What is magie nouvelle you ask ? Just as contemporary circus brought a new approach to the traditional circus that came before it, magie nouvelle (new magic) is reinventing magic as we know it, transforming it into a language of artistic exploration and a means of creative expression.
“Levitations, transformations, holograms, impossible sculptures, and optical manipulations are part of the vocabulary of this new language where exquisite illusion asserts itself and where the impossible becomes a new type of intimacy.”
-Extract from the Traversée des Apparences exhibition Curator’s Letter of Intent, part of the Biennale Internationale des Arts du Cirque in Marseille 2019
Where a traditional magic show might involve individual magical acts, punctuated by prop changes and distracting glamorous assistants, with tricks such as sawing people in two or making someone disappear, magie nouvelle uses magic as an artistic medium to explore other overarching themes. The magical acts will be incorporated into the narrative, or will be the centre of the show itself. We may still see someone levitate, or see a ghostly shadow mimicking a person’s movements around the stage, but the essence of the trick will be to create an aesthetic throughout the whole show, not just to shock and amaze it’s audience.
A Brief History of Magic & the Start of Magie Nouvelle
We need to choose our words wisely when talking about the history of magic. The term ‘traditional magic’ can easily be associated with ancient beliefs from different cultures; afterall, shamans and gurus fall firmly within the realm of the magical. The type of magic that comes to mind when we think about magic shows on stage, with glamorous assistants, rabbits popping out of hats, and people being sawn in two is what is known as ‘magie modèrne’ or modern magic. It is actually an old discipline dating back to the 19th century and the codes have not changed much since then. Towards the end of the 20th century, modern magic was mainly found in cabarets and events, and still used dated tricks and techniques.
The idea of magie nouvelle started long before the creation of the company that launched the movement. The young Raphaël Navarro, Clément Debailleul and Valentine Losseau were all fascinated by magic but at the time the only real expression of magic was modern magic. By the 1980s and 90s, the movement had been transformed with the emphasis being placed on illusion and spectacle. Led by the likes of David Copperfield in the USA, shows aimed to create unbelievable feats within huge-scale productions; pulling off the biggest, best trick was the be all and end all of a magic show.
Inspired by magic ‘authors’ and directors such as Philippe Genty, who worked a lot with puppets and magic, Navarro, Debailleul and Losseau aimed to move away from the ideals of modern magic and to reinvent the medium of magic, using it as a language of creation. And so in 2000, they created their company 14:20. Two years later the magie nouvelle movement was born. The three founding members developed the movement by theorising together and by drawing on their individual expertise (together Debailleul, Navarro and Debailleul have in-depth knowledge of juggling, anthropology and the history of art.)
Sharing a New Vision of Magic
Very early on Navarro, Debailleul and Losseau decided to share their creative vision and their exploration into magic theory and so they decided to create a training program at the CNAC (National Centre of Circus Arts) in France. The program started in 2006 and was the first of its kind. Up until that point there were no public magic training programmes; artists had to either learn from an established artist, as Navarro did, or buy very expensive books that revealed some secrets of magic but which were difficult to come by.
Open to artists from any background, the large majority of whom had never studied or practiced magic before, the programme consisted of one week per month of on-site classes over 10 months. The early graduates of the program soon became closely linked with the movement’s creators and the magie nouvelle family grew. Some notable examples include Etienne Saglio & Yann Frisch who have both been members of the 14:20 company and who also run their own companies (Cie Monstre and Cie l’Absente respectively).
Understanding Reality and Getting into the Mind of the Audience
Today the magie nouvelle movement is composed of three major pillars; art, research and teaching. The research element touches on a broad range of subjects, as Losseau describes, “Our research revolves around ethnology and anthropology, concepts which integrated very organically into the development of the magie nouvelle movement. A large emphasis is also placed on technological research to develop new materials and on ancient magic techniques to make new outcomes.”
What is special about magie nouvelle is the emotion that the audience feels when confronted with the reality of something unreal.
Company 14:20’s latest research includes neuroscience, to better understand how the brain operates, and social psychology. These diverse areas of research are the fuel that nourishes the artistic language of the magie nouvelle movement; they enable the artists to develop an intimate understanding and relationship with their audiences. Losseau explains that the audience is an essential part of the development process for a new act of magic, “We are very connected with the audience’s point of view; what will they see, what will they feel. We put ourselves in their place, literally, to test the different points of view within a theatre. It’s difficult to bring magic to life just for oneself; it is through the eyes of the audience that we really understand the impact of what we do.”
Saglio reiterates this idea that it is important to consider the audience’s reaction when creating a new work as he describes his creative process, “I film myself in the initial stages of development of a new piece of work, to see if what I am creating evokes an emotion response within me in the first place. I work from the principal that if I find something moving when I watch it back on film, then surely other people will be moved too.”
At the heart of magie nouvelle is the idea of transforming reality within a real space. Artists aim to question and reinvent what is real and what is not, but in order to do this, they first need to understand what reality is, which is why they place such importance on anthropological research. Losseau and Navarro have studied street magicians in northern India and tribes in central America who have never been exposed to images, the practices of Vudu and Witchcraft in different parts of the world, but always with one main question in mind: What is it that gives us our sense of reality? What is it that will convince an audience that what they are seeing is real when it is in fact an illusion and inversely, what will convince them that they are in an impossible world when everything they see before them is all constructed in real materials using real techniques and rules of science?
This understanding is essential in order to create a sense of magic within the mind of the audience and it enables the artist to provoke an emotional response, as Navarro explains, “What is special about magie nouvelle is the emotion that the audience feels when confronted with the reality of something unreal. Seeing someone levitate or disappear in real life, before your eyes, provokes an emotional reaction that is completely different than if you were to see the same subject in a film or painting. It forces you to reconsider your understanding of what reality is.”
Saglio describes the need for a base in reality in order to be able to create irreal and unbelievable visions, “In magic, we need reality; if there is no reality, there is no magic.”
Ultimately, nouvelle magie is based on a profound research and understanding of the audience’s reality. Artists then present them with something unexpected, something that plays on the notions of time or gravity for example, such as a chair falling over impossibly slowly, or a person walking across the stage who suddenly takes a step into thin air. This visions falls out with the boundaries of what the audience considers to be real, thereby forcing them to reconsider their understanding of reality.
The Practicalities of Magic
There is a special relationship between the artistic and the technical within magic; the two elements mutually feed each other. In order to achieve these feats of illusion and irreality, artists working within the nouvelle magie movement also have to be technical inventors. Their tricks still need to be built, put on stage and lit, and in such a way that all the nuts and bolts are hidden from the public so the illusion is not broken.
A network of technicians, designers and stage managers who are familiar with these techniques has started to grow, in part thanks to Navarro and Losseau’s work with students from ENSATT (National School of Theatrical Arts and Techniques), one of the most highly respected theatre schools in France, where they are teaching the next generation of theatre professionals about the staging techniques that are particular to nouvelle magie.
There is a very close relationship between the artistic and the the technical when developing new work, and the ingenuity of the technicians is just as important as that of the artist, as Saglio explains, “I am surrounded by inventors. I don’t know if I am one myself but I launch the idea and the solution is always the product of a to and fro between the artistic and the technical.”
Whatsmore, Navarro describes how once a new invention is created, it is often shared around the community so the collective knowledge of nouvelle magie continues to grow, “We have put into place a sort of open source system; when someone develops something new within the community, they share it. And it happens very organically. During the installation of the recent exhibition on magie nouvelle in Marseille at the Biennale Internationale des Arts du Cirque, all the exhibiting artists would call each other over and explain how they were setting up their work and explaining the techniques that they had discovered.”
The Essential Elements of Magie Nouvelle
The magie nouvelle movement draws on a vast array of sources of inspiration and as such it is difficult to define what makes up a Magie Nouvelle show in one mere sentence. So how can we be sure that we’ve seen a magie nouvelle show?
According to Navarro, what makes a show a magie nouvelle show is the way magic is used as an aesthetic language to explore a different subject matter, “Above all it is the fact that these are works of magic where the work of an author is clearly visible, someone who uses magic as an artistic language. There will always be some central question, of staging, or aesthetics, or politics, or poetry, or an infinite number of things, and the magician is the author who must use magic in a way that makes sense within the context of these issues.”
Losseau adds, “The magic transcends the whole work, and it is placed at the centre of the work. Everything and everyone comes together around the magic and magic is the principal language of what we do.”
Around 70 companies, or 100 artists, now perform nouvelle magie shows, half of whom are of French origin and the other half who are spread all over the world. Cie 14:20 has been invited to run training programs and workshops, and to perform far and wide and their training program at the CNAC often welcomes students from all over the world to travel to France every month to take part. The collection of resources that the movement’s founders have gathered at the CNAC is now one of the biggest collections of magic references in Europe, and is accessible to all.
Saglio explains that the magie nouvelle movement continues to spread and that this new exploration of magic is far from being exhausted, “What is great to see is that the movement is growing, there are more and more people creating original works of magic. It is especially good to see that nouvelle magie is spreading around the world, which is fantastic because it will inevitably bring different points of view and approaches to working with magic.”
“The field of magic is so vast, there is so much still to be explored, and I have the impression that I’m always delving deeper into the language of magic. We are all still working together, inspiring each other, and it is a wonderful community. Valentine and Raphaël continue to bring people together and they are at the centre of this community. The collective emulation of the movement is their great achievement.”
Dare to Let Yourself be Carried Away by Wonder
Magie nouvelle as a movement is redefining magic in the same way that contemporary circus transformed the ancient art form. Its artists and founders are a mixture of scientist, researcher, inventor, poet and artist and the work that they produce is just as diverse. Although it is almost impossible to define what a magie nouvelle show is, one thing that you can be sure of is that if you let them, these magicians will transport you into an alternative world in which reality is no longer a certainty, and will create the impossible in the real world before your very eyes. I invite you to go along for the ride, if you dare…
Feature photo Traces by Cie 1420 Traces by Cie 1420. Photo courtesy of Clement-Debailleul