Entertainer Cyril Rabbath juggles his priorities

Cyril juggles in France

By Amy Sokolow
Medill Reports

With low-slung string lights, posters of 20th-century French vixens on the exposed brick walls, tiny, expensive drinks with their names printed on tarot cards, and wait times up to two hours, The Drifter is buzzing with chatter on a Friday night but falls silent as Cyril Rabbath takes the stage. Dressed in trousers and a tank top, with a small man-bun perched on his head, the 39-year-old wows the rapt crowd as he gracefully rolls balls across his arms, balances them on his head, and maintains complete control over his body. “I improvise all these little gigs,” he said after the five-minute show. Judging by the audience’s generous applause, no one could tell.

Rabbath said he was never suited to Paris, where he was raised by artist parents. He’s always found the city’s environment too stressful, and its people too rushed. “They don’t have time to just be,” he said. At 13, he accompanied his musician father to a summer music festival in eastern France, where he saw a small circus troupe, Cirque Ephémère (“ephemeral circus”), that showed him a pathway to a different lifestyle. “You’re in your home in a trailer, and … you open the door, outside, it’s different,” he said. “Because one day you’re in a ski station, and one day you’re in a big city, and one day you’re by the ocean.” That’s the lifestyle teenage Rabbath wanted. He had found a more authentic way to live, untethered to the hustle of the city, or to an apartment. He decided that summer to join the circus.

The following summer, he worked as a stagehand for the troupe, dressed in costume but devoid of onstage responsibilities. He wanted to do more. The next summer, when he was 15, he taught himself to juggle and performed a short routine. Though he had been proud of the novice act at the time, “When I look back, that was not good at all,” he said. But because it was such a small circus, “there’s so much permission for humanity, to be yourself, to be human, and have the audience recognize the poetry of the human being.” He was hooked.

Practice makes perfect

After intentionally flunking out of high school and briefly attending a Parisian circus school, Rabbath spent years refining his act the hard way, teaching himself, with hours upon hours of practice, to become one of the best performers in the world at juggling with an even number of balls. Even numbers are more difficult to juggle with because each hand manages two balls at a time instead of one, so almost all jugglers stick with odd numbers. Even numbers, however, create a square shape in the air, something audiences aren’t used to seeing. Rabbath spent years on the road with this act: first as a street performer in the south of France, then touring the world with productions in countries like Germany, China, Russia, and Belarus. His special technique, along with his dance fusion style where he balances balls on his limbs and head (“contact juggling”), won him accolades and eventually a spot as Cirque du Soleil’s solo juggler, Rabbath’s biggest goal as a young artist.

Once he got that role, though, he was in his mid-30s, a different person than the 18-year-old who conceived that dream. The restless artist in him struck after only a few months of touring. “My mission in life is to change,” he said. “Because if I don’t change, I become boring, I become irrelevant, I don’t have anything more to offer as an artist. An artist is constantly reinventing themselves to come up with new ideas.” His next reinvention? Settling down.

A meeting of the minds

While on a leg of the tour in Chicago, Rabbath and some other performers stopped by a clairvoyant school in Lakeview for a free reading. And that was when he met Kelly Dunn, a clairvoyant who gave him an energy reading. Rabbath’s first impression of her was that “she was literally glowing gold. The only one time I had such a vivid, psychic experience.” Her first impression of him was a bit different. As she observed this “super tall” man, dressed in black shorts, pink socks, and a pink-and-white-striped tank top, “time slowed down a little and … I thought to myself, ‘What a strange bird,’” she said. They were engaged eight days later.

Kelly and Cyril Rabbath, married for seven years now, maintain separate careers as artists. She is an erotic dancer and lap dance instructor, and he is a juggler (of course), podcaster and motivational speaker, using lessons learned from his career to explore themes of flexibility and acceptance. They’ve settled into a comfortable rhythm in Chicago, but never too comfortable. “It’s like kind of constantly ebbing and flowing between finding creative balance and then making big messes to create something, and then cleaning it up again,” Kelly Rabbath said. The pair sometimes collaborate on performance art projects, which often entail her painting on him.

They both acknowledge that marriage with another artist is never boring. “We’re always challenging things,” Cyril Rabbath said. “‘Why are we doing this way? Why not that way?’ It can be exhausting because it’s a lot, but it’s a wonderful way to grow and keep growing.”

After all these years performing, he still challenges himself onstage too, which often leads to mistakes. Since he believes connecting with the audience is more important than impressing them with big flourishes, he goes for the difficult tricks. “I want to wow them with something that’s actually really incredible to do and took me 15 years to master, that even nowadays, when I do it, I still take a risk because I did not master it entirely,” he said. “Sometimes I drop the ball, and it’s totally part of the magic.”

That night at The Drifter, exactly that happened as he attempted to cross two balls behind the nape of his neck. Without skipping a beat, he scooped the ball from an audience member’s outstretched hand, feigned feeling faint with a dramatic hand gesture to his forehead, and continued juggling, to raucous applause. “I don’t want things to be perfect. I don’t want this to be like a TV show. It’s live. It’s real,” he said. “You can’t reproduce that.”

Photo at top: Cyril Rabbath poses in the south of France during his stint in a street performing company. (Courtesy of Jordan Matter)