all improv,” Krempely said. “I’m trying out different things. [In the past] I’ve limited myself to corny magic tricks. … I’ve been focusing on nonverbal communication—when I go to Mongolia, 90% of the people there don’t speak English.”
If all goes according to plan and he gets the Watson, Krempely will take his talents abroad after graduation next year. He will travel to places like Edinburgh, London and Paris where street performance is already a glorified form of art, as well as Brazil, where street performers choose the profession because it’s more profitable than panhandling.
“I will also go to Hong Kong where there is a conflict between police and street performers because it was recently legalized,” Krempely said.
His journey will end in Mongolia, where there currently is no street performance scene.
“I want to see if I can start a street performance culture,” Krempely said. “It will be interesting to see how I’m treated by store owners and government officials who have never seen it before. I may get arrested, robbed or ignored, or maybe I’ll create something really cool.”
The process of applying for the Watson has given Krempely the opportunity to reflect on what his new passions have meant to him.
“I realized that while performing is something I’ve always loved, street performance isn’t something that I fell in love with until about a year ago. It’s been a methodical and slow process. [But] there’s something about getting in front of people and making them laugh and smile,” he said. “It’s liberating, and an absolutely free form of expression.”
Krempely likes to practice juggling around campus, and consequently, he’s been approached many times by aspiring jugglers hoping for a quick lesson. Their requests are always met with a smile and a tip, perhaps because Krempely remembers that he himself was a beginner struggling to learn the basics not too long ago.
“The worst question to ask an artist is why they’re doing something,” Krempely said. “The real question is ‘why not?’ When I came back to school last year, I juggled tennis balls pretty poorly, but my friends were so supportive.”
Krempely hopes that everyone can discover the joy of learning and sharing their talents.
“Everyone has a special talent or hobby that deserves to be shared with the world,” he said.