The Cups and Balls
The cups and balls were the one trick described or pictured in all the books on magic that I read as a young teenager and thus drew my attention early on. One of my first purchases from a magic shop included a cheap set of aluminium cups and I performed a simple routine with them long before I was exposed to any of the better explanations of cups and balls technique. (Which is to say those early performances were probably terrible. In fact, I have video to prove they were…)
When I was fourteen years old, I bought Richard Kaufman’s book ‘Williamson’s Wonders’ and started learning David Williamson’s fabulous two-cup routine. It must have been one or two years later that a friend showed me Williamson’s performance on the video ‘Sleight of Dave’ and I can still vividly remember the shock of seeing all of the techniques executed to perfection – or, for that matter, of seeing any perfectly executed sleight of hand for the first time. Up to that point, I had had no idea magic could look that good. It was then and there that practising the cups and balls became a teenage obsession.
I should mention that I was fortunate to have a serious start at learning sleight-of-hand magic in Germany in the nineties, when Alexander de Cova published many of his instructional video tapes on card, coin and cups and balls technique. Alexander surely is one of the most highly skilled magicians (his false transfers are a lesson in naturalness) and the German magic scene owes him an immense debt of gratitude for the teaching and mentoring he has done since the nineties. After my initial exposure to David Williamson, I bought and studied many of de Cova’s tapes and attended symposia and workshops he organised. A workshop on the cups and balls left a particularly deep impression because it introduced me to the notion of practice drills for false transfers and exposed me to a whole range of transfers for the small balls used in the cups and balls.
For a time, Alexander’s publications were produced by magician and magic publisher Rudolf Braunmüller in Munich, who also distributed video tapes by magician Roger Crosthwaite. On two of the volumes, a very young Michael Vincent made guest appearances and his flawless and relaxed execution of card and coin routines set yet another benchmark to strive for.
I think I can trace all of my ideals in sleight of hand back to those three early influences – David Williamson, Alexander de Cova and Michael Vincent. They are all great performers of the cups and balls (though I would only discover Michael’s work on the trick much later).
My current presentation for the cups and balls (in a routine still visibly derived from Williamson’s) came together in 2008 when I was asked to perform at a physics conference and set out to write a script that I thought would appeal to the sensibilities of that particular audience. I was reading Robert-Houdin’s autobiography at the time. Choosing him, the magician-scientist, to be at the centre of my presentation was easy, but writing a captivating text to accompany all phases of a cups and balls routine proved much more difficult. By a stroke of luck, I was reading the ‘Confidences’ in a French edition edited by Christian Fechner, which contains a photograph of Robert-Houdin posing with cups and balls late in life. Why would he do that, I asked myself, given the disdain expressed in the text of his autobiography (“a trick only suited for the streets”)? And why would he devote a substantial chapter of ‘The Secrets of Conjuring and Magic’ (published only ten years after the autobiography) to the trick? After I had thought about this for a while, an imagined change of attitude towards the cups and balls on Robert-Houdin’s part became the thread of my story, but I still had no motivation for the final loads or any idea as to what I wanted to make appear under the cups. However, since the very same chapter in the Confidences that describes a cups and balls performance by Bosco also mentions Robert-Houdin’s Orange Tree illusion, I was able to make a connection that tied the whole story together. You can watch my very first performance of the script, at the conference for which it was written, right here:
I started performing professionally after obtaining a Master’s degree in philosophy (and turning down a PhD position to ensure I’d have enough time for magic) and still find much of my work at academic conferences, symposia and university events. While I have performed several cups and balls routines over the years and written a number of different scripts to go with the trick, the presentation about Robert-Houdin seems to strike a chord with the audiences I encounter at those events and it has therefore become a regular part of my stage act.
On ‘As I recall… Slydini’, the DVD set featuring recollections of their master of many of Slydini’s students, there is a memorable story told by Mark Mitton. Apparently, Slydini healed a US soldier who couldn’t walk for psychosomatic reasons by performing the Silk Knot routine for him. Slydini announced that if the knots dissolved, the soldier would overcome whatever problem he would most like to see solved. And he did.
This became the basis of a presentation with which I often open a close-up performance. I love it because it addresses a lot of things that need addressing when I first encounter my spectators: audience involvement, preconceptions regarding magic, my strange German accent…
It was the first close-up presentation I came up with that I really liked and the one thing I carried around everywhere (still do). I like it because I’m living with it. Maybe I can keep this paragraph short after all.
“Now we arrive at what, to me, seems one of the strangest manifestations in magic. […] Without benefit of wedlock, this illegitimate child of art gone psychopathic and magic with delirium tremens has somehow crept into The Chinese Linking Rings.”
This is how Dariel Fitzkee introduces his treatment of linking ring figures and it is quite clear that he is not approving. I have happy childhood memories, though, of German magician Marvelli jr. performing the linking rings on German television and can recall how beautiful it was when he started forming figures and transitioned from one to the next with ease and grace. While verbally referring to these shapes as concrete objects (key chain, clover leaf, etc.) strikes me as odd, I have always liked their aesthetic quality. On the other hand, I was also fascinated early on by Richard Ross’ performance with just three rings, especially because of the visual clarity he achieved and his focus on the linking and unlinking of the rings.
I certainly had no clear idea of what I wanted to achieve when I started performing the rings as a young teenager and I don’t even remember which routine or routines I did back then. But I do recall comments made by audience members: some found the figures boring, some stated that it was clear the rings had secret openings. My early attempts at performing the trick were not a success and I stopped doing it for at least ten years. The aesthetics of the linking rings continued to appeal to me, however. I kept practising linking ring moves and when I read about a new sleight or routine I would try it out in front of the mirror. I also kept in mind that making the figures interesting would require a special effort on my part and that I would somehow need to prevent my audience from dismissing the illusion too easily.
In 2006 I started experimenting with the linking rings in earnest again, focussing my efforts on Dai Vernon’s ‘Symphony of the Rings’. I sought out coaching by a physical theatre teacher and a dance choreographer (thank you, Danielle and Marisa!) and we approached Vernon’s routine from a movement perspective. While I first imagined I would set the piece to music and present it silently, I soon realised a silent presentation would neither give me the connection with my audience I was seeking, nor the control over my spectators’ thought processes that I was aiming at. Also, I am not a dancer and don’t think I should present a routine in a way that would invite an evaluation in terms of movement skills.
Still, focussing on movement for several months helped me greatly in presenting the figure part of Vernon’s routine and also gave me insights into its structure that I had missed: by limiting the figures to one or two per number of rings involved and by progressing from three to six rings, Vernon’s routine employs the figures as an intricate and beautiful way of adding in rings one by one. If this is clearly communicated, spectators can sense that the display of figures is going to end once the sixth ring has been added and their anticipation of the final result prevents that part of the routine from dragging.
I was still facing the question of how to prevent my audience from reaching for the easy explanation of secret openings. Of course, all good linking ring routines already include ways of disproving that theory: handing out examinable chains and single rings, making rings seemingly pass through each other at points of their circumference that spectators can clearly see are closed, etc.
Unfortunately, in the case of the linking rings, reaching the true (partial) explanation of secret openings requires only minimal reasoning effort: if the same two rings were first separate, then linked, surely there must be an opening. And thus most spectators will still assume that this is the trick’s explanation, maybe concluding that the opening must be some microscopic incision invisible to the human eye.
When faced with a magic trick, your spectators will want to put their mind to rest by grasping for explanations. The degree of specificity that spectators require of their explanations varies. ‘It’s just a trick!’ will be sufficient to a few spectators. Naming a category of magic technique (‘sleight of hand!’) might satisfy a substantial portion of the audience. And so on, up the ladder of specificity, to ever more specific explanations, including – in the case of the linking rings – those easily suspected secret gaps.
Luckily, we have some control over the explanations that our spectators content themselves with. In the case of the linking rings, I feel we must force our audience to somehow label the obvious explanation as insufficient (not necessarily as obviously wrong): how could there be any secret openings given the open way the rings are handled, where are they at any given point, how can the magician make the rings pass through each other so fluidly when the gaps must be so small as to be invisible? When one spectator says ‘these rings have gaps’, we want another spectator to reply: ‘Well yes, but how? And where?’
We must force our audience higher up the ladder of specificity.
Eugene Laurant uses a strategy that achieves just that at the beginning of his linking ring routine published in the Tarbell Course: he exposes a key ring and draws attention to the clattering noise it makes when struck by another ring. Discarding the key ring, Laurant claims he could not possibly use such a ring in the trick since it could be told apart immediately by its sound. He then proceeds with his routine, using a second key ring. Spectators still thinking that secret openings must play a part in the trick are now forced to think that theory through much more thoroughly: is it possible to make a ring with an opening that still sounds right? The audience’s task just got so much more complicated.
I read Laurant’s routine as I was working on Vernon’s and thought that Laurant’s strategy was ingenious. However, I didn’t want to disclaim the use of a key ring outright – to logically inclined spectators (who firmly conclude that some of the rings must have openings) it would be an obvious lie.
When I didn’t quite know what to do, a small pamphlet by 16th-century magician Thomas L’Escot (published by the Conjuring Arts Research Center) came to my rescue, containing the first known description of the method of the linking ring trick. The explanation is limited to a short routine in which three rings are linked and unlinked, one of the rings having a secret opening.
When reading that text, it occurred to me that Thomas L’Escot’s explanation would be a great presentational fit for Vernon’s routine if quoted before its performance.
It would give a secret away that any spectator suspects anyway, but it would ensure that the impossibility of phases not explained by that secret would register much more forcefully (similar to, but not quite like a sucker effect). It would protect the phases not employing the key by having the audience ask all the wrong questions. And it would protect the phases that actually do work as suspected by forcing the audience to ask specifically how an opening could be involved given the handling of the rings.
So in 2008, I started performing Vernon’s routine with a (rephrased) quote from L’Escot as a simple preamble. Eventually, however, both text and routine grew into something much more integrated, in a couple of steps…
I realised that the fact that the routine I performed involved three more rings than the routine I had just explained was received by my audiences as funny – and also as an indication that the explanation given was to be questioned and examined from the start. Taking out my set of linking rings therefore became a moment that required careful staging. If played up, the comedy of the moment also provided excellent cover for Vernon’s initial counting procedure, showing all rings separate. And of course, when you ask yourself how many of the six rings might have gaps, your mind is not on the one aspect of the rings that that procedure hides so effectively.
Announcing that the trick is explained by gaps requires you to then use linking moves which almost disprove that theory all on their own. The routine became that much stronger when I replaced the first linking move by one of Aldo Colombini’s invention, which, through the open position of the hands, almost negates the possibility of hiding a gap.
In the pull-through unlink, delaying the moment of magic in order to achieve a perfect, in Ortiz’ words, critical interval further contributes to the audience questioning the gap theory. (What kind of opening would allow one ring to pass through the other at a point well away from the hands and in open view?)
One interesting aspect of forcing your spectators to consider the gap theory more thoroughly is that they will form expectations regarding the nature of those openings: wide or small, rigid or somehow opening up and locking shut.
In my experience, many audience members suspect that the openings must be very small. After all, that explains how you could handle the rings so freely without the gaps showing. The handling of the initial linking and unlinking further feeds that suspicion.
One major step forward in the development of the routine was therefore the introduction of a silent linking move (at the third opportunity where rings pass through each other). It destroys the expectations the audience had formed up to that point. If the openings are tiny, why don’t you hear a noise as the rings pass through each other?
Lastly, I had struggled to lend interest to unlinking all rings at the end. Isn’t the climax of the routine reached once all rings form a chain? This problem too was solved with Thomas L’Escot’s help. I realised that Vernon’s final phase, where he forms a key ring figure (all rings on one), then removes the key ring, shows it to be solid, relinks all rings onto it, then withdraws them one by one, is a perfect final proof that the trick cannot simply be explained by gaps. While this phase may be anti-climactic, it certainly isn’t when the routine is all about the validity of the gap theory. It hit me that I could cite Thomas L’Escot’s explanation once more at that point – when it is at its most absurd – summarising the whole performance, achieving a symmetry of text and action and, at the same time, forcing the audience to admit that what they have witnessed has no remotely satisfactory explanation.
There are many more aspects to presenting the linking rings (I haven’t talked at all about staging the assistance by a volunteer and about the difficulties of walking back and forth between that spectator and a spot centre stage.), but this is bad enough longwinded web writing already.
For what it’s worth, here is the latest version for you to see:
Question 2: What is your intention and goal with every performance you give?
I think magic is unique among the variety arts in that the audience has no way of judging the skill involved in what you do. I therefore never liked the heroic magician who would pump his audience for applause and strike the heroic pose at the end of his performance. I try hard not to be that kind of magician (as if I could).
Another interesting feature of magic is that the magician is continually steering his spectators’ attention to the objects he handles rather than towards himself. In that sense, I don’t think the magician is at the centre of a magic performance at all. Of course, he is the main character of a play which also, hopefully, involves his spectators. But he is a character who is very much about presenting things other than himself: strange, inexplicable phenomena.
In my relationship with those things I present, I very much like to be someone who witnesses them together with his audience, while of course also tangibly being their orchestrator. But I certainly don’t want to be a braggart boasting supposed skills and using magic technique to provide fake proof for them. Whatever skills I might have, I merely suggest. When I openly claim them, I do so playfully and with a wink. To my audience, my skill is a matter of speculation.
If I am perceived as a cunning person, interesting without claiming interest and presenting phenomena that play with my spectators’ heads in many intricate ways, I have done my job well.
Question 3: What are currently doing to leave the craft of magic a little better than you found it?
I am not sure I can give a good answer here. In the first place I am working on my own magic, as much as possible perfecting the repertoire I already perform, but also hoping to discover new possibilities and performance pieces (collecting those anecdotes).
Apart from that I try to be as helpful as I possibly can to other magicians approaching me for tips or information. I have learned a lot from others who were willing to share with me and hope to follow their example.
One thing I’d like to do soon is the release of a DVD project on the cups and balls, focussing on the presentation of the trick, on original ideas and phases, but mainly on good technique in the handling of the small balls.
Mike’s Guest Blog Commentary
Tilman made contact with me via email many years ago – just as I was contemplating the building of The Vincent Academy. He timing was perfect because I was looking to promote my Academy and inspire new students on board. Tilman became one of my new students and we became instant friends.
Dai Vernon once said, “if you want to make a name for yourself in magic, then study one trick and learn to perform it better than anyone else and people will talk about you”. In this simple statement, you have the perfect formula for mastering magic and becoming a master magician. In my opinion, Tilman is the perfect embodiment of what Dai Vernon meant.
To learn and master The Cups and Balls is not an easy thing to accomplish let alone present deceptively, in an entertaining manner. Having experienced his live performance I can vouch for his impeccable execution and delivery of this ancient classic.
One thing that struck me in Tilman’s post is how learning a trick from a book presents a great opportunity to study a routine without any external influence at this stage. Books before video allows for our creative evaluation to be in full flow. He mentions how seeing David Williamson’s perfectly executed routine provided further impetus to mastering sleight of hand. I can vouch for this because during my early years, I studied and practiced the Dai Vernon routine long before seeing Vernon’s masterful execution on a television show with Dick Cavette. The experience of seeing perfectly executed sleight of hand magic provides a barometer for excellence.
The most difficult thing with any Cups and Balls routine is making it relevant for a modern audience. Tilman is fortunate in that his academic interest in Philosophy provided him with a context for many of his presentations. This created a path way for him to design one of the most interesting, fascinating and educational presentations for The Cups Balls I have ever seen. Even better is that he has found an audience for his particular style of delivery.
When we first met, it was at Paddington Station over coffee and the first effect he shared with me was Slydini’s Silks Knots routine and it was terrific. Again, his story was compelling and believable. This is the point behind any successful presentation; can we as magicians make our presentations and performance believable and compelling for our audience? My friend and mentor Alan Alan said to me that a great presentation must start off with an acceptable grain of truth, which the audience can make an emotional investment in. Once this happens, the performer can delicately distort the facts to support the magic that happens. Tillman’s magic provides his audience with many interesting bits of facts and trivia, which makes for an enjoyable and stimulating experience.
His performance of The Linking Rings is another example of how he works hard at finding the all-important purpose behind every effect he chooses to perform. In his own way, he finds his own answers to the most important question to every magical presentation, “Why should the audience care?”
The Linking Rings in my opinion is the perfect magic trick. It is deceptive on many levels because of what Tommy Wonder called “The Three Pillars”. This effect combines sleight of hand, gimmicks and psychology to make the trick work in the way that it does. In Tilman’s presentation, he has added a “fourth pillar” to this trick that redefines it as a classical effect – his presentation. The combination of facts about Thomas L’Escot provides the audience with the grain of truth, which adds even more value to the effect, which is already a masterpiece of design and construction.
There is a big secret in Tillman’s blog, I wonder if many of you saw it?
He mentions his passion for studying the history of magic along with deception and freak entertainment. I have lost count how many times I have mentioned to all my students to read up on the history of magic – study The Illustrated History by Magic by Milbourne Christopher. There is a reason for this additional study – it provides a rich texture to our lives as magicians, it connects us with our heritage and it provides inspiration and direction for our journey ahead.
I admire his humility in how he sets out his approach, intention and goals with every performance. Tilman is as much an observer as well as the orchestrator. This approach creates a space for the audience to feel his humanity.
Before signing off, I want to thank Tilman for his wonderful Blog Post and to acknowledge his contribution to artistic performance, he one of my favourite magicians and performers. He closed the show I produced last year at The Magic Circle – Michael Vincent Showtime, featuring all of my students. His act consisted of The Cups and Balls, his Rope Routine and he closed with The Linking Rings. His performance received high praise from The Magic Circle members. If you haven’t seen Tilman in action, watch the videos that supports this Blog, it will be the next best thing to seeing him live.
Do keep an eye on Tilman as the months and years roll on, he will be a force to reckoned with. His proposed project on Cups and Balls Magic will be a welcomed addition to the subject and I feel will be part of his legacy, leaving magic a little better than he found it.