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Off Piste: A fortnightly series in which academics step outside their area of expertise

Off Piste: The trick is not the real treat

In performing magic, academic and author Dale Salwak found a demanding calling that rewarded him with joy and self-discovery

I remember precisely the moment I was initiated into an enchanted realm. I was seven years old and living with my family on the University of Massachusetts campus, where my father served as a faculty resident.

One of his students was a magician. He performed; I marvelled, then I pleaded. Eventually, he taught me two tricks: how to make a coin vanish and how to change a scarf from green to yellow by pulling it through the hand. The art of magic set my imagination on fire.

My father had a copy of G.S. Ripley's Magic for Boys, and so each week my mother and I attempted one of the tricks as described using cardboard and tape and other household items. Three years later, after much practice, my act had its debut performance, for which I was paid two dollars: my parents had hired me to perform at my own birthday party.

An advertisement in the local newspaper - "Magician for all occasions. Call Dale Salwak" - brought me additional work, and slowly my reputation, and confidence, grew. Along with the obvious financial gains, performing magic helped me to overcome my shyness.

Magic became a way of exploring and developing my creativity. And it gave me a reason to rush home each day after school, with a new trick to learn, while other children seemed always to be looking for things to do with their free time.

Four years later we moved to West Lafayette, Indiana. It was there that my life changed, magically speaking, when I saw a performance by the prominent American magician Neil Foster.

As soon as he walked on stage, I knew something special was about to happen. It wasn't just his elegant demeanour, nor his handsome good looks resplendent in tie and tails, nor his confidence with just the right touch of mischievous wit. There was another element that, for lack of a better word, we call "it" - a combination of fire and soul without which no artist ever reaches the heights. Foster had this in full measure.

Accompanied by music, Foster owned the stage and possessed his audience. With effortless ease, a cane materialised from a handkerchief. Cards and lit cigarettes appeared and vanished. A floating silver sphere became, in his hands, an inspired work of beauty. All this was brought to a resounding climax with the disappearance of the sphere into two bouquets of flowers. At the end of his act, Foster had made an awe-inducing impact, in the quietest way, without saying a word.

His performance changed my conception of what it means to be a magician. To my surprise, during that wondrous 12-minute show, many of my youthful distractions slipped away.

I was filled with a deep sense of peace and an ineffable joy that remains with me to this day. I remember thinking: "This is the way all magic should be presented." Back home late that night, I talked of little else. A 16-year-old boy had been shown, perhaps for the first time in his life, that magic really is an art.

All students need a mentor - a tried and trusted individual who will be objective and honest, who will tell them what they need to hear (not necessarily what they would like to hear) in a way that will do them the most good. Early in most magicians' careers comes the thought: "If somehow I had the good fortune to ask a world-class performer one question about my act, it would be 'what isn't there?' Then I'd sit back and listen."

That opportunity presented itself to me three years later. I had begun a correspondence with Foster, which he graciously returned. One day, he sent me an advertisement about a magic talent show to be held one August afternoon in Colon, Michigan, which bills itself as "the magic capital of the world". He explained that there would be no trophies and no ranking of acts. It was reward enough to appear on stage for ten minutes under professional conditions before 800 of my peers.

I had heard about the hot, humid weather that greets summer visitors to Colon. To prepare for it, every day after school for the next five months I worked on my act while dressed in white tie and tails, in a sweltering high-school auditorium near my home.

Performance day arrived and, although my nerves were at a fever pitch, all went well. My routines worked, the audience applauded, and I felt good as I walked offstage.

"You'll make it, kid," one seasoned veteran said to me afterwards. "You'll have to take your knocks like everyone, but stay with it." As encouraging as those words were, I wanted some advice - so I wrote to Neil.

Two weeks later, he responded: "You have never seen my criticism of acts in print. I won't do this for several reasons. In the first place, the truth would shatter many. In the second place, I won't offer any criticism unless asked for it, and then I charge like hell. However, in your case, it's different. I won't charge you, but I hope you will pay attention."

I did pay attention. His two-page critique was blunt and honest and of great value. It came from a tested professional who had been everywhere, read everything and seen everyone. He spoke from experience. Most important, I had asked for it and he had offered it not in the public forum, but in private, and not out of spite, but out of a genuine desire to give direction.

"The greatest pitfall so many young people make," he wrote, "is trying to get to the top too quickly." That observation helped me to understand that all too often inexperienced magicians believe it's only the trick that matters. If they can master the moves and hide the secret, so the thinking goes, then they're magicians. Like an aspiring pianist who is just getting through the correct notes, they have learnt the routine but they have omitted the most important ingredient - the passion. They have failed to connect with the audience because they are performing only for themselves. They may be doing magic, but they are not magicians.

In that letter, Neil made another comment that affected me deeply. "Magic is just an excuse for our being before an audience. For it matters little what we do; it's how we do it." I realised then that I needed to learn to connect, and the best place to do so was not within the safe confines of a rehearsal room but on stage before a live audience, where I would risk everything. No amount of practice can match the experience of performing before the public.

I was by then living in California, and with Neil's advice in mind I performed everywhere I could. I worked summers in a burlesque house for $35 a week; I took engagements in the basement of the Hollywood Magic Castle, one-nighters at parties, schools and conventions, day-long trade shows; I eventually did casinos and television - I never turned down a show on the excuse that I couldn't do it. I found a way to do it because I loved to work. I made my mistakes, plenty of them, but I learnt from those, and I grew with my art.

Ten years later, perhaps sensing (correctly) that I had progressed as far as I could with my magic on my own, Neil invited me to spend Thanksgiving week with him and his wife, Jeanne, at their home in Colon. "I think I can help you now," he added.

Although in that session, and in others that were to follow, we talked about ideas for routines, Neil devoted most of his time to helping me refine what I already knew. During each week-long visit, until two years before his passing-away in 1988, he had something fresh to tell me - some nuance, some bit of business, some tiny change in timing. Always he encouraged me to reach a bit beyond what I had thought was my fullest capacity.

I learnt, for example, that less is more. The great conductor Sir Thomas Beecham said that good music gives us a sense "of both wonder and contentment". Good magic shows a similar kind of quiet paradox.

On the one hand, the performer keeps the audience in a state of illusion; on the other hand, the act has an air of simplicity that makes the achievement seem as effortless as it is open and uncomplicated. There is a correlation between ease and grace and years of experience. The sentiment that "every professional was first an amateur" is abundantly clear as a novice moves from simply doing tricks to being a magician. It takes decades to realise that true magic is indeed the absence of moves.

I also learnt that people come to the theatre expecting to see a performance by a human being, not an automaton. They are interested in drama, comedy, suspense, and one of the most pleasing aspects of their experience occurs when the artist seems, for an instant, to lose control before regaining it. These choreographed surprises - or moments of vulnerability - help to make the audience an intimate observer, a participant in the process, a witness to the wonder.

And I learnt that there are in every audience some people who have heavy hearts. My purpose as an entertainer is to help them forget their everyday problems. "Your spectators have given you their most valuable possession, their time," Neil once told me. "In your allotted time as a professional, you must fill these minutes to the peak of your ability and beyond."

Thus successful magicians remain intensely aware of what they do and how it affects their audience. There is, in the back of each performer's head, a voice that says from time to time: "Watch it!", "Are you listening to the audience?", "Be honest!", "Be fully present, here and now."

In terms of my respect and love for the art of magic, my attention to detail and the joy I feel every time I perform, audiences see Neil's influence in my work. But in terms of the routines and presentation, what they witness is me, discovered and developed during four decades of honing the act.

Good magicians are their own severest critics, but the pay-off is a quiet confidence that comes after years of thinking, reading, experimenting, performing and learning from the results. The act continues to take me all over the world - for that, and much more, I am grateful.

So why do I perform? It's my favourite question. I perform because I have an innate need to perform. I perform because I want to connect with people's hearts at the deepest levels possible. I perform because I am passionate about my craft. I perform because I feel most comfortable before an audience. I perform because it allows me to take risks, because I know that to stop performing would be a kind of self-destruction, because it is when I perform that I am most alive.

Finally, I perform because it gives me great joy to do so. One night over supper I asked my mother, now 86, what music meant to her. She could well have had magicians in mind when she replied: "It means everything to me. It's therapy. It's pleasure. It puts me inside another world. It's the accomplishment. Something you can do by yourself. It works on the imagination. It's a deep feeling. Music reaches so deep that I can't explain it."

The art of magic touches the performer in just such a way. My journey through this enchanted realm has changed me for ever.

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