[This article was published in CircusMagazine #45 – December 2015]
[Author: Liv Laveyne – Translation: Craig Weston]
[Copyright: Circuscentrum – please contact maarten[at]circuscentrum.be for more information]
Mouths drop open in surprise. Shouts of amazement. Eyes well up with emotion. A standing ovation. Belgium’s champion of magic, Kurt Demey, leaves everything to chance in his latest show, ‘Ongekende evidenties’ (‘Unknown Evidentialities’). Or does he? A trip into the art of mentalism.
An American story. Two families go to Disneyland on the same day and take a picture. Twenty years later a couple decides to get married. At the party they pull out the old photos. In one photo of the bride, the observant father-in-law sees his son, the groom, in a buggy in the background. Fate or serendipity?
A wooden tree-like structure, glass jars filled with sand, a bottle and a die. These are the only attributes that Kurt Demey needs, in ‘Ongekende evidenties’, to offer you a disorienting theatre-trip,(and for some spectators a trip far beyond, but for the sake of that secret, we’ll say no more). Barefoot and in a suit, blond hair, warm smile and hypnotic voice: Demey has something of a cult leader, were it not for the fact that his performance offers no spectacle, only pure poetry. That’s how he leads you into his universe, together with contrabassist Joris Vanvinkenroye as the driving undertone. If in the beginning you ask yourself what you are doing with that photo in your hand, by the end of the performance the question of ‘how he does it?’ is much less important than the feeling of a very special coming together which engulfs you.
To say that Demey is an outsider to the world of ‘sleight of hand’ would be an understatement. Coming from the visual arts, he has spent the last ten years, under the handle Rode Boom (Red Tree), researching mentalism and contemporary magic. Performances like ‘The Horned Man’, ‘In the air’, ‘The city that breathes’ and now ‘Unprecedented Evidentialities’, could be placed somewhere between theatre and illusionism, with a healthy (typically Belgian?) dose of the surreal. Well known for his skill and art far beyond our borders, he may now also call himself the new Belgian champion of Magic. He received the prize for originality and the ‘unfathomable nature of the secret’. No magician or member of the jury could figure out the secret of his latest invention.
“I gave them, together with Stefan Paridaen, a young talent from Antwerpen, something atypical, far from the showbizz world where most of the magic get’s stuck. It was nice to see that it was no longer a question of the speed in which you did your card-trick, or the look of your jacket or shoes. You would think that wouldn’t be an issue, but Stefan lost points in an earlier competition because he was wearing sneakers under his suit jacket!” laughs Demey. “Actually, mentalism will always lose out in a magicians’ contest. In sleight of hand it is all about the trick, in mentalism it is about not showing the trick. The effect only comes once everything is finished.”
…is a form of amusement in which the artist (mentalist) creates the illusion that he is blessed with unusual mental skills and powers. (definition Wikipedia)
Magic, sleight of hand, illusionism, mentalism, witchcraft, the paranormal, (if that even exists). Often all those terms get thrown into the same basket. “‘The roots of ‘sleight of hand’ can be found in the circus, but it is a general term for many genres. There is the illusionism we have come to know from David Copperfield with his big vanishing tricks, there’s the street magic of little card tricks and balls under the cup, and there is mentalism where you create the illusion that you can read the thoughts of others. Derren Brown was crucial to the evolution of mentalism, he shifted the claim of ‘reading minds’ to psychology. As mentalist, one draws on a range of techniques, conditioning, suggestion and association, cold reading, muscle reading…. People give a lot away, not so much by what they say, but how they say it, their body language. It is a question of learning to read. There is nothing paranormal about it. I am happy that the audience is also starting to understand this. I used to get requests for exorcisms and contact with those beyond the grave, but that is happily much less frequent these days.”
“Magic is making a come-back in Europe and Belgium is slowly following that trend. The image of the stuffy magician in tail-coats is undergoing a make-over. That has everything to do with a couple anglo-saxon names that have gone very big thanks to television and the internet, Derren Brown and the young Dynamo – (the Justin Bieber of the magic world). But also thanks to a tv-series like The Mentalist or closer to home, the stand-up comic/mentalist Gili. They’ve helped to make magic ‘sexy’ again. On the other hand, – far from the popular market – an evolution in France is taking place in the artistic sector, where ‘magie nouvelle’ is weaving the techniques of illusionism and mentalism into a new theatrical language. Here, closer to home, companies like Peeping Tom are part of that movement.”
“But how do you do it? I don’t mind it when people ask me that, it is part of the game. But I sometimes find it a pity that in the pure mentalism shows that ‘needing to know’ gets in the way of the experience. The frustration of an audience who cannot figure it out gets in the way of the wonder. That’s why I love to do mentalism in the theatre. Theatre is a game between fiction and the reality of being. That is why I work more and more often with theatre people, as now on the latest play by the poet Maud Vanhauwaert and the actor Valentijn Dhaenens (SKaGeN). I want to share what I know and, rather that relying on existing tricks, take on requests to develop something new. Tell me what you would like to have happen, and I will make sure it does. Whether I do that in the theatre, the circus or in installations like some of the ones you find in ‘Ongekende evidenties’ is to me of less importance. If you show those kinds of trick outside of the tiny context of a mentalism show, it becomes a sort of magic realism that you inject into the present reality. It’s that sincere wonder that I am looking for. Like the little brother who asks his big brother to conjure a sugar cube. The most beautiful moments are when seemingly by accident magic happens.”
“The fact that magic is enjoying a renaissance, is thanks – I believe – to the times in which we live. People are looking for meaning in their lives, not so much a religious meaning as a spiritual way of understanding things. They are not turning to the esoteric, and neither trying to determine what is true or not true, but the impulse derives from a no-nonsense desire to give a place to the things that are unfathomable, the things beyond understanding. Just as we can find the moon, or a piece of art to be ‘magical’.”
…is the effect of a cause we didn’t detect. (Voltaire)
“With ‘Ongekende Evidenties’ we really took a leap of faith. Joris [Vanvinckenroye] found it a pity that our earlier performance ‘The horned man’ ended the same each time, and asked himself if it wasn’t possible to leave more to chance. That led us to the question of just what that is, ‘chance’? From a philosophical point of view chance is defined as unpredictable fate, in mathematics it is seen as part of prediction: how many possible coincidences are there? How can we manipulate chance? This question brought us to higher mathematics, where one dares to think of a fourth, fifth and even sixth dimension, and to books like ‘Flatland‘ (1884) by Edwin Abbot.”
“In theory one could perfectly deduce how a tree will grow, if you take account of all the characteristics of that sort of tree and its environment, the composition of the soil, the climate, …but it only takes one person to snap a twig from that tree to change the course of things. The only factor that we cannot predict is the will. As long as there is will, there will always be chance.”
“That realization was in conflict with what the title ‘Ongekende Evidenties’ implies, for it was not evident to build a performance. It needed to appear as if I put everything in the hands of the audience, so I couldn’t rely on the classic tricks of mentalism. Rather than ascertain in advance which of the audience might be easily readable, or easy to manipulate, we spin a bottle – as in Russian roulette – and leave the choice of who will be taken out of the audience to chance. That is also the strength of this show, the tie that develops between the members of the audience, the fact than anyone could be chosen. The spectators are my fellow players, not my puppets. The instructions I give them are therefore immensely important. Otherwise it doesn’t work. Normally one can work that into the entertainment, but in a theatrical setting it can only be passed on by the text or subtext.”
“The most fascinating thing for me is what I call, (for lack of a better word), the décalage. It is the moment that the trick has been revealed and as a spectator you realize that your brain is not capable of ‘getting it’. That is the most interesting moment because you come to a fork in the road. Either you can look for an explanation, which is interesting because it confronts you with your own limitations, as you realize that your common sense and the senses you have learned to trust fall short in giving you a decent explanation for the reality at hand. Or there is the other route, that of letting go and allowing yourself to be drawn into a poetic and surreal world. Either choice is valid, but that choice will have a huge effect on how you experience the performance.”
“We human beings, contrary to the rhinoceros, did not receive a big horn. But we did receive a head with big brains full of imagination. It’s good to shake that brain up once in a while. The power of imagination is enormous. It’s not for nothing that other fields of knowledge like the world of publicity and even the world of science call on the expertise of the mentalists. Take for example the famous seven-second rule, that the human being forgets something after seven seconds. That is an important assertion. The medical world also profits from our knowledge of how to ‘fool’ people. The power of placebos has been proven time and again. That imagination can play a gigantic role in the healing process, is an idea of which more and more doctors are convinced.”
For he who knows too much it is difficult not to lie. (Wittgenstein)
Was it chance or not? That’s how Demey himself fell into the world of mentalism. “It started in 2000, when I received, by chance, a book from a girlfriend entitled ‘Traveling through the underbelly of India’ [Tahir Shah]. I began to study yogi tricks like how to slow down or stop your heart. I thought how interesting it could be to bring that knowledge to the stage and how – especially if you leave out the show element – one could make the experience so much more remarkable. That’s how my first show ‘The Horned Man’ (2006), came to be, a performance I have been touring ever since.”
“There is a plethora of books and also on the internet one can find a mountain of information about mentalism. There are international congresses and we even have a Flemish mentalism club. It is a secret society, but even more a tight circle of friends, with whom we trust our most cherished secrets. The members are not all performers, but come from all walks of life. One doesn’t just become a member: you have to gain trust, do an entrance exam, … which doesn’t mean to say we are some dark magicians’ club or something! I am convinced that anyone can become a mentalist, just as anyone can learn to play the contrabass. But to become really good, you have to be obsessed with your job, and constantly seek to improve. It also helps a bit if you have some natural talent for doing several things at the same time, and for lying.”
And does Demey ever use/abuse his talent offstage? “I never do that, it isn’t necessary. As humans we feel the language of the body intuitively. We are used to smelling out danger. One time only, in an emergency situation, I used my mentalism skills. When I was traveling in India I suddenly felt a revolver held up to my head, so while lowering the timbre of my voice, I calmly talked my attacker out of the idea. In the end I found myself with the revolver in my own hand. I shot the gun off until the round was empty, and handed the gun back to its owner. But whether that was mentalism, or just a cold-blooded act of non-aggression…?”
A slightly altered version of this interview appeared previously in the cultural magazine Acc’enten.