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Alexander Magu and the art of magic

Russian illusionist Alexander Magu recently concluded his first India tour. Lounge met him backstage

The Russian illusionist, Alexander Magu. Photo: Alexander Magu
The Russian illusionist, Alexander Magu. Photo: Alexander Magu

A navy-blue tie complements Alexander Magu’s well-cut three-piece black suit. The Russian magician is visiting India for the first time. As we shake hands, I half expect him to rise in spontaneous levitation or perform a cunning ruse gluing our hands together. No such thing transpires, and we sit down to talk about his life and the art of magic. He’s due for his first show in India in an hour’s time at Upstage, an in-house theatre in Delhi’s Roseate House hotel.

Offstage, Magu is a man of few words and even fewer expressions. He sits upright and his hands hang in front, making an inverted dome with the fingertips. For most of the interview, he wears—or perhaps affects—a deadpan look. At most, his lips slide into a grin which never quite translates into a laugh, as if maintaining the veneer of mystique. He speaks in measured tones, calculating every word.

He was just 17 when a friend’s card trick in St Petersburg, the Russian city where he was born, fired his imagination and set him on the winding path of wizardry. As happens with most artists, the early years were a struggle. The reluctant parents were only pacified “when I got my second car", he says, with the characteristic faint smile. If it weren’t for magic, he would “be working in the Russian railways" today. Trading tracks for tricks, however, he went on to claim second place in Amaze Me, a popular magic contest on Russian television. “It was a punch for my career," says Magu.

His idols are magicians David Blaine and Derren Brown. “Blaine has shown us the possibilities of the human body," he says, pointing to Blaine’s endurance feats like standing on a 100ft-high pole in New York for 35 hours or living in a suspended glass box over London’s river Thames for 44 days without eating. Three weeks ago, he himself lay down in an ice chamber for 4 hours to “demonstrate it is possible".

So, it isn’t magic? “Yes, but it takes a lot of training and practice and meditation," he admits. What if a trick fails? “Firstly, very few people realize when something goes wrong." He tries to “fool the audience" by seamlessly segueing into another trick. During the show later, he provides an unplanned demonstration when a trick goes awry.

Rabbits out of the hat

While performing, Magu switches between stand-up comedy and tricks. Sometimes, though, it looks more like a stand-up act than an “illusionist" at work. His first “trick" is writing something on a big white sheet and asking the audience: “I will force it on your mind. Do you know what I wrote here?" No, we say. “That’s right," says Magu, and turns the board to reveal a “No" scribbled on it.

This is merely a prelude to his first showstopper. Synchronized perfectly to high-octane music, he plays with a cigarette and a white scarf, making them disappear and reappear in unexpected places—wrist, nostrils and so on. It ends with him raising a magically lit cigarette to his lips. The moral, he tells us, is to “try and make cigarettes disappear from your life because it is very bad for your health." The moralistic tone melts into a sentimental one when he says the “the real magic is not tricks but love, friendship and family".

Other tricks include “mind-reading", card tricks, asking a volunteer to choose any page from a book which, on rechecking, is found torn, with the missing portion—a perfect match—emerging from a sealed envelope. But it isn’t all smooth sailing. During the show, he fails to guess a volunteer’s chosen number, but quickly moves on to another trick as if nothing has happened.

Cards on the table

With many tricks now explained on sites like YouTube, the internet age has reduced the impact of magic. “Yes, YouTube has made it transparent and a little bit worse, but not a lot," he says. People go to magic shows for different reasons. “They come to see not magic, but an artist; the art of demonstration and performance." This is why, he believes, live magic performance still has its place, and will continue to have it.

For our secular age, the choice of his descriptor is revealing: “illusionist", not “magician". Magician suggests supernatural clairvoyance that runs the risk of sounding medieval, harking back to a religious age where “miracles" were possible. “Illusionist" distances itself from the “supernatural" and shifts the onus on to the audience. It is our senses that fail, an “illusion" being the result of our gullibility. Little wonder then, David Blaine is also an “endurance artist" and Derren Brown a “mentalist".

Magu is excited about India. Here, people on the streets have smilingly participated in his magic. Back home, Russians make for “the hardest audiences". On the streets, they think he is trying to steal from them; in the theatre, “they never smile, unless they’ve had enough vodka".

While it’s his first Indian visit, he harbours an interest in Indian philosophy. He has read the teachings of Osho, the Indian spiritual master, and believes in karma, so “when you make a crime, you get punishment". Osho made him realize that “our minds are a lot and lot of garbage everywhere, but if you put it all in one place, it becomes information that can be used."

The show is scheduled to start in 30 minutes and his crew emerges to take him backstage “for rehearsals". As he’s leaving, I ask what magic means to him. Ultimately, it’s less about tricks and making things disappear, he confesses. “Magic is a change of energies," he says. “In giving the audience joy, I get some joy too."

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