Being a professional juggler may seem to be an unlikely path for a Washington University graduate with a degree in German literature and an English language teaching certificate from the University of Cambridge.
But it’s the path Thom Wall has taken.
Wall spent the past year and a half performing in Japan in “Totem,” a Cirque du Soleil show about evolution, after a performer became injured. He performed 550 shows to crowds as large as 3,600 people.
When the show begins its European tour in August, Wall will be a permanent feature.
“There is an interesting process of re-engineering these moves,” Wall, 30, said of taking over the act.
Sitting at a table outside Kaldi’s Coffee in the DeMun neighborhood, just a few blocks from his alma mater, Wall leans in with his phone in hand to show a video of himself practicing a complex act in the show.
Neon-illuminated balls — each one is worth $1,500 — spiral around Wall “like electrons in an atom,” he said, as he stands at the apex of an inverted plastic cone.
Expressionless, Wall focuses on the two sets of seven balls traveling around him. One uncoordinated move could throw the whole rhythm off, which eventually it does. His damp looking, floppy brown hair dangles in front of his face as the balls fall to his feet.
After college, Wall moved to Colorado, where he taught juggling at a YMCA camp and performed in burlesque shows. Then he was invited to go on tour from Dallas to Portland, Ore., with a traveling side show. Among the other acts were performers who stuck sharp objects in places on the body one shouldn’t, he recalled. The road trip changed the course of Wall’s life.
The experience showed him his “acumen for stage performing,” he said, but he joked that his act — while skillful — was not as hardcore as the rest.
“Side show is not my calling. It’s a little too gritty, rock ’n’ roll for me,” said Wall, accenting his observation with a smile. “I was the family-friendly portion of the show.”
Wall’s style is more reminiscent of vaudeville acts of the 1920s with salon juggling or gentleman juggling, where the performer uses household objects instead of flaming torches.
One of Wall’s icons is gentleman juggler Felix Adanos. A grainy black-and-white video on YouTube shows him tossing up a hat, a bottle and a cane and catching the hat on his head before his assistant throws him another object.
Though the side show wasn’t quite Wall’s style, it gave him the gumption to seek out other professional performance groups and eventually led him to Cirque du Soleil.
Growing up in the St. Louis area, Wall said his interest in juggling bloomed while he was a student at Ladue Horton Watkins High School.
He taught himself how to juggle by reading books — an era before watching YouTube videos became a popular way to mimic a skill, he joked.
Infatuated with the art, Wall joined local clubs and, with a friend, started a juggling club and festival at Washington University.
Lucy Muller, a sophomore and president of the Washington University Juggling Club, said that five to 15 people attended club meetings. Most of the students come because they are interested in juggling as a hobby, she said. But others, such as Wall, become professionals.
“I’ve only met Thom briefly. I’m not sure how much influence he’s had on the club, but he brought it to Wash U, which is pretty significant, and he’s definitely the most notable of our alumni,” Muller said.
Wall later attended the New England Center of Circus Arts in Vermont, where he supplemented his interest in juggling with more training. He has won juggling awards, including placing second in a world championship competition.
Wall credits lots of practice — two to six hours a day — and a supportive community of teachers and performers for helping him progress.
“Soleil is definitely the touchstone people have for high-level performing,” Wall said, before briefly lamenting the end of the legendary Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.