This one is for the magic nerds. For the rest of you, nothing to see here, move along.
The close-up magician, Dai Vernon, was perhaps the most influential magic teacher of the twentieth century. His impact was so great that he was known simply as “The Professor.” In his later life, still sharp as a tack in his 80s and beyond, he would hold court at The Magic Castle and other such venues, where conjurers from around the country would come to get The Professor’s critique of their magic. Vernon was a pretty mischievous fellow by most accounts, and his lessons could sometimes be quite pointed. My favorite story about him is one that magician Bill Palmer has told on The Magic Cafe internet forum, which I’ll repeat here.
Palmer was attending a magic convention in Texas where Vernon was one of the headliners. Now one of the nice and maybe unique things about magic conventions is that the performers often mingle with the attendees in their off time. So Palmer is wandering around the lobby of the hotel where the convention was held, and who does he see sitting on a sofa, but The Professor himself, Dai Vernon. He’s startled to see that Vernon is all alone on the couch, so he decides to take this opportunity. He gathers up his courage, goes over to Vernon and introduces himself, gushes a bit, and then Palmer decides he’s going to make his impression on The Professor by showing Vernon a feat of mentalism. After all, though Vernon was expert with cards and coins, mentalism is a whole different branch of conjuring.
Palmer says to Vernon. “Please think of any three-digit number. Concentrate, please. Visualize that number in your imagination.” Palmer then takes out his business card, cogitates furiously, writes something on the back of the business card, then puts the pencil down, and says to Vernon, “I have committed my answer in writing. Would you now, for the first time, name your number, please?”
Vernon replies, “4-5-8.”
Palmer continues in the canned patter of the day, “Aha! Does that number have any special significance to you?”
“Yes,” replies the elderly Vernon, with narrowing eyes, “those are the three most difficult numbers to write with a nail writer.”
“So to make things fair—even though it is not easy to be fair in a capitalistic society—each time I earn money from performing magic, I would have to give a portion to Ascanio’s widow, Slydini’s heirs, and many others and say, ‘Here, please, this is your portion of my success.’ “—Juan Tamariz
Over a cup of coffee at a back table at the magic convention, a magician is informally doing magic as a crowd of onlookers watch. The people in the crowd nod their heads knowingly in approval, or they throw in their two cents to make suggestions at this “session.” The young magician has great chops, an engaging personality, and an easy laugh. You feel an instant warmth, a comradely attitude. He’s not trying to prove his superiority, he just wants all of us to have fun and experience the magic.
At one point, a know-it-all makes an arrogant criticism; about to defend himself, the young magician stops that impulse, and steels himself, as if to say, “No, I’m not going to defend myself, I’m going to listen to it all, be humble, and take it all in.” I think to myself, this young man has been mentored and parented well.
I wish I had been able to find that magician again, to talk with him about that incident. It was such a great attitude. It must have come from somewhere. The magician had a Hispanic last name, but I had no idea whether he came from Spain or not. Nevertheless, I think this young man has absorbed much of the spirit of what’s now come to be known as the Spanish School of Magic.
By Spanish School of Magic I am talking about the style of magic that is exemplified by Juan Tamariz, Gabi Pareras, Dani DaOrtiz, Miguel Angel Gea and several other younger magicians, many who have been mentored by Tamariz himself. There are sometimes discussions on the magic internet forums as to the distinguishing features of this school of magic, but for me, the most important—and often overlooked—aspect has to do with emphasizing the feelings of friendship between the magician and the audience. It’s much more than just an approach to constructing an effect, or the means utilized for the method, though there’s a lot of that, but it’s also about consciously constructing a relationship of comrade-to-comrade with the audience, rather than competitor-to- competitor. It’s akin to, but not quite the same as, Gerald Deutsch’s conception of Perverse Magic.
If magic is about power—and it is—then it’s natural to ask, who gets to keep that power? In a sense—let’s say metaphorically, for now—it’s a question of capitalism versus socialism. Does the individual get to keep all the power s/he accrues individually, or is the power going to be shared among the community? For convenience, I’m going to describe two styles of magic: capitalist and socialist. If you don’t like those words, you can substitute two other labels, though I think there may well be a good reason to use those particular terms.
It’s enlightening to look at the experience of magic for many audiences: the capitalist magician’s effort is to widen the power inequality perception, seeking to put the magician far above its audience. “Admire me because I am so much more powerful than you,” implies the capitalist magician. After all, real capitalists like to proclaim that the most wise, the most moral, the most worthy, the most capable of solving all problems—business and otherwise—are those with the most power. So it’s natural that some magicians would strive to emulate those models. But the Spanish School approach is the opposite. The socialist magician is not your superior; on the contrary, he’s your bar buddy, the guy you want to hang out with, or the lovable eccentric, maybe the town Foole, who wants nothing other than to delight you and to be friends with you. The socialist magician has somehow won or been gifted his power, and now he wants to share it with you. I say “he,” because while it is changing, some of it does have an undercurrent of sexism; in that comradely fraternity, there’s the assumption of mainly male bonding. Now here’s the leap, you can take it with me if you like: it’s like the aura of the Ortega boys during the Nicaraguan revolution and the Castros during the Cuban revolution. The masses loved them because they were the boys who made good, the brothers who stuck together and won power for the people. “You’ve won the power, we admire you, we thank you for it, and we have no fear of you at all, because we know you are going to share that power with us.” Whether those promises ever came true politically is an issue that I won’t get into here, but the point is the similarity between the revolutionary and his audience on the one hand, and the socialist magician and his audience on the other.
A nice Cuban magician I discussed this with didn’t agree with my characterization of the socialist personality as the driver of the Spanish School’s attitude towards magic, but rather he attributed it to the close family ties in Spain. He reminded me that many Spanish men live with their parents up until the time they get married. Well, yes, but what is a family but a group of people who care for each other, and work with each other, and are committed to each other?
At any rate—and I’ll add here the fact that Tamariz in the 60s lived in a commune with 15 or 20 other people and was thrown out of his university for opposing the Fascist Franco regime—the Spanish model is of the community member who gives back. He makes good and returns to buy his Mom a house, he pays for his sister’s college, he buys a round of drinks for the boys at the pub, he plays with and entertains his nephews with laughing magic. It’s the understanding that the magic itself is only important so far as it engenders positive relationships. The magician makes the whole community feel more powerful because of his skill and talent, and the magician knows that what he is doing—that is, his effect on his audience—is not just a personal good but a social good as well. It’s his social responsibility to share what he has. He shares with his comrades this wonderful gift of inducing the magical feeling in others. They laugh together about how wonderful it feels, and how happy they are to have each other.
Now it’s true that some capitalist magicians also see the dilemma of declaring themselves all-powerful magicians, and so they, too, seek to ameliorate the power imbalance. But rather than sharing power, they seek to solve the power inequality problem by denying that power exists at all. So we have the great spate of comedy magicians who do magic, but while so doing, they undercut their own effect on the audience with a wink or a nod, or a wise guy remark. In effect, they deny that any magic occurred. And, indeed, if magic is what happens in the spectator’s brain, in such circumstances, it can’t occur. The actual experience of magic for the spectator is obliterated. By denying the power imbalance, these magicians present the magic community correlative of real capitalists who like to deny that there are in fact any class differences. It’s a false solution to the dilemma of unequal power in magic.
The socialist magicians, however, seek to maximize the magical experience in the spectator without undercutting it. The implicit message is always: “Yes, I have this power to make you feel something special, but I am going to share it with you.” It is a beautifully humanistic way of dealing with the power imbalances inherent in the performance of magic.
I was happy last week to spend four days in Orlando, Florida, attending the 2019 Genii Convention. For a comprehensive, contemporaneous, blow-by-blow audio account, click on the triangles below.
Day One: Intro, Tom Gagnon, Paul Vigil, Sara Crasson, Jonathan Neal
Day Two: Michael Chaitlin, Hector Mancha, Jim Steinmeyer, Paul Vigil, Nick Diffate, Lucy Darling, Hector Mancha, Raymond Crowe, Eric Jones
Day Three: Gaeten Bloom, Bill Cheung, Michael Vincent, Hector Mancha, Alexandra Duvivier, Terry Ward, Hannibal, Penn & Teller, Pat Hazell, Jonathan Neal, Gaeten Bloom, Read Chang, Piff the Magic Dragon
Day Four: 49 Boxes, Eric Jones, Gaeten Bloom, Dominique and Alexandra Duvivier, Nick Diffate, Lucy Darling, Romany, David Kovac, Jay Johnson, John Archer, Summing up
Many magicians do balloon twisting as well, but I never considered it an art. However, after speaking with my balloon twister/magician friend David, I learned I was very much mistaken. In fact, balloon twisters hold conventions every year, and there are some amazingly creative works of art on display at those conventions.
Unlike magic conventions, the gender ratio for both performers and attendees is about 50/50 (for magic conventions, it’s more like 99% male). Click on the video above to view some incredibly stunning balloon costumes displayed at the balloon Costume Competition at the 2015 Twist and Shout Balloon Convention in Dallas, Texas.