South Africa boasts the world's only college of magic

DPA , Cape Town

Sun, Mar 20, 2005 - Page 7

Situated in a large, old, red two-story Victorian mansion in the Cape Town suburb of Claremont, the world's only college of magic may lack the flying broomsticks of Harry Potter, but the school still evokes the atmosphere of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Dozens of children gather at the college each week to learn about magic.

Since 1980, more than 1,000 students have graduated with diplomas from the institution that is funded in part by acclaimed Las Vegas illusionists Siegfried and Roy.

Two final-year students recently took first and second prizes at the World Magic Convention in Las Vegas, and several former students are highly respected in the field of magic worldwide.

Milling about the corridors of the college on any given Saturday, "pick a card" is one of the most frequently voiced requests from aspiring teenage magicians in black and white wing-tip shirts, bow ties, waistcoats and jackets.

A gong signals the start of lessons in sleight-of-hand magic, illusion, juggling, mime and clowning.

"Today we are going to learn to make cards fly though the air," magician, college founder and lecturer David Gore tells the first- year class of boys between the ages of nine and 14.

The children closely study his hands and follow his light-hearted comments in anticipation of stepping out in front of their audience of peers for their own rendition of the close-up tricks they are refining.

Coins disappear, paperclips fuse, elastic bands jump around and flying playing cards confuse and wow the audience.

Distinct individual styles emerge as the children adapt their "patter."

In another room older students are dissecting the psychology of magic and performance, the importance of expression and the styles and techniques of some of the most successful names in the industry worldwide like David Copperfield, David Blaine, Harry Houdini, Paul Daniels and David Berglas.

Copperfield visited the college in the late 1990s. Other famous magicians from around the world have held lectures and seminars there.

"When you're ordinary and natural, the audience won't have a clue that you're about to produce a white tiger from your back pocket," the lecturer tells them.

Wade Petersen, who recently won the teenage section of the World Magic Convention in Las Vegas, is seated in the class.

"My act was around the theme of tea. Technically Nic (runner-up Nicholas Rix) and I scored the same. But I think the audience voted for me because, at the end of the act, I made tea appear in a cup that they saw was empty," the 17-year-old explains.

His hero is modern-day American wizard and celebrity Lance Burton, he says.

As a young child Petersen was eating at a restaurant one day when he observed a magician working the tables. "That's when I decided I want to learn magic. He was from the college," he recalls.

The teenager who hopes to study molecular chemistry after a return performance in Vegas next year, is due to graduate from the college at the end of the year.

For classmate 18-year-old Anele Makalani, one of a large number of Xhosa children from the impoverished Cape township of Khayelitsha who attend the college, taking up magic was not easy.

"I had a friend who was attending the college and he influenced me to come. The first time that I said to my mother I wanted to do magic, she said it was witchcraft," he said.

But he managed to convince his mother, a traditional woman with strong superstitions like many of the residents in the township, and now she's "very happy."

Makalani describes his style as "romantic magic" where silk handkerchiefs are important props.

Commenting on his sixth and final year of tuition, he said enthusiastically: "We are working towards the big illusion of sawing someone in half."

Globe-trotting career magician Jacques le Sueur, the man who managed to slip former South African president Nelson Mandela's watch from his arm undetected twice, is a former college graduate.

He decided to perform full-time when he graduated from the college in the early 1990s and has since staged shows in 37 countries around the world and penned two books on the subject.

As a non-verbal form of communication, magic has been "a tool" that he has used to survive and "break down barriers," he says.

The college recently introduced a distance-learning course that uses the Internet to take tuition to another level. Students are able to log onto the Internet, download video clips of magic acts and submit video clips of their assignments.

"We have just over 50 people from around the world -- places like Australia, the United Kingdom, Korea, Argentina, India and Singapore enrolled for this course. They are doctors, company directors, many university students and housewives," says college publicist Craig Mitchell.

"We even have a multiple sclerosis patient using the tricks for hand therapy," he says.

"The largest magic society in the United Kingdom is the Magic Circle; the US has the Magic Castle and in Africa we have the College of Magic," Mitchell says.