Hadji Ali and David Blaine’s “Beyond Magic”

I spent this morning of the US Thanksgiving weekend eating leftovers, watching David Blaine’s “Beyond Magic” TV special, reading Jarrett and learning about Hadji Ali. First, I’d like to congratulate Mr. Blaine, Enrico de la Vega, Danny Garcia, Asi Wind, Brett Loudermilk and so many involved in this project for their superb work. The shamanistic, superhuman, yet also very human, themes in Blaine’s choice of material were compelling. Focusing on the space between magic and bizarre variety acts (sword swallowing, water spouting, bullet catching, mouth sewing and more) created ethically challenging moments. The special took exciting, disgusting and troubling risks. It also inspired me to spend part of the day researching one of the vaudeville era’s most mysterious and fascinating performers: Hadji Ali from Egypt.  Here is a wonderful clip of him drinking kerosene and breathing fire in a Spanish Laurel and Hardy remake called Politiquerías. Enjoy:

 

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A Spectacle of Magic, Witchcraft and Politics in South Korea

The winner of best Halloween costume for 2016 may be Choi Soon-sil, whose revelation as an influential shaman-like advisor to South Korean President Park Geun-hye has created a massive scandal. Here is a recent video of Soon-sil being mobbed by reporters:

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The political spectacle of this event is a mysterious one of Rasputin-like proportions.

From a North American vantage point, it is difficult to know exactly what is going on and what is being lost in translation. At least three things are clear:

First, there are protests and popular calls for President Guen-hye to step down due to accusations that advisor Soon-sil has had an inappropriate amount of influence upon the leader’s decisions. Second, the President’s popularity rating is now very low. It’s been reported in the 10%-20% range during the last week by a variety of news outlets. Finally, a discourse of witchcraft is being invoked in the political commentary surrounding this event. Law Professor Joung Hwang, affiliated with Korea’s Hangkuk University of Foreign Studies, described Soon-sil as “… a kind of witch who has bewitched our president and has managed to run the state affairs.”

Wow. Is this 2016? This talk of witchcraft and bewitchment sounds more like the language one might read in Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), a biography of Grigori Rasputin, or Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. To talk of witches certainly fuels the political spectacle of this event. It also seems like a superstitious and inflammatory statement, particularly coming from a professor of law. As I watch the video of the press mobbing Soon-sil above, I can’t help but see those continuous camera flashes as flames of fire. Burn her, they cry. She’s a witch!

Soon-sil will eventually be outed as a con artist who has done something fraudulent and illegal or not. Her story is certainly a mysterious and compelling one that has something to teach the us about belief and superstition in the 21st century. Labelling her a witch, however, is foolish.

Halloween was yesterday.

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Healthy Writing Habits Workshop at McGill this Friday, 10AM-12PM

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Click on the text above if you’d like to take my workshop this Friday at McGill’s GRAPHOS writing centre for grad students and postdocs. I’m stretching right now as I think about how rewarding it is to treat the body and the mind as equal partners in the writing process.

 

 

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Two Years of Magic at the National Circus School

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I had a great time today sharing highlights from two years of practice-based research at Montréal’s National Circus School (NCS) and giving some glimpses into current projects. It was quite special to have Una Bennett (a current student), Kerttu Pussinen (a circus pro and collaborator) and Anna-Karyna Barlati (head of the library) speak about the various magic projects we work on together. The NCS, its SSHRC Industrial Research Chair for Colleges in circus arts, Patrick Leroux’s Montréal Working Group on Circus, the TOHU, and En Piste continue to be amazingly supportive partners in exploring how to adapt the performing art of magic to other circus disciplines. 

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Magic in France (p.2) — Magie Nouvelle in Châlons-en-Champagne

 

 

@Sebatien Normand

I’d dreamed of visiting this French circus school for four years to learn more about its magie nouvelle (“new magic”) programme. Earlier this month, I finally got my chance. Its name translates to the National Centre for the Circus Arts, but I’ll use its native acronym here and just call it the CNAC, Châlons-en-Champagne. The CNAC is one of the world’s few state-funded circus schools from which students graduate with a diploma in the circus arts. It is the only school I know, which uses government funding to offer a one-year certification program in “new magic” — an interdisciplinary hybrid of traditional magic techniques and contemporary circus. What’s even more impressive is that a few years ago the CNAC turned military funding into circus funding — by reallocating a windfall of euros previously used for armaments to fund a huge expansion of its circus arts buildings. This transformation of arms into arts is beautiful. Maybe instead of shooting one another we should be performing for one another?

You can see many stunning photos of the 2015 expansion in a French architecture article here. Below are some of my snapshots of the CNAC library and la boite noire, “the black box.”

1-fullsizerenderI would like to thank Gérard Fasoli, Cyril Thomas, Barbara Appert-Raulin, Jeanne Vasseur, and the entire CNAC team for being wonderful hosts during my research visit. I would also like to thank Patrice Aubertin and the National Circus School (NCS henceforth) of Montreal for making this research trip possible. The CNAC library contains over 300 magic texts, including rare, French-language and magie nouvelle items that are hard to find elsewhere. I spent three days reading, watching and taking as many notes as I could onsite. My final treat was a peek inside the black box magie nouvelle creation space:

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As Gordon Bean and Bill Goodwin once wrote: “No door is as fascinating as the locked one.”I can’t tell you exactly what’s inside, but I will say that it’s a collection of very exciting research and development tools. The future of magic and circus experiments is bright thanks to schools like the CNAC and the NCS in Montreal.

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Circus, Quantum Mechanics, Magic: Collaboration w/Kerttu Pussinen

 

I’m excited to announce a collaboration with National Circus School graduate and professional Finnish circus artist, Kerttu Pussinen. Just two years after graduating from the NCS, Kerttu is working on her first solo show — Particle # B. The show will use circus arts, magic effects and more to visualize principles of physics and quantum mechanics. This is exactly the kind of interdisciplinary experimentation that motivates me as a magic consultant, so I am thrilled to be part of the show’s creative team. With generous support from the Finnish Cultural Foundation and the TOHU, Particle # B begins its first creation residency in Montréal on October 1st, 2016. Kerttu and I will be speaking about our collaboration at the Fields Institute for Research in Mathematical Sciences this Thursday evening in Toronto.  Please click here to RSVP if you would like to attend this LASER Toronto event.* It would be lovely to see Toronto friends there. In particular, I would like to encourage those of you with a strong interest in physics, quantum mechanics and the performing arts to attend.

* Special thanks to the facilitators of this free event for making our participation possible: Antje Budde (Digital Dramaturgy Lab, Institute for Digital Humanities in Performance at the Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies), Nina Czegledy (LASER/Leonardo Network), Roberta Buiani (ArtSci Salon, Fields Institute), and Don Sinclair (Computational Arts at York University).

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Magic in France (p.1) — Deceptive Arts in Cerisy-la-Salle

The first busy weeks of September have begun, but I’m often still thinking about the wonderful research trip I had in France from August 21st to September 4th. It was so inspiring that I’ll be making a few posts this month to share what I learned in Cerisy-la-Salle, Châlons-en-Champagne, and Paris.

First, I’d like to thank Jean-Marc Larrue, Giusy Pisano, and Frank Kessler for their kind invitation to spend nearly a whole week sharing academic magic research at the historic chateau of Cerisy-la-Salle, France. What a place to write and think! Their research group — The Deceptive Arts — is filled with historians from a variety of disciplines and countries who are working on magic as either a performing art or a cultural concept.

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I gathered a wealth of new information from these fascinating people. All of our papers will be published in French and our oral presentations were recorded by the Centre culturel international de Cerisy-la-Salle. All quite exciting for a longtime francophile like myself.

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The Magic Table: A Miniature Stage

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Here is the minimalist and portable magic table that I’ve been working on for months as a side project. After considering dozens of different retail tables and construction plans, I decided to build my own using strong, light and elegant material. The stand is designed to hold the weight of a keyboard and can be adjusted to various heights or folded completely flat.The board is 1/2 an inch of Russian pine. The surface is black velvet plush. I wanted to create a large performance space (20″ by 40″) to make a close-up magic stage that would also be suited to small-pitch work on the street or indoors. I’m considering adding a simple frame or some decorative trim to the edges of the table, but there is something nice about a simple and thin design. It conveys openness and makes the appearance, disappearance and transformation of objects more magical. If others have favorite tables for this kind of performance, I’d love to see them.

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“Magic and the Supernatural”

 

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I’ll be giving a public presentation based on my most recent research and magic consultation project next week. This praxis performance will include supernatural magic effects inspired by my childhood experiences at a spiritual summer camp, Harry Houdini’s 1926 anti-spiritualist exposé at McGill University, and my collaboration on the new media webseries Houdini and Doyle: World of Wonders. All are welcome to attend and to participate in an open discussion after the talk.

Click here or on the image above for event details and the link to RSVP. 

 

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Jazz, Technique and Oliver Jones

“Even a single note can swing.”

— Count Bassie

“Everything has a touch.”

— Dai Vernon

I had the distinct pleasure of watching jazz legend Oliver Jones play songs like “Gershwin Medley” at his final performance for the Montreal Jazz Festival on Thursday. A master is retiring. The hands of Jones, mentored by the late, great Oscar Peterson, have a sort of superhuman dexterity when they touch the piano. The sound of him playing was magical, transporting the ears and minds of roughly 1,900 people at the sold out Maison symphonique. Watching a virtuoso perform with that level of technique at 81 is inspiring. “Gershwin Medley” makes me think about three things that link jazz and magic as performing arts: the touch of a master, the hours of dedicated practice required to achieve it, and the delicate art of adding new personality to classics.

Watching Spanish magician Juan Tamariz perform in Sacramento in 1997 was the first time I saw the hands of a master magician performing up-close and in person. It’s difficult to describe, but I think that spectators instinctively sense when they are watching a master perform based on the way the tools are handled. For Oliver Jones, it’s the piano. For Tamariz, it’s the deck of playing cards. The difference, of course, is that the jazz pianist displays overt skill and the magician displays overt effects — magic — while concealing skill. Despite this contrast, spectators see both performers handle instruments and are often able to judge whether or not the artists’s interactions with those objects are masterful. As magic master Dai Vernon put it so beautifully: “Everything has a touch.” To develop a touch similar to that of Jones or of Tamariz, however, requires a lifetime of practice.

David Ben has written extensively on the work of Dai Vernon and was mentored by Canadian master magician Ross Bertram. Years ago, Ben wrote a post about “dedicated practice” as an approach for acquiring a high level of technical skill. The phrase doesn’t mean just logging many hours, but doing so with keen attention to structure and reflection to correct mistakes in the rehearsal studio. I think of this as the more one practices, the better one must get at practicing efficiently — or practice smarter, not harder.

For me, watching Ben perform Bertram’s magic is like watching Jones perform Peterson’s music. I never saw Bertram or Peterson perform live. They each passed away before I had the chance to see them, but I love reading, watching and listening to recordings of their work. Their material, in the hands of their students, combines the past touch of the master with the current touch of the protégé.

In both magic and music, I see the newer generation paying homage to the one before while carefully adding their own personalities — their own touch.

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