Jean Baudrillard, The Transparency of Evil
I have just found my motto.
Henceforth I shall call myself not an 'illusionist', but a 'delusionist'.
I won't 'illude', I will 'delude'.
As in: "Ladies and Gentlement, for my next delusion...'
‘Since the world is on a delusional course, we must adopt a delusional standpoint towards the world.’
Jean Baudrillard, The Transparency of Evil
I have just found my motto.
Henceforth I shall call myself not an 'illusionist', but a 'delusionist'.
I won't 'illude', I will 'delude'.
As in: "Ladies and Gentlement, for my next delusion...'
What does magic share in common with with the way cubs play-fight?
Quite a lot, as I was surprised to discover in reading philosopher Brian Massumi, in his essay on how animals actually show capacities for ‘thinking’ in action, for language, for sophisticated play: in other words, activities that we tend to reserve for ourselves, the special human beings that we are (not).
It turns out that cubs have particular ways of ‘exaggerating’ the gestures of fighting, and therefore signalling to the their siblings “Look, this is as if we were fighting”. They are constantly ‘telling’ each other that what they are doing isn’t real: it’s a kind of theatrical version of the real thing. This ‘telling’ happens precisely through the exaggerated mannerism, which is what tells the other “This is a game”.
To quote the philosopher:
‘The play statement “this is a game” is far from a simple act of designation. It is the staging of a paradox. A wolf cub who bites its litter mate in play “says”, in the manner in which it bites, “this is not a bite”.’ (p.4)
The “this is not a bite” is what turns it into play. The “this is not a bite” sweeps up both litter mates in an act of play. Finally, observe this striking passage that uses words like ‘misdirection’ and ‘flourish’, words straight from magic’s vocabulary:
‘The [play] gesture is performed with a mischievous air, with an impish exaggeration or misdirection, or on the more nuanced end of the spectrum, a flourish, or even a certain understated grace modestly calling attention to the spirit in which the gesture is proffered.’ p.9
What better ways of describing theatrical magic?
Of course audiences at a magic show in a theatre already know from the billing that what they are going to see is “not real”. The title already does the job. This is perhaps another reason why I deliberately titled my current show This is not a magic show: to consciously bring attention to the way titles ‘perform’ certain functions.
Apart from the titling, consider the magician's gestures themselves - the handling of the cards, which might be bombastic or more ‘nuanced’ as Massumi writes: it is the physicality that "tells" the spectator “look, this is playing, this is not the real thing”. And both parties are swept up in this act of play.
With the added paradox: that the thing ‘referred’ to in magic, the miracle or impossible feat, is by definition unreal, it will never manifest. Unlike the cub’s play fight, which refers to the 'real fight', with magicians and their audiences the ultimate ‘referent’ is nowhere to be found: magic remains gloriously, mysteriously, and irresolvably, absent.
FYI: The book is What Animals Teach Us About Politics, by Brian Massumi.
During a foggy start to the new year, a saving grace has been the rather brilliant US television series Search Party. (Spoiler alert: ending revealed below)
Set in the present day in Brooklyn, we find the central character, a woman in her 20s, who is shocked when she comes across a street poster of a missing person, someone she vaguely knew from school, and decides to investigate with the help of her hipster friends. All kinds of clues, possible conspiracies and even a cult are gradually uncovered; in a very dramatic ending, a second character is killed, but the missing person is found… until everyone involved realises that the missing person had, in fact, simply decided to take a hike and go off ‘social media’ for a while, not realising she had been declared missing at all. All the mysteries, conspiracies, the links intimated between characters and places (the big mind-map on the wall, different coloured threads connecting words and photos), were in fact fictitious, unwittingly ‘made up’ by the main character, in a thirst for adventure and a misguided sense of justice.
What is striking to me, with my magic hat on, is this brilliant sense of the ‘mystery’ dissolving: of complicated conspiracies and possible linkages vanishing into thin air. The central character believes to be digging deep, to be uncovering a strange network of events and people, a great puzzle forming in her mind, and therefore ours too. It is merely delusional. There is no mystery.
Search Party was a great Don Quixote for our times, except Quixote that is doomed to wake up from the dream she has been constructing, and realise that, because of her interpreting the world as ‘mysterious, a person has accidentally been killed. She saw a mystery, where there was in fact none.
I thought of writer Thomas Berhard’s quote (from Correction):
'We mustn’t let ourselves go so far as to suspect something remarkable, something mysterious, or significant, in everything and behind everything.'
In May 2016 I conducted an interview with a theatre magazine, but for various complicated reasons this was never released. So here it is in text format!
It mainly covers how 'This is not a magic show' draws on contemporary theatre and performance references (mentions of Spalding Gray, Forced Entertainment and Stewart Lee abound), and what it means to present magic in the context of theatre, intended both as a place and as an art form.
I tend to dislike it when blogs just become occasions to shout about the places one's been, the 'amazing' things done there, etc. Blogs can be more than opportunities for self-aggrandizing and marketing.
Having said that: here I was at Tate Modern! Part of 'Tate Exchange', and curated by theatre director and artist Tim Etchells, I was part of a series of talks and presentations to inaugurate the new space, on level 5 of the Switch House.
Performing close-up magic in a crowded room is difficult at the best of times, those darned sight lines just won't work. Still, the main focus was on how to share some of the mechanics of magic, without really giving away 'the secret'. An idea that I take from the Alex Stone book, 'Fooling Houdini', is how magic is inherently insular, and, in an attempt to preserve secrets, remains very closed off to other developments in the arts and other disciplines. Despite many improvements, I would say that magicians on the whole remain anchored to modes of thinking, speaking, behaving and performing that seem somewhat at odds with 20th and 21st century developments in theatre arts.
So the event at Tate was for me an opportunity to try to talk about sleight of hand, to introduce "The Expert at the Card Table' (a sort of founding text for card magic, printed 1902), to discuss how magicians took the naturalness and 'invisibility' of gambling sleights, giving rise to close-up and sleight of hand magic.
I'm not sure much of it will 'stick', but I think, or hope, that understanding something about the real work behind magic can improve things: improve the dialogue between magic and other art forms, improve the status of magic, improve relations between audiences and magicians.
Explanations of magic's inner workings needn't be demonised or seen as a NO-GO area. I am wondering if there are sensitive, responsible, and caring ways to open up magic's mechanics to a non-magician crowd. Instead of constantly assuming this 'us-them' border, as though magicians and non-magicians were two different species, the former might learn something by sharing their knowledge. After all, performing is a lot about empathy, and putting oneself in the place of others...
It's been a year since I've started working on a 'cover version' of René Lavand's No se puede hacer mas lento. You can see the earlier post about this here, for a bit of background.
This is a fairly short piece (6mins performed continuously), executed with one hand only, and only 6 cards.
I won't exaggerate: I practice this every day. Sometimes for an hour, sometimes only 10mins, but everyday there is a moment in which I zoom into this piece. It is very much like sitting at a piano to practice a single piece of music each day... the piece changing through the months, the years.
And yet I have not performed it for anyone, except late at night for a bunch of friends, when some dutch courage helped me to perform what is still not 'tight'.
There is something about this year dedicated to learning Lavand's piece that strikes me as both absurd and brilliant. I read the other day about an actor who spent 7 years practicing Hamlet for a particular director, who then died before the piece was ever staged. I don't intend to spend 7 years only 'rehearsing', but I have to say that sometimes that solitary rehearsal is kind of great, regardless of whether the piece will ever 'become public': it is just me, the cards, the movements. There is the pleasure of getting it right, of improvements, but also small surprises, the tiniest of details suddenly acquiring massive significance.
Part of the reason I have yet to present it to an audience, though, is that the piece still lacks any kind of narrative or conceptual frame. I've tried several versions - types of 'patter' let's say - and so far none seem to stick. I think that I am still a bit too haunted by the original, Lavand's version, and I don't quite know how to move away from that, if, indeed, that is what I need or want to do.
In the meantime, everyday I sit at a table and watch a little show performed with one hand and 6 cards. Is it senseless to spend so much time on a performance work that might never be shown?
Wearing my other hat - my "real self" - I have written and published an account of learning sleight of hand magic. It's in the academic journal Dance, Theatre & Performance Training, though my article is not strictly academic in style or tone. In fact rather personal and biographical in tone, which is odd for me.
It can (sneakily) be found here (yes, don't tell anyone).
A rare but delicious treat is coming across references to magic, especially in comedy. This short act by US comedian Pete Holmes makes some fine points about magic and magicians. Such as: 'Magic is the only form of entertainment where 90% of the crowd is trying to ruin it for themselves... Go to a magic show, just a sea of close-minded threatened dudes, going like: "No, no way, that ain't possible, MIRROR!"'
Penn & Teller's latest. Notice the sublime way in which the 'exposure' of the trick works for it, not against it. I can't even tell if the moment the secret string is cut is, in fact, just another visual gag and moment of magic.
Somewhat sceptically at first, then with increasing zeal and admiration, I am reading Alex Stone's Fooling Houdini (2012), an account of an apprenticeship in magic. What I am drawn to above all are the productive criticisms that Stone levels at the magic scene, criticisms that I find fitting, given how the art form, whilst thriving in some respects, remains stagnant: in its inability to develop new audiences (outside of magicians), or to move outside of the confines of cheap entertainment, and to generally have a good self-reflexive look at itself.
Stone puts the problem down to the assumed, and never questioned, need for secrecy:
‘Many professional have trade secrets, but in most, secrecy is not the defining characteristic of that profession. Few crafts so fiercely demarcate the line between artist and the audience as magic does.’ (p.136) Whereas musicians, writers or film makers might share the secrets of their profession with their audiences, magicians don’t, or feel they cannot: ‘Magic stands alone in demanding blanket ignorance from its audience.’ (p.136)
Whilst this might make magic special, at its worst the world of magic is slow moving, retrograde, conservative and even Masonic (I was surprised to read that many magic presidents of US societies are bona fide Masons).
In the book Stone makes some great points about how exposure (of tricks and their methods) might actually enable progress to be made, and how audiences also tend to quickly forget working methods, so strong is the illusion when seen afresh. But many magicians prefer to play the conservative card, and are vehemently anti-exposure. As Stone correctly diagnoses, this stance is very problematic:
‘The main problem with the antiexposure stance is that it sells magic short. It portrays magic as a stagnant enterprise with a handful of secrets that might easily be exhausted… It infantilizes the spectator by implying that they can’t be trusted not to step on their own fun, arrogating to the performer the power to decide what’s in an audience’s best interest.’ (150-151)
Stone’s book, particularly Chapter 6, has reminded me of how much it’s easy to get drawn into a small world of ‘sleights’ for aficionados only, pursuits that, whilst admirable, leave out the audience. Meaning, that many magicians aren't so aware of how magic is a form of theatre and performance. The 'trick' is vital, but only a partial component.
Perhaps the insistence in guarding secrets prevents magic from flourishing as an art form. Penn & Teller, once again, are a great example of how to innovate magic, precisely by playing with secrecy and revelation. No wonder magicians came out against them at the start of their career: they dared to embrace magic as a form of theatre, and to revitalise it.
To be continued...
Enjoy Alex Stone's book!
My better half/pseudonym/"real self" has only gone and published a book with Bloomsbury Methuen Drama. And it’s out now...
The current hardback price is not low, in fact it is rather high (the cheapest place to get it, at £45, is here). This is because it is is aimed at University Libraries, so do get ordering if you're that way positioned. Hopefully a paperback edition will come out in the future, so the rest of us can have a read.
That was the question that Tom Mullica would ask, two thirds into his act, holding around 20 lit cigarettes in his hand, which he continuously maneuvered in and out of his mouth, eventually swallowing the lot.
To my great sadness I only learned today (June 2016) of Mullica's passing in February. I will devote a more considered piece of writing to this fantastic comic performer, as I think his act was one of the 4 or 5 that genuinely stands out as a superb example of theatre, and how magic might be approached as a form of theatre (or through a form of theatre). As one obituary comments:
'His act was not like anyone else’s... Many nights at his Tom-Foolery nightclub in Atlanta [a bar Mullica operated himself], he would perform only 4 magic tricks over the course of a 90-minute show. He was known for taking 20 minutes or more just to find a spectator’s chosen card.'
It was a unique blend of fakirism, comedy, and magic tricks. His iconic and arguably best video clip to see him in action is below.
A reviewer who clearly enjoyed the show in Cambridge last Sat (Cambridge Junction, Sat 14th May 2016, 7pm & 8.30pm).
Not the easiest show, with a bit of friendly heckling ('what's under the table?!!!'), quite a few kids making a concert of sweet wrappers or giggling in the quiet moments, and most strangely a small hen do sitting in the back row...
Yet this reviewer made my day. From Cambridge News:
Jude Clarke enjoys an evening of deconstructed magic with Vincent Gambini
"This is not a magic show," proclaim the publicity materials for Vincent Gambini's performance. But, like much of what was to follow in the Saturday evening performance in J3 at The Junction, that was slightly misleading.
Vincent is, in fact, a skilled and mind-bogglingly nimble-fingered magician, with a stock in trade of just the kind of tricks that you would expect from, well, a magician. Coins miraculously appear, then duplicate, from nothing in his hands. Seemingly 'normal' packs of cards take on curious features (at one point turning blank almost before our eyes) and formations in a manner that, being so close to the action, is that much more astonishing than when watching these types of tricks on a TV show or in a larger theatre.
But what makes this show special isn't really the magic itself, it's the way it is presented. Deconstructing the drama and performance of 'magic', Vincent's low-key, wry and witty delivery uses other tricks too. The show starts, for example, with Vincent sitting quietly at a table, narrating the preamble to the start of his show, as if he is an observer rather than the performer himself, recounting his pre-show warm-up routine, showing himself making last minute tweaks to his opening words etc, in an arresting monologue that begins to subvert the usual, perhaps stale, performer/audience dynamic of this kind of show.
Later, he shares with us his quest for a more original opening magic trick (the Junction's director having, we're told, emailed him to ask him to start with something a bit more interesting than his usual, rather dull, card trick), taking in a hilarious series of phone calls to the Magic Circle helpline, seemingly manned by high profile magicians like Derren Brown and David Blaine, dutifully doing their shifts and offering the struggling performer tips and suggestions for new tricks to dazzle us with.
There's a quite brilliant sequence where Vincent first reads out the stream-of-consciousness reaction of one observer to one of his tricks, before reading it out again while simultaneously performing said trick. It's hard to explain quite why or how (much like the magic itself), but this method of presenting his undeniably skilled magic is gripping, hilarious and really fascinating.
Not a magic show, then? Don't be fooled by the disingenuous title. Vincent Gambini is every bit the magician, if you like your performances smart, clever, witty and thought-provoking.'
Read more: http://www.cambridge-news.co.uk/Vincent-Gambini-Cambridge-Junction-Review/story-29277898-detail/story.html#ixzz48oRjyDvf
I’ve been thinking of late about the differences between performance art and magic.
Broadly speaking, performance art is about real actions, real bodies and real time, whereas magic trades in the pure fakery of theatre, spectacle and illusion. In performance art, the person well and truly endures pain and discomfort, whereas magicians only simulate, for effect.
But of course this distinction is too black and white, and unfair: performance art might be about doing things ‘for effect’ (no differently from waving jazz-hands), and vice versa magicians have famously died or injured themselves during their illusions, thereby giving the lie to the supposed fakery of their acts.
What is always ignored or suppressed, by magicians and audiences alike, is the material reality of the magic act, what I think of as the labour of illusion: the hands and the countless years of training (for instance in sleight of hand card magic), or the disciplined body, with its wounds and scars.
Perhaps a distinction between performance art and magic can be made around the visibility and propriety of the wound: in the former it tends to be exposed, in the latter it is largely hidden. For instance, in performance artist Chris Burden’s 1971 Shoot, his assistant stood at a distance and shot the artist in the arm, inaugurating performance art as a wound-making activity.
Conversely, one night in 1918, vaudeville magician Chung Ling Soo (real name Bill Robinson) performed a version of his famous Bullet Catch, in which an assistant stood at a distance and fired directly at the illusionist: on this occasion the gun literally misfired, and instead of ‘catching’ the bullet in his hand, Chung Ling Soo was shot in the chest. He collapsed to the ground and for the first time ever broke his Chinese stage character, announcing in plain English: ‘Something’s happened. Lower the curtain’. He died the following morning.
Which of these versions of the shoot is more ‘real’?
I am over the moon to announce that ACE are funding the 2016 tour of 'This is not a magic show', to several UK theatres, including dates in London, Bristol, Margate, Norwich, Cambridge, Ipswich, Exeter and Manchester.
My producer Sally Rose and myself are extremely pleased about the grant, which will allow us to dedicate the required time and effort to move this show on the road, and hopefully book more performances for late 2016 and into 2017.|
I am also happy that a show that supposedly trades on a "low" popular form of entertainment (or so the cliches about magic tell us) can be recognised as artistically vital, and stand its ground within the UK's larger theatre ecology, of which I have been a part for over a decade now (albeit working as Augusto Corrieri, not Vincent Gambini).
Here's to a good few months of 'This is not a magic show', I hope to see you there soon.
I find it both wonderful, and somewhat puzzling, to see a number of new books about magic, written by academics (who are largely non magicians). They are all studies of what we might call the 'cultural meanings' surrounding magic.
I have no idea why this academic interest is developing now... Here are some of the recent-ish academic books on magic I have spotted:
- James W. Cook, The Arts of Deception: Playing with Fraud in The Age of Barnum (2001)
- Simon During, Modern Enchantments: The Cultural Power of Secular Magic (2004)
- Philipp Butterworth, Magic on the Early English Stage (2005)
- Michael Mangan, Performing Dark Arts: A Cultural History of Conjuring (2007)
- Coppa, Hass & Peck eds, Performing Magic on The Western Stage: From The Eighteenth Century to The Present (2008)
Particularly on the relation between magic and cinema:
- Beckman, Karen, Vanishing Women: Magic, Film and Feminism (2003)
- Matthew Solomon, Disappearing Tricks: Silent Film, Houdini, and the New Magic of the Twentieth Century (2010).
- Colin Williamson, Hidden In Plain Sight: An Archeology of Magic and the Cinema (2015)
Add to this list the University of Huddersfield's Journal of Performance Magic, and there's already a sizeable bibliography to be getting to grips with.
What is it about magic that is attracting the interest of university professors, and therefore students, of theatre, film, popular and visual culture? A mystery. But a lot to read up on.
After seeing a live magic show, audience members tend to say something along the lines of:
“It’s not like TV magic, this is happening right in front of me!”
“On TV and the Internet they could be using CGI special effects, or editing. But here I’m watching it happen with my own eyes!”
Magic, it seems, has to be seen live to be fully appreciated. Down with TVs, screens and recorded images; long live theatre, horray for the live event.
So far so good.
What’s left out of this argument is that by seeing magic live – by seeing a coin melt through a table, for example – in effect reality itself becomes a CGI trick. In a magic show matter itself is shown to be a kind of computer-generated simulation; time and space are effectively code-written, and the magician’s job is to remind us of this code-writing, by imputing an alternative line of code.
So in a live magic show the supposed ‘liveness’ of theatre is shown to be illusory. Through the act, it is as though the magician were reminding us:
'Watch closely. For what is happening now, in fact, is not happening now…’
You call this writing?
You call this writing?
This dialogue is shit!
That's John Turturro, playing a fictional Hollywood star who loses the plot on a movie set, in Nanni Moretti's brilliant film My Mother (2015). It's another of those small moments that I connect to magic, to theatre, and what it's all about.
In the middle of the film, amid the stresses of production and with Turturro's character forgetting his Italian lines, he finally has an outburst and fights with the film's director. In a section that speaks volumes about illusion, about a desire for authenticity, about wanting to break the fakery, Turturro, pacing up and down the set of a cafeteria, exclaims:
This is the last film I’m making, I retire!
Acting is a waste of time and a waste of a life!
I want out of here man...
I want to go back… [he picks up a food tray and hurls it on the floor]... back to reality!
Take me back to reality...
It is often the films that don't reference magic that are the best at encouraging reflections on it.
I recently saw Harold and Maude (1971) for the first time. It is the combination of humour – at times dry, other times slapstick or even ‘camp’ (in the sense of exaggerated) – and a tragic undertone that works beautifully. A true gem of a movie, at once light and satisfyingly complex.
Particularly dark and funny are the repeated attempts by the 17-year-old protagonist – a lone son to an aristocratic socialite widowed woman – to commit violent suicides. As we learn early on (no great spoiler), these suicides are all carefully staged for the benefit of his mother, who is so used to his daily performances she no longer deigns to pause to acknowledge them. And so we see her chatting away on the phone whilst her son supposedly douses himself in petrol and set himself ablaze; or again the mother casually swimming a few lanes in the pool while the young protagonist lies tragically face down floating in the water.
The kid’s acts could be downright sinister, but the way they are ignored by his mother frames them as darkly funny. They are beautifully performed, desperately childish calls for attention: “Look mother, I’m on fire!”, he seems to say, and “No you’re not dear…You’re not fooling me, I know you’re faking your death, I know it’s all theatre” is her reply.
It reminded me of the relation between the magician and the audience: “Look audience, I am making the coin levitate magically!” “No you’re not dear…we know it's all theatre.” Again and again magicians have to go to great lengths to convince spectators that what they are doing is the “real” thing, though implicit in this very attempt is the knowledge that it’s all staged for the benefit of illusion. Illusion, then, is always a duality, a ‘cognitive dissonance’ between what we see (the object floating impossibly), and what we know (objects do not float impossibly).
As a magician, before you even step on stage, your every action is already seen as fake and theatrical. Yet the job is to persevere, desperately, to convince the audience otherwise: knowing it cannot be done, and to do it anyway. What a way of dying on stage, again and again!
'To transfigure the popular idea of what a magic trick is.'
Last night I read this line, written by the Spanish maestro card magician Arturo de Ascanio, and felt a rush of blood, enthusiasm, and energy.
Nothing more and nothing less, than to transfigure the popular idea of what a magic trick is. That is the goal, the big challenge.
Ascanio is writing this in his preface to the book by René Lavand, a name that readers of this blog will know, since Lavand is in my eyes (and in the eyes of countless magicians) the most inspiring conjuring-performing artist, who used sleight-of-hand magic as a means to construct refined, poetic, literary and imaginative works.
Later in his book Lavand admonishes magicians for choosing shortcuts and clichés, as exemplified by statements such as 'nothing there, nothing here', 'a touch of the wand', let's say Abracadabra', etc.
A sober reminder not to fall into old habits for the sake of convenience and ease of communication.
Since devising This is not a magic show, performing it in Edinburgh and touring it now in 2016, I've felt somewhat "sucked" back into being a Magician, with a capital M. When really I am not: though I practise daily, I hardly ever perform, outside of doing the theatre show. And even the show itself (without blowing the metaphorical trumpet), although indeed a magic performance, it is framed and moved along by the writing, by odd self-reflexive conceits, and by a kind deconstructive humour (what a list of words that is....). I hope, in short, that the piece is something of a transfiguration of what magic tricks are.
Yet the pull of the 'Abracadabra' is always there, like a dark attractive force...
To be AND to not be a magician: learning to inhabit that contradiction seems really necessary to take magic in new and interesting directions!
End of blog post. Be well.
Below a video recording (in Spanish) of Ascanio's rather famous torn and restored signed card.
What do magicians do when they are not sawing people in half and making national landmarks disappear? Well I am indulging my scholarly side and writing an article for The Journal of Dance, Theatre & Performance Training. The subject is sleight of hand - how I learned it, and how I shared it with other magicians when I first trained, etc.
More on this to come, but for now I just wanted to signal this two minute video I made, called 'Eight Hidden Movements', in which I demonstrate these unseen techniques. Though it appears I am merely holding a deck of cards and turning it over a few times, in fact there are eight quite complex sleight of hand techniques being deployed, all of which are listed at the end of the video.
Enjoy, and tell everyone
Having just spent two weeks in France, with the Paris terror attacks causing complete havoc, I thought to myself: it’s time for a little light entertainment (wait, isn’t all of this just a little light entertainment?), courtesy of the Michael Carbonaro hidden camera TV magic show.
A great update of the in-famous rabbit from a top hat magic routine.
Enjoy the video.
I’m starting research and rehearsals on a new trick. But first a little prologue.
I recently found out that one of the greats of close-up magic, the Argentinean René Lavand, passed away earlier in 2015. I was shocked and very much saddened.
Lavand was many magicians’ favourite magician. Mention his name to most prestidigitators, and you will see eyes light up and chests heaving with heartfelt admiration: as far as performers go, Lavand was perhaps the best magician of the 20th century.
To my mind, his work is a kind of performance poetry with objects. What strikes me, again and again, are the particular rhythms that he would set in motion, rhythms that have a lot to do with the relation between speech and actions, and a canny use of repetition. His pieces worked like incantations, often driving simple ideas through sophisticated rhetorical and gestural motifs.
The trick in question was Lavand’s signature piece. Entitled ‘No se puede hacer mas lento’ (It can’t be done any slower), it is his equivalent of, let’s say, Michael Jackson’s Billy Jean, or Keith Jarrett’s The Koln Concert. Arguably his best known work, and probably for good reason.
So the question for me now is: why on earth would I, or anyone else, try to reproduce this trick? Surely I cannot match the ‘original’, and so why perform a ‘copy’?
I am thinking along the lines of a cover, to use a musical term. I’d like to do a cover version of Lavand’s signature card trick, in which 3 red cards and 3 black cards are slowly positioned in alternate order (black, red, black, red, black, red), only to be turned over to reveal that the colours are unmixed. This is done a total of 5 times, each time the trick growing more impossible, and each revelation accompanied by Lavand’s famous exhortation: ‘No se puede hacer mas lento!’ (It can’t be done any slower).
Some questions I am considering are: what needs to be kept to constitute a cover, and what can be, or needs to be, modified?
I already adapted one of Lavand’s tricks, effectively making a new trick out of it (his ‘El Griego’ formed the basis of my ‘Neuromagic’, in which four cards turn white on both sides).
However for this trick I think it’s crucial that the handling and execution mirror Lavand’s. And since he famously only had the use of his left hand, having lost his right hand in a childhood car accident, this means learning to perform the trick one handed (I’ve been practicing daily for the past month, spurred by a minor case of Repetitive Strain Injury on my right forearm).
I don’t want to do the trick “as Lavand”, or even imitate his manner of speech. It would jar to have Gambini – a kind of tongue in cheek ironic magician – suddenly launch into Lavand’s poetic oration, which features solemnly delivered lines such as “There is nothing more nebulous than the truth…” I could never deliver this line with a straight face. So how to re-present this piece, without making a mockery of the original, or forgoing my own stylistic preferences?
Here’s the snag about this whole pursuit: there is something about the straightforward tribute that never works well for me in a live performance. Just like a small town tribute act (no offense to small town tribute acts), whenever a performer does a tribute they end up undermining both themselves and the original. Perhaps the tribute is a rather dubious creative pursuit: it leaves the performer “hiding” somewhat behind the imitation, and it potentially cheapens the original precisely by trying to recreate it.
A cover, however, is very different from a tribute: the cover typically takes an existing piece, and adapts it, responds to it, enters into dialogue with it, perhaps kicks it around a little, or reframes it, and turns it to other uses. I think of PJ Harvey’s fantastically skewed rendition of Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D3CIK5SoTio If you can’t improve on a song that is superb, and superbly well known, you might as well take it out to graze in unknown pastures.
Whereas a tribute implies narrow subservience – a little like prostrating at the feet of a beloved but inescapable father figure – the cover allows more room for encounter, manoeuvre, and transformation.
I don’t know how Lavand’s piece will mutate, if at all. I know there won’t be a framed photograph of him in the show, no speeches about what a great magician he was.
Perhaps the tribute lies precisely in carrying his piece forward, and transmuting it into a new shape, yet retaining some essential feature of the original.
A long blog entry, but do stay tuned, and if you wish to see the “original”, here’s a link to Lavand performing it on an early Paul Daniels show (time signature 3:53 - 7:43) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k1ERjYyKvVU
Now be well
It might seem a little, ehm, self-indeulgent to write this, but here goes. There's a definite bluesy period that follows from any high, and such is the mood upon returning home from performing "This is not a magic show' at Edinburgh's superb Forest Fringe.
It was brilliant to be able to perform the piece, in a proper theatrical setting, 5 days in a row. Not all works of performance improve through repeated showings, but magic certainly can: the piece is now 1 hour long, has a new ending I'm very proud of, and I'm starting to get a sense of the throughline that connects it all up (well, almost all of it).
Mostly, it was encouraging to see that a work of close-up magic can stand its ground in a context of contemporary theatre: the piece received 4 star reviews in The Guardian, Time Out, The Stage, and Fest Mag! (no doubt I'll soon by plastering the website with excerpts, so I'll save the quotes for that).
So, what to do after a great run of shows? Watch a comedy series.
Last night I saw the season finale to the excellent animated series Bojack Horseman, and couldn't help make parallels. Bojack, washed-up Hollywood actor from a 90's sitcom, returns in the public eye after publishing a biography and winning an award for it. Wherever he goes, he walks around clutching the award in his hand, which is funny and heatbreaking. In the final dialogue, he sits on the roof to his house, talking disconsolately to Dianne, his friend and biographer. Bojack asks Dianne:
- What do I do now?
- Well, that's the problem with life, right? You either know what you want, and then you don't get what you want. Or you get what you want, and then you don't know what you want.
- Well that's stupid
'Resolution - the tidy ending - is the tradition in magic.... Someone disappears, he reappears. The ambiguity in contemporary film and literature has been missing from magic. It's time for magic's postmodern moment.'
David Copperfield, 2000
Though I wouldn't call his work 'post-modern' (far too indebted to West End musicals, to Disney, to clear victorious narratives and resolutions), Copperfield's comment hits home with me. It's time for magic's postmodern moment. Other than Penn and Teller, where are those postmodern magicians?
And of course: there's nothing wrong with appearance and disappearance. Case in point: Copperfield's 'After hours' remains one of my favourite magic videos. A person appears...some dancing... the person disappears.
"David Copperfield Magician Television Special 1977" by ABC Television