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David Ben’s Tricks of the Trade

David Ben’s Tricks of the Trade

The National Post’s Mark Medley profiles creativity expert and master magician, David Ben:

David Ben takes a rolling paper and twists it into the shape of a butterfly. He gently places it in his jacket’s front pocket, then pulls another of the delicate tissue papers from its package. Again, he fashions a pair of wings. He then takes a fan and unfurls it dramatically. After tossing the second butterfly into the air, Ben quickly begins to fan, as if cooling himself on a hot summer’s night. The paper flutters across the stage, as if searching a flower to land on. Ben stops, and reaches into his pocket for the other butterfly. He then tosses both in the air, fanning rapidly to keep them aloft. He catches the butterflies, then begins to fan the hand holding both creatures; suddenly, a flurry of white paper flies out of his hand and over the audience’s head.

This isn’t magic, at least not in the traditional now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t sense — making a rabbit disappear, for instance — but it is among the most beautiful moments in Ben’s new stage show, Natural Magick, running until June 16 as part of Toronto’s Luminato festival. And it is among the most challenging tricks he knows.

“That second butterfly is just like a technological leap of the highest magnitude,” Ben says with a laugh, taking a break from rehearsals last Wednesday. A famous Japanese magic trick, passed from conjurer to conjurer through the centuries, Ben learned it from a fellow magician in exchange for revealing one of his own secrets. “You won’t see anybody else, probably in the Western world, do it. Like a lot of the stuff in the show. I have a lot of friends who are magicians, but — hopefully I’m not being too immodest — I don’t think there’s another magician in the world who could actually do this show. Period. None of them. But that’s not to say I could do theirs, either.”

Natural Magick is Ben’s first show since Tricks in 2004, the longest gap in the 50-year-old magician’s career. Lest you think he’s been sitting on his wand, Ben has kept busy writing books, publishing a quarterly magazine on magic history, and running Magicana, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the advancement and exploration of magic as a performing art. The 90-minute show takes its title from Giambattista della Porta’s famous tome, first published in 1558, the first book to describe optical illusions. “I think this is the best work we’ve ever done,” he says. “I’m at a point in my life where I’m hopefully hitting my prime.”

After watching Sunday night’s performance at the Tarragon Theatre, it’s hard to argue. Natural Magick features several moments that simply defy explanation. Keen-eyed observers could surely spot the sleight-of-hand in a cups-and-balls routine, and when Ben plucks silver coins from out of thin air — though what’s the fun in that? — but there are tricks that border on miraculous.

In one instance, he asks three audience members to select a card, any card, show it to the audience, and place it back into the deck. Ben then covers his eyes in duct tape and a blindfold and proceeds to find all three cards from the deck, which is spread out across a table. His East Indian Needle Trick, which was made famous by Harry Houdini, still dazzles, even if on Sunday evening he could only manage to ingest 20 needles before regurgitating them, tied to a thread he also swallowed. His final trick involves removing three piles of dry sand from a bowl of water; I have several theories about how he does it, but all are flawed in one way or another.

“It’s that old showbiz adage: If it’s easy, make it look difficult, and if it’s difficult, make it look easy,” Ben says. “If it looks like I’m doing nothing, I’ve done a great job.”

There’s also a physics- defying rings routine, a trick involving three cards and a bouquet of roses that Ben says hasn’t been performed in a century, and an illusion involving gold fish in a wine glass that breaks every rule of gravity. “Since one of the themes of this year’s [Luminato] festival is One Thousand and One Nights — Arabian Tales — I thought each one of these pieces, for me, is an Arabian Tale,” he explains. “In other words, if I was held hostage and I had to save my life by doing a magic trick everyday, I’d be alive for a couple of weeks.”