The Intimacy of Performing Magic

Today, I nearly cried at “work.” I was hired to perform close-up and parlour magic at a chateau (on lovely grounds) for a family gathering. The mother, father, and their extended family and friends were all celebrating the son’s completion of a doctorate in dentistry and the beginning of his career. We all ate together and in-between each course it was my job to amaze and enchant for a set. The moment that got me, sitting in this room filled with complete strangers, is when the father said a few words about how proud he is of his son’s achievement. He said a line about how hard his son had worked, the difficulties he’d overcome, and then he choked up (silently crying). I had the impression of a quiet, respectful man, who rarely showed such emotion in public. His wife came over and stood by him for support. He finished his speech and the feast went on. How lucky are we performers? Sometimes people we barely know, or have never met, invite us to add beauty and wonder to heighten events that are already highlights in their lives. Sometimes, like I did today, we see them expressing their love for one another in ways that some of their own family members only see a few times in their lives. It’s a gift.

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Montréal Complètement Cirque, Journal Entry, 10 July 2018

The population of circus artists, students, companies, programmers, academics, and industry movers and shakers in Montreal balloons during the wonderful Montréal Complètement Cirque festival every year. From July 5-15, 2018, a cornucopia of free outdoor shows (Les Minutes Completement Cirque, Phénix, and others) and indoor programming allow spectators to see world class circus for a fraction of its usual, exported, cost.

I was about fourteen when I saw my first touring Cirque du Soleil show in a big top tent in Berkeley, California. Driving from Sacramento to  The show was Quidam, still my favorite from CdS, and John Gilkey was the ringmaster. Seeing a contemporary circus show originally crafted in Quebec was a foundational experience for me and my best friend who performed magic shows with me throughout high school. It was his parents who bought our tickets and drove us to the show as a special treat. So, days like today, I remember exactly how spoiled I am to be immersed in the professional worlds of circus, magic and the flourishing capital of alternative performance arts in Montreal. To share an idea of the fascinating strata of contemporary strata that are on display and accessible every July in Montreal, I’ll give a thumbnail sketch of two events I was able to attend yesterday.

After sneaking in a little early-morning editing and writing time, I headed to Concordia University where The Montreal Working Group on Circus, students and teachers from Montreal’s National Circus School, attendees of the International Market of Contemporary Circus, and those enrolled in Dr. Patrick Leroux’s “Experiential Learning in Contemporary Circus Practice” seminar had gathered. The morning session began with an intermedial performance (sound, tightrope, movement) lead by Claudel Doucet and performed by Sorell Nielson, Joel Malkoff, and Jesse Harris in the public space of Concordia’s EV building. We then proceeded to one of the University’s theaters where we watched a showing of two experimental choreography sets. The first was lead by Michael Watts and focused on the theme of precarious balance. Here is a micro clip:

All of these performance experiments (if I understood correctly) where created on a compressed timeline of 8-10 hours with the directors and students involved. Above, Katharine Scarvelis, Luisina Rosas, Louana Seclet, Angel Solis Valdez, Joel Malkoff, Sorell Nielson and Jesse Harris began an experiment that rendered invisible points of balance visible . . . almost tangible. We then saw choreographies created by these students under the direction of  clown expert Jesse Dryden, which focused on the tension and relaxation of circus being performed with and near empty, half full, and full glasses of water. The moment an empty glass was successfully passed from Luisina rolling in her German Wheel to Louana balanced on her Washington trapeze brought a cheer from the nerve-wracked audience.

A panel discussion on the topic of graduate and post-graduate circus research as it relates to circus artists and productions followed. Dr. Patric Leroux asked a panel composed of MA, PhD, and postdoctoral researchers from a variety of fields questions about their research, how they conducted it in professional artistic settings, and what such studies give to the circus arts (From left to right below: Geneviève Dupéré, Dr. Jessica Kendall, Alisan Funk, Dana Dugan, and Dr. Marie-Eve Skelling Desmeules).

After a fifteen-minute lunch, I headed to Cirque du Soleil headquarters at the invitation of a friend to see some industrial research being conducted there with graduates of the National Circus School and international circus professionals. I enjoyed the unplanned contrast of moving from an academic practice-based research setting to an industrial one in the space of a few hours. That evening, I was lucky enough to catch the premiere of Bazaar — the new CdS touring show that is about to travel to India. For those who don’t know, all CdS shows are created at headquarters in Montreal before going abroad. A small press release re: Bazaar came out a couple weeks ago:


The show is an impressive spectacle that’s ready to dazzle spectators here and abroad. At intermission, I was able to shake the hand of a CdS founding father, Gilles Ste-Croix to thank him for all that he’s done for circus locally and internationally. My head was still spinning by the time I got back to my place in Outremont last night. It’s been quite a journey from Quidam to Bazaar.

Today, it starts all over again. I’m heading back to the MICC panels, research, and then to Jaime Atkins A Fool’s Errand tonight at the TOHU. A lot of coffee is making this possible:

To understand performance, you must constantly watch performances.

Montreal is one of the best cities in the world to do that.

Come see for yourself sometime.

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The Risk of Circus Studies by Madeline Hoak

I’m delighted to be quoted in the company of many thoughtful and daring colleagues in this article about the history of circus in higher education. Thank you, Madeline Hoak for the work your doing and for sharing it with the world:

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Derren Brown on The Magicians’ Podcast

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I would like to thank Richard Young, The Magic Circle and others who made The Magicians’ Podcast possible. I love listening to podcasts and audiobooks when I’m traveling long distances or running errands. However, there are very few audiobooks devoted to the conjuring arts out there and only a handful of magic podcasts. Clicking on the link above will take you to a fascinating 2-hour interview with Darren Brown as well as 72 other episodes. I’ve listened to all of them now and appreciate the diverse perspectives they document from demonstrators, retailers, convention organizers, television writers, producers, performers of all kinds of magic (close-up, parlor and stage) and others. Since Richard Young is based in London, these focus on the UK scene and offer a thumbnail sketch of major players, productions and politics active in that part of the globe from 2015-2016. Check them out and let’s hope that more of this kind of magic-world audio content makes its way into the world.

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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

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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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