Do You Believe in Magic? | When Criss Angel Meets Cirque du Soleil
Some say art imitates nature. If so, the similarity between the two comes from the fact that you can no more stop an artist from producing art than you can stop the sun from rising each day. Artists seem to possess a sort of internal creative energy that keeps them moving forward toward their end goal. Not everyone is missing this drive, but many of us wish we had that focus, inspiration, and ability to stick to our belief in ourselves and in our ideas. It’s another thing to make those ideas a reality. Some people in other professions have these same qualities, but you can see them illuminated more clearly in artists, possibly because they create things for the world to see, or place themselves in the public eye with their art.
Or maybe we notice these characteristics because on so many levels art personifies the artist. Creator and created become one. More often than not, artists do indeed become their art — or it becomes them. The inherent act of creating pushes them constantly, until they simply can’t stop themselves from creating. “Create or die,” becomes their motto. And even if you don’t like their art, then their love of what they do draws you to them and makes their work appealing.
Take Criss Angel. You don’t have to like him or what he does to be intrigued by the passion he has for his art. This magician, illusionist, escapologist, and stunt performer possibly best known for his A&E Network series Criss Angel Mindfreak, has focused on creating magic since he was just seven years old. He’s devoted his life to following in the footsteps of Harry Houdini, taking on the job of disproving the notion that supernatural psychic abilities exist while constantly trying to prove he can accomplish mind over matter, and create illusions, if not actual magic.
Some may say what Angel does isn’t art at all, but sheer craziness. There are acts like the vanishing Lambourghini, the disappearing and reappearing elephant, and the five needles and thread swallowed that appear (threaded no less) out of his belly-button. That’s magic, or at least the art of illusion as we tend to know it. Then comes the other totally crazy stuff he does. Who in their right mind lies down on a bed of broken glass and lets a steamroller drive over him up to his waist? Who asks someone to run into him with their car?
And who stands around to watch? I had a hard time keeping my eye on the computer screen long enough to watch the YouTube videos of Angel per forming these “stunts.” I can’t speak for others. Maybe they are simply thrill seekers. Maybe they like the experience of a, well, mindfreak. Or maybe they watch for the exact reason Angel performs: because of the feeling his performance gives them.
All good art elicits a feeling. We connect on an emotional level with a painting, movie, dance, or performance. Angel calls this “the magic of emotion,” and he hopes the members of his audience will connect with his performance emotionally, and then reflect on their own lives. For him, getting people to experience his art in this fashion represents “the truest form of magic.” In fact, it’s Houdini’s form of magic that he emulates. He likes to tell of how Houdini’s escape from a straitjacket might have provoked the response within someone that they, too, could leave behind the constraints of their life.
So, underneath his rough demeanor and his thrill-seeking shows, Angel is looking for what all artists want: to gain satisfaction not from the act of creation itself, but from a creation, or performance, that touches viewers at a deep level. He relates, “To me it’s always been about what I can bring to my fans and how they react to it emotionally.”
Or, people might react differently; they simply might think he’s crazy. You’ve got to be crazy to do the things Angel does. Maybe it takes a bit of craziness to succeed as an artist, or at least something that looks like insanity to all us “normal” folks. Possibly, success as an artist comes down to a total belief in yourself and your work. To achieve success in art you have to give yourself full permission to express your ideas in any way you feel so moved. You have to possess the ability to focus totally upon your art to the exclusion of anything else. How many of us do that on a regular basis? Angel spends all his time producing or performing. “I don’t really get a lot of free time outside of the show. I only sleep three hours a night, because I’m constantly creating,” he admits.
Constantly creating means bringing both new and old ideas to life. An artist knows in their gut when an idea is good, or when an idea is bad. The bad ones get thrown out quickly. The good ones get used rapidly, or stored away until the time is right for them to be born. They gestate within the artist’s mind and heart and soul, sometimes until he or she can find the right midwife or birthing team to help bring that idea into the world. Then, when the idea is ready, the artist and the creative team give birth to that creation — to something totally new and innovative they have nurtured together.
That’s how Angel’s newest creation, Criss Angel Believe, a collaboration with Cirque du Soleil, came to life. When he couldn’t make it happen alone, he trusted the creative process, which in this case meant also trusting his “baby” to the talents and skills of more than one other artist. “I wrote this show more than fifteen years ago,” says Angel, “It wasn’t until I met [Cirque de Soleil founder] Guy Laliberté that I thought a show like this was even possible. I couldn’t have done it without Cirque and their vision.”
He didn’t think the show was possible, yet he held onto the script for all that time. And he held the idea in his head and in his heart. When given the opportunity, he told someone about it — but not just anyone. He told someone who had already proven he had that same artistic fire and drive, someone who had created a world of art all his own. Somewhere deep inside, Angel knew his idea was not only a good one, but that it was, indeed, possible. Otherwise he would have simply ditched it and moved on.
Laliberté and Angel share a similar rationale when it comes to their shows. A former accordionist, stilt-walker, and fire-eater who began pursuing his career in the performing arts at age sixteen, Laliberté decided not to use animals or rings in his circus, because he believed that by doing something unexpected — by not using typical circus elements — audiences would be pulled into the performance and have a different experience. Now, teaming up with Angel, he once again is reinventing his concept, doing something no one has done before under his particular “big top.”
Believe is Cirque du Soleil’s first show sans acrobatics. It’s also Angel’s first show since Mindfreak hit television that doesn’t include his signature spectator-point-of-view-filmed feats. Instead, he and Laliberté bring to Vegas’s Luxor Hotel a dramatic and beautifully depicted tale accented with dance and illusion. “It’s been my dream to take magic in a completely different direction, and I think we are doing that with this show,” says Angel.
Like Angel needed Laliberté’s vision to bring his dream into reality, he also needed the help of two other amazing artists: co-writer and director Serge Denoncourt and choreographer Wade Robson. They offered him their unique creative minds and skill sets, adding these to the process to produce a work bearing all their unique talents. Because that’s what happens when you put several artists together: their worlds, talents, and ideas converge to create something even more unique and innovative.
While Angel may be a master at the illusion we call “magic,” Denoncourt can be called a master of creating an illusion through written words. Known as a true man of the theater with more than eighty productions to his credit, he was planning to study medicine when he decided at the age of eighteen to audition for the theater program at a Montreal college, was accepted, and became an actor. Now he couples his actor’s point of view with his ability to “doctor” scripts and draws audiences into his productions, first with visual beauty, heightened imagery, and vivid use of color, and second, with a storyline that forces them to look deeply into the characters, plot, and ultimately, into themselves.
When given the task of writing for a magic show, Denoncourt set about producing one with emotion and storyline, something he judged most other magic shows as lacking. He produced something totally new, a magic show like none seen ever before, one presenting illusions not as standalone elements but as components integrated into the fabric of a fabulous story, one that takes you deep into the mind of none other than Angel himself.
Every story needs movement. It needs to be brought to life. Thus, Robson came in to bring all the pieces together, to add energy to the project. He’s the master of creating magic and illusion in the form of dance. In fact, Robson likes choreographing best when he can tell a story with dance.
With his own take on the story, Robson added an eclectic mix of contemporary and hip-hop dance in which not one move is made simply “for the sake of movement,” but instead each “is driven by story and character.”
If Believe constitutes a trip into the recesses of Angel’s mind, as you might imagine, some pretty weird characters dwell in there. Angel stars as a surreal, enigmatic Victorian noble moving along a path of imaginative exploration. On the way, he encounters two brightly clad women, who represent different aspects of femininity, four bizarre ushers, who introduce the audience to the baroque theater of Angel’s mind, and a high-energy troupe of characters. These include rabbits (like none you’ve ever seen pop out of a hat), a two-headed woman, eagle-like creatures, and something that looks like a porcelain doll come to life. They all exist in this highly-theatrical tableau set against a backdrop of dreamlike darkness and light.
As the curtain opens on Believe, this time no one will see Angel impaled on a fence or cut in half. The risk lies in simply doing what he must, in creating his art, in accomplishing his creative goal. And, most importantly, it lies in actually living his dream, but isn’t that what we call an artist’s life? Isn’t that what we all want — to live every day with passion, inspiration, and a crazy, fire-in-our-belly sort of drive to succeed almost at all costs?
So, what do you get when great artistic minds come together? Their passion, persistence, inspiration, and perspiration result in even greater genius. In the case of Believe, you end up with the most innovative Cirque de Soleil show ever and a Criss Angel production unlike any his “loyals” have seen to date. The unique Cirque style, combined with the talent of all three artists, has produced a high-energy visual feast moved along by its story and punctuated with sound, color, movement, and, of course, illusion.
For Angel, the most amazing part of the creative process that produced Believe lies in the fact that “the vision has remained seamless” despite the fact that he asked so many creators to visualize it with him. “Serge Denoncourt has done an amazing job directing the show. Wade Robson is an Emmy-winning choreographer, and you’ll see some amazing dance numbers. It all has come together to create something the world of entertainment has never seen,” he concludes.
Angel’s belief in his ideas actually might be the most amazing aspect of his new show. If it weren’t for that belief, Believe would never have been created. If Angel doesn’t see the truth in that statement, he needs to remember a story he tells about how he named his newest creation. He says that before Houdini died, he gave his wife a code word so that she would be able to tell the impostors from the true mediums — if any existed — who said he had come back and spoken to them. No one ever gave her that code word, but Angel says he’s used it as the title of this show. Believe. How fitting.
GUY LALIBERTE A FREE MAN — LITERALLY
A bold visionary, Laliberté, knows a good idea when he sees one. After all, he reinvented the Circus as an art form when he co-founded Cirque du Soleil, recognizing and cultivating the talents of the street performers from the Fête Foraine de Baie-Saint-Paul in Quebec where Cirque du Soleil represented a revolution of sorts in the circus world; it was a totally new and innovative idea, a different type of circus all together. Laliberté believed in his idea, though, and created it. Twenty-five years later, Cirque has become the crème de la crème of acrobatic theatrical performances and the best ring-less, animal-less circus in the world.
WADE ROBSON NOT JUST YOUR USUAL CHOREOGRAPHER
Robson, like Angel, has been pursuing his art since he was very young — actually, just five years old. If you go back and watch some old Michael Jackson videos, you can see him in them and he was only ten years old. At the ripe old age of sixteen, he began choreographing for Britney Spears and ‘NSYNC and writing and producing music for these two recording artists as well as a host of others. He’s made his name as a choreographer who doesn’t see dance like other choreographers, and is sure to offer up something unexpected. He won a 2007 Emmy for his work on Fox’s So You Think You Can Dance.
CRISS ANGEL SUPERSTAR
Some say Criss Angel represents the second coming of Jesus. This 41-year old, who has been seen doing Christ-like things, such as walking on water, levitating, and being strung under a moving helicopter by hooks supposedly dug into the flesh on his back, actually grew up as Christopher Nicholas Sarantakos in East Meadow, New York. The only difference between him and the other kids was that at the age of seven he began pursuing his dream by studying mysticism, music, martial arts, and dance. Later, he created his stage persona as Criss Angel. His Off-Broadway production of Criss Angel Mindfreak had a 600-show run, and with his Criss Angel Mindfreak television show he has performed more hours of prime-time magic than anyone in history. This show alone probably helped him become the one magician to bring about a major resurgence of magic in popular culture today. Even other magicians acknowledge his outstanding talent and have named Angel Magician of the Year five times, given him the 22nd Louie Award for outstanding achievement in the art of magic, and most recently honored him with the International Magicians Society’s Magician of The Decade award.