if you will, an artist’s retreat for magicians. Imagine being in
close, personal discussion with people as committed to creative,
artistic magic as you. Imagine attending magic lectures where the
emphasis is on the performance of magic and your growth as a magician
rather than “learning tricks.” Imagine seeing unbelievable, artistic
magic by world-class performers. What I have just asked you to imagine
actually occurred recently at the Phoenix Gathering 2001, held May
The Phoenix Gathering is the brainchild of Alain Nu and Tatiana Nu, who culled key players from Jeff McBride’s Mystery School after its last year of operation in 1999. The conference, held in a beautiful suburb of Baltimore (and not in Arizona!), was named after the mythical bird that represents transformation and regeneration – although it might also refer to its “rising from the ashes of Mystery School.” The idea was to continue and develop an annual gathering where serious magicians and performers from the allied arts (such as mentalism and sideshow) could come for inspiration and personal exploration with top thinkers and performers.And what thinkers and performers there were!
The Guest of Honor this year was Hiawatha, who brought his extraordinary talents and insights as a creative performer for all to share. A surprise Special Guest was Jeff McBride who delivered a two-hour interactive lecture entitled “Power, Passion, and Performance.” Other Guests were Kostya Kimlat (an very talented and thoughtful young card man) and Ben Caesar (who has won several major competitions with his original manipulation routine). Beyond these guests, the Gathering also had six “Phoenix Professors,” each of whom gave inspiring lectures about areas of their expertise: Just Alan, Kevin Dunn, Harley Newman, Alain Nu, Margaret Steele, and John Tudor. That is quite a line up!
The overarching structure was for each day of the event to focus on one aspect of the life cycle: birth, life, death, and rebirth. Each day would begin with a performance ceremony that raised issues relating to that day’s theme. The theme also became a focus for many of that day’s discussions and lectures. I must say that this thematic structure was extremely effective, as I found myself really reflecting upon my own life cycle as a magician. And truth to tell, I left the Gathering quite dramatically reborn in my sensibilities and values as a performer. What an amazing experience to have at a magic convention!
But it wasn’t just the thematic structure that gave rise to these reflections and insights. For each day we would break up into assigned small discussion groups that were designed, not only to foster new friendships, but also for us to talk about assigned, thought-provoking questions. One example from the second day (Life) was: “Why are you a magician?” What a fabulous question to think and speak publicly about! As a philosophy professor, I know the deep value of confronting such questions. It was such a pleasure to have someone posing them for me and to learn from hearing how everyone else responded.
One of the other highlights of the Phoenix Gathering is what is referred to as the “Works in Progress” sessions. These two sessions were structured periods when the entire group would come together and anyone who so desired could perform a piece and receive written feedback from everyone. Just imagine performing something you have been working on and getting honest, constructive critique and suggestions from a large group of serious, talented magicians – including such artists as Jeff McBride and Hiawatha! I, myself, performed a piece and the feedback I received was utterly invaluable; there were suggestions I never could have come up with myself, but which will instantly raise the piece to a higher level. And lest the reader think these sessions were just one “bad act” after another, many of the professionals commented to me that the creativity and artistic quality of most of the performances was inspiring to them. Alain Nu told me afterward that he thinks the “Works in Progress” sessions are one of the most important parts of the Phoenix Gathering, and I couldn’t agree more.
Then there were the shows – all the shows of fabulous magic. Each day had a long evening show that featured performances by the Guests, Professors, and other professionals. Particularly memorable pieces from the Thursday and Friday shows were Marc DeSouza’s “Dreamcatcher,” Suzanne’s beautiful cups and balls (“a classic from the Phoenix Gathering”), Harley Newman’s “Bed of Nails” challenge (with only four large spikes!), Kevin Dunn’s inimitable “Haunted Key,” and Alain Nu’s justly celebrated spoon bending routine.
Saturday night was the public Gala Show, entitled “The Language of Magic.” Produced by the Nus, (with music and the framing story written by Tatiana Nu), the show featured pieces by a number of the Guests and Professors. The whole show was outstanding, packed with magic of the highest quality and artistry. We witnessed, for instance, Just Alan’s award-winning, deeply affecting piece, “The Sands of the India,” Margaret Steele’s gorgeous Linking Rings routine, the amazing magic of Hiawatha’s “Prince Junei” (augmented by his performing arts ensemble), and Alain Nu’s stunning, revolutionary presentation of the floating ball. During intermission and afterward I overheard many of the paying public raving about the show. If only all the magic that people saw was so excellent!
that is certainly part of what the Phoenix Gathering is all about:
to create a place where excellent magic is the norm, to create a
retreat for people who care deeply about magic to come together and work
to improve their craft. I
have been enriched as a magician by the deep camaraderie and personal
growth that flourished around these shared goals at the Gathering.
let me ask you: Are you
feeling stuck as a magician?
Are you hungry for an infusion of new, creative energy?
you looking for a community of magicians who are concerned with the
higher secrets of performing magic, and who seek to realize its best
possibilities as a performing art?
Well, you don’t have to imagine. You can plan to be a part of the Phoenix Gathering next year. I look forward to meeting you there!
(Note...Dr. Lawrence Hass is a philosophy professor, a performing magician, and an award-winning author of articles on the magical arts. Recently, he produced “The Theory and Art of Magic” program at Muhlenberg College – from which many of the talks were collected as a series that ran in The Linking Ring from September 2000 to May 2001.)
This review appeared in The Linking Ring, August 2001.
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