An Invitation from the Newberry Library for the Transcription of Early Modern Magic Texts

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Chicago’s Newberry library is crowd-sourcing the transcription of a number of its texts. The collection that I’m immediately drawn to, of course, was recently mentioned on the Open Culture website. Click on the image above to read about the projects details and to try your hand at a little magical transcription.


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Pícaro at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in NYC

BAC 2 6 April 2018

After an initial creation residency, Pícaro had its first public showing at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in Manhattan last night. This has been a wonderful exploration period with Carlos Alexis Cruz, Alicia Martinez Alvarez, Shamou Mou and the BAC team. It’s been an exciting challenge to combine circus, Mexican mask, magic, and theatre to create a story about immigration. I would like to thank the Princess Grace Foundation and the BAC for supporting this international collaboration.

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Illusion en jeu in Toulouse

Lido Toulouse atelier de magie 30 March 2018.jpg crop small

This is how much I loved teaching, presenting and performing at L’Illusion en jeu: techniques — outils — histoire / Illusion at Play: Techniques — Tools — History colloquium organized by Frédéric Tabet and friends. Clicking on the link above will take you to the full program of events. It was a thought-provoking mixture of academic and artistic explorations of how illusions are created and what is at stake, culturally, when we encounter them. I only have a few moments to make this post, so I will restrict it to only the first and final days of the week (Monday and Friday).

On Monday, March 25, Dr. Tabet kicked everything off with a thoughtful introduction and parlour magic performance exploring what the phrase illusion en jeu can mean. The goal of the week, as I understood it, was to bring artists, scholars, and performance specialists in various media together to examine how illusions in the performing arts function (in various media, time periods, cultures and more). Some of the meanings of the French phrase where expressed quite beautifully in the 16mm films screened and commented upon at the impressive ENSAV (École Nationale Supérieure d’Audiovisuel) by Sebastien Ronceray. Norm McLaren’s “A Chairy Tale” (1957) was one of my favorite selections of the evening, because it expresses both the playfulness, power relations and mutual compromise that makes the experience of the impossible . . . possible.

[Please see the programme for the excellent events that took place on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday]

Friday, March 30, was a whirlwind. It began with an early trip to La Grenarie where, from 9:30AM to 12:30PM, I taught a magic workshop to 15 students from the professional training program at the LIDO circus school. I was impressed with the creativity and passion of this group and would like to thank Sophie Cosnard, Marie Céline Daubagna, and Francis Rougemont for introducing me to their beautiful circus world in Toulouse. After the workshop, and a speedy lunch, I met fellow panelist and FISM grand prize winner Pierric Tenthorey and Dr. Tabet in the chapiteau for our afternoon panel. It was wonderful to see such a mix of professional artists-in-training, magic academics, film scholars and others in the audience. I spoke about Houdini’s performance of a suspended straitjacket escape in Toronto in 1916 and how it informed our adaptation of this stunt for the web series Houdini and Doyle: World of Wonders. Pierric then gave a fascinating talk — Dans la fabrique de l’illusion / In the Illusion Factory — about his approach to magic creation with illustrations from his projects including his one-man show: Homme encadré sur fond blanc

After the rich discussion that followed, we headed to the Cinémathèque de Toulouse where Dr. Tabet played the magical master of ceremonies for a series of magic performances and films that were open to the public. He, Pierric and I performed magic effects before the screening of the films with a performative reading of L’Hypothèse du tableau volé (1978) by magic historian Thibaut Rioult.

This is only a small glimpse into the intellectual and artistic exchanges made possible by this event. For the sake of brevity, I’ve necessarily had to leave out many of my favorite experiences. I’ve also neglected to mention that Dr. Tabet moved mountains to save his conference from disaster when his host university was shut down by a huge student strike in Toulouse. I felt very lucky to have been reunited with old friends, to have met new ones, and to have finally visited Toulouse — a magical city.

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Ricky Jay on Masters of the Magic Lantern

This New Yorker contribution by Ricky Jay on magic lanterns and phantasmagoria is a fun read. Last night I toured the Parisian catacombs, which has me thinking about Étienne-Gaspard Robert. If you like Jay’s article, then learning about Robert’s phantasmagoria shows at the end of the 1700s in Paris is a must:

RJ on Magic Lanterns

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The Task of the Magic Translator

I’ve completed 1,000 words of a magic translation and I’m thinking of Walter Benjamin. He says that a translation “issues from the afterlife” of the original. For him the translated work causes a “flowering” of the origin text. How wonderful it is to be part of a text’s reincarnation. Now when I sit down to work, I see modest new buds sprouting from the original. They render at least part of the spirit of the text visible, blooming, in a language that will always be connected to its roots. By the end, I can only hope to have added life to one of many enchanted gardens.

Illustration for E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Golden Pot” made by Indre Selenyte

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Winter rehearsal

Winter rehearsal 26 November 2017

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Optical Illusion Sculpture

This cool new addition to Concordia University’s campus was created by Anthony Howe:

The hypnotic optical illusion that it’s based on is similar to Buugeng (aka S-staff) manipulation. Multiplying the s-staffs and placing them into a flower-like configuration as a piece of motion-based urban art was smart. You can see this at the corner of Maisonneuve and Mackay.

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Una Bennett’s Magic Touch: Aerial Rope Manipulation

MAGGOT GROOVIN’ from Una Bennett on Vimeo.

Una Bennett’s act is full of surprises, personality and rockin’ rope manipulation. About two years ago, Una asked me to teach her rope magic (the traditional kind with a small rope) and explore ways to adapt magician-like manipulation techniques to her tool: that fat ‘ol corde lisse in the sky. We didn’t have much time together (about 20 hours) and no budget for special materials. So we focused on basic technique: sleight-of-hand adapted to sleight-of-body.

Here’s a clip of Una essentially throwing her body into what magicians may recognize as a one-handed knot:

Morning magic! #cordegroovin #circusinternational

A post shared by Una (@unabennett) on

Magic technique was only one small part of Una’s extensive training at Montreal’s National Circus School. A full roster of amazing teachers — Johanne Madore, Sarah Poole, Eliane Domanski and more — helped her to build on the impressive skill-set and artistic personality that Una brought with her when she moved to Montreal. She trained with Circus Smirkus for years and in her hometown of Seattle too. I feel very lucky to work among these talented people in the circus community.

Now that Una has graduated and is touring the world, you can see her performing in Europe with Circus Monti’s Dreambox show.

If you go, watch her act closely. You just might see a knot appear, vanish or some other unique aerial rope manipulation that reveals a magic touch.

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Teaching Magic at the McCord’s Camp ABRACADABRA

McCord Abracadabra grand spectacle 14 July 2017

It’s not the magician who teaches the children. It’s the children who teach the magician.

I had a great time working with the McCord Museum’s education team to teach over 100 different mini-Montrealers how to perform magic onstage this summer as part of their ABRACADABRA camps.* This series of week-long summer camps was inspired by the ILLUSIONS exhibition. The exhibition contains beautiful chromolithograph posters from the Allan Slaight collection acquired with help from the Emmanuelle Gattuso Foundation. Each week, the ABRACADABRA kids took a tour of this magnificent collection as part of their discovery of Montreal’s entertainment history. They then worked with me and their camp counselors (Skippy, Scala, Echo, Stein and Marc-André) to learn a new effect or two each day as preparation for their “Grand Spectacle” at the end of the week. As part of preparing for this big show for their friends and family, they learned fine motor skills, creative brainstorming techniques, performance vocabulary, public speaking skills and how to interact with audience members onstage.

I’d like to thank David Ben, Julie Eng and their charitable organisation Magicana for training me to work with their My Magic Hands team during my graduate school years in Toronto. I had experience teaching individuals and very small groups magic due to my end-of-highschool job as a demonstrator at Grand Illusions magic shop. However, it was working with Julie Eng, Suley Fattah and James Alan that I learned how to teach sleight-of-hand to larger groups of kids (sometimes as many as 30 or 40 at once) while coordinating with a larger team of magic coaches and volunteers. We worked with at-risk youth, children at Bloorview Rehabilitation Hospital and kids at Camp Oochigeas who all taught me a lot about overcoming obstacles, perseverance and what a magical moment can be.

Of course, the kids in Montreal taught me new lessons this summer too: clarity, joy and the power of overcoming fear through friendship onstage. The ABRACADABRA kids reminded me everyday to be as clear as possible when demonstrating techniques. Children are mirrors. They reflect back almost exactly what you show them. You have to model what you’d like them to do 100% of the time. Children are also tough yet extremely rewarding spectators. They love it when you perform something great, when they have a learning breakthrough, and when they get their moment to shine. Sharing those wonder-filled moments with them is inspiring. Finally, these kids reminded me that one of the secrets to overcoming stage fright is going onstage with a friend or getting used to it a little bit at a time. In one of our rehearsals, a little girl was forlorn and terrified by the idea of performing onstage. I told her that it was fine if she didn’t perform, but I could really use her help crossing the stage silently with magic posters to announce her friends. By the end of the show, she was so accustomed to walking onstage and looking at the audience that she chose to perform after all. She didn’t want to miss out on the fun! Some of the other kids found strength and joy by going on as a duo or trio. All of these variations on the single performer model added variety to our “Grand Spectacle” at the end of each week.

Who knows? Twenty years from now one of these little magicians might have their own magic poster up in town.

*Special thanks to Suzanne Sauvage, Sylvie Durand, Dominique Trudeau, Sophie Viennot and Christian Vachon at the McCord Museum.

McCord Abracadabra posters 14 July 2017

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Magic Broadcast Interview with Circus Artist Mick Holsbeke

I recently interviewed National Circus School graduate and clown extraordinaire Mick Holsbeke about learning Yann Frisch’s award-winning FISM act “Baltass.” Mick is performing magic in the “magie nouvelle” show Rêveurs définitifswhich you can see at the Just For Laughs festival in Montreal until July 29. You can listen to the interview by visiting or by clicking on the photo below:

Mick Brook John Joe at Musee McCord 25 July 2017 copy

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