Faces in the CrowdBy Rob Volansky
The Great Ballini
Juggling personal relationships and careers in the arts brought Stefan Bell from his native Hungary to Canada, America, and then to a small town in central Hokkaido where he’s still juggling…and much more.
At age14, Stefan Bell taught himself to write right-handed, begging the obvious question. Why? “Well, I already knew how to write left-handed,” he says, as though this a natural thing for a kid to do. “I just wanted the challenge.”
Fast-forward to 2007. Now 59, Stefan is fitter than many men half his age. He works on his juggling act two to three hours a day, five days a week, continually perfecting well-worn tricks and adding new ones to his repertoire. He changes the show every few years just to keep things fresh. But this passion is not just for fun.
“Juggling nurtures both sides of the body, both sides of the brain,” he explains. “It’s not heavy physically, but it requires strength and concentration.” No doubt learning new skills with both hands appeals to that 14-year-old inside of him. Beyond personal satisfaction, though, Stefan has taken his talent one step further by teaching juggling to people with disabilities, providing them with both joy and the tools to be more functional.
Performance itself is another aspect Stefan enjoys. He performs everywhere from small town festivals in Hokkaido to high-pressure corporate gigs. However, his once flawless exhibitions now average one to three mistakes per 40-minute set. Perhaps its age, but he nonetheless discusses this with a positive attitude. “Covering mistakes has forced me to work on another skill – humor.”
Jack of all trades
Stefan has always been a performer of sorts. An early talent with the brushes drew him into a brief stint as a muralist, most notably leaving a massive painting on a wall in Vancouver that stood as a landmark of urban art. But the career never got off the ground, and he ended up in Taos, New Mexico, where an attraction to natural forms of construction led him to build an adobe (mud plaster) home under the tutelage of an expert. Stefan took to it quickly.
“People would drive by and see the house. Word got out, and before I knew it, I had a new profession.” How many people do you know who backed into a career in adobe building?
As with juggling, there is a reason for his choice. He explains the details of straw-bale insulation and mud plastering as being easy to learn, environmentally sound and enriching for the builder. And, somehow, he makes it all sound like fun.
The blend of physical and spiritual aesthetics has long followed Stefan, from gymnastics and springboard diving as a young man, to tae kwon do and cycling in his middle years and the juggling and building he does today. He also worked in the classroom as an art teacher, and he feels as though performance is a logical next step after teaching. Painting and piano are hobbies he has pursued off and on for most of his life. His interests are broad and his talents are many.
Home and away
“To be honest with you, I’d basically describe myself as a handyman,” Stefan said. His wife Kate is a professional pottery maker. Together they run a three-pronged business in the town of Mikawa in Central Hokkaido. Kate’s creations are for sale in one area, and the import gallery offers goods from places such as Indonesia and Morocco.
Off the front deck is a coffee shop with a menu featuring homemade blends and organic desserts. In addition to renovating and mud plastering the import gallery section of the building, Stefan is constantly improving and tinkering with the grounds and structure. The whole place is unbearably stylish, warm and cute.
Our winding conversation takes us to the future, but Stefan is making no plans. He and Kate spend three months of each winter in New Mexico, where he is steadily building a home. With import ties in—and an affinity for—Bali, they could see themselves wintering there as well. But the thriving business in Mikawa makes Japan more or less permanent, and Stefan is happy with that.
Among other things about living in rural Hokkaido, he says, “I love onsen…and I like the fact I can leave my car unlocked.”
What’s in a name
Steady juggling jobs keep him active. Toward the end of our conversation we talk about his stage character, “Ballini,” and I ask about the name, expecting to be told of some little known 17th century Italian jester when Stefan becomes a bit sheepish.
“Well, you know, ball, as in juggling balls. And then I wanted something that sounded vaguely Italian, so…voila…Ballini, which became The Great Ballini.”
Perhaps not as inspiring as some of his other achievements, yet there is certainly something sublime about the simplicity of it. Many jugglers work hard on their persona, but Stefan says he has spent very little time on that part of his act. The bald head and the seven earrings go a long way in the costume department, but his engaging personality and warm smile likely have more to do with it than anything else.
As I am getting ready to leave, we are messing around with kendama (a traditional wooden toy attached to a string with a ball on the end) of various sizes in his practice space in the import gallery. He is showing me some tricks, and his agility with the contraption and his ability to impart its secrets seem effortless.
We then head out to the parking lot, and he gives me a hug before I get in the car. As I pull away, I cannot help but hope that a little of that “Ballini” magic has rubbed off.
The Great Ballini / Café Bennu
Getting There: Take Route 274 from Sapporo heading toward Mikawa and Hidaka. Near Mikawa, look for the homemade brown Café Bennu sign. Take a right, it’s about a kilometer down the road on the right.
Tel: (0123) 87-3929