Illusions of grandeur

After spending 64 hours enclosed in a block of ice, magician Hezi Dean has a much more chilled attitude towards life.

After spending 64 hours enclosed in a block ofice, magician Hezi Dean said he has a much more chilled attitudetowards life. Puns aside, Dean said that his time on ice changed himfundamentally.

"I went through hell in there," the magician said. "After that, nothing seems difficult."

Dean made world headlines last month, when at midnight of NewYear's Eve he emerged from a block of solid ice the size of a showerstall after freezing inside itthere for nearly three days. In doing sohe broke the record set by American illusion artist David Blaine, andproved to himself that he could do anything he put his mind to.

At 27, Dean is far from ready to rest on his laurels. A naturalperformer who started his career as a professional magician at the ageof nine, he plans to go on to bigger and flashier things. As far ashe's concerned, the feat he performed at Rabin Square in Tel Avivserved to spread his name and establish his reputation.

"I know that the next time I announce I'll be giving a performance, the crowds will be there," said Dean.

Dean's new website describes him as an illusion artist, but he said he prefers to think of himself as a magician.

"Illusionartist sounds more grandiose, but I prefer the classic term. Magicmeans more than just an illusion. Magic is associated with thesupernatural. It boggles the mind and sparks the imagination, but it'salso much simpler," he said. "An illusion artist tends to have big setsand lots of bells and whistles. A magician can astound viewers with acoin or a deck of cards."

Dean tries to keep his professional life separate from hispersonal life. For that reason he doesn't keep any of his equipmentwhere he lives. His studio, the place where he creates and practiceshis magic, is at his parents' house. His Rehovot apartment is(disappointingly) empty of magic chambers and floating tables. The loneindication that it is the home of a magician is a single painting onthe wall.

The painting shows a little boy wearing a tuxedojacket many sizes too big and holding a black top hat. Out of the hatpeers a kitten, and the boy holds another one in his hands. Surroundinghim on the floor and on the desk behind him is a jumbled collection ofmagic equipment. The boy has a big smile on his face and looks like hejust pulledrevealed the kitten in his hand out of thin air. On the wallbehind the boy is a gigantic poster. In it a grown magician holds up awhite dove in the same position as the boy.

"That's the only item in the house that's connected to magic. Ihave it up here because it's meaningful to me. It constantly reminds meof where I came from," said Dean.

DEAN'S FIRST contact with magic came at age five when he and his family went to visit his uncle in the United States.

"My uncle was a magician. He performed in New York and the area.He did some tricks for me in the living room and I remember that I wasenchanted. It was only later that I started to want to know how it wasdone. In the beginning it was all about the feeling of awe seeing theimpossible happen before my eyes," he recalled.

Later in the same visit, Dean's uncle gave a performance at hisdaughter's birthday party. He taught little Hezi a trick and had himperform it in front of the other children.

"I guess I did it well because the responses were great," saidDean. "When you're a kid, you're not used to being at the center ofattention. After I did the trick all the children came up to me andasked me how I did it. It made me feel special. I was hooked from thefirst time."

When he returned to Israel, his parents encouraged his newfoundlove for performing and bought him his first magic kit. But Dean didn'tjust tear at the box and start a collection of magic tricks. He wasmuch more interested in learning how the tricks worked than in justobtaining the equipment.

"What I did was peel off the cover carefully and examine eachpiece until I learned how it worked. After revealing the tricks, I'dput everything carefully back in its place and seal it up as if it wasnever opened. I'd then take it back to the store and replace it for adifferent one," said Dean.

In this way Dean quickly grew as a magician. His expertiseincreased because he understood the fundamentals of the tricks. Heeventually began making the tricks himself out of household items, andhis parents' house rapidly filled with his homemade equipment.

Dean's first paid performance was at the age of nine. He was paid NIS 20 to perform at a children's birthday party.

"I think what was so effective back then was that it was a childperforming for other children. In my first performance the other kidswere only a couple of years younger than I was, and for them seeing meperform, a child not much older than them, made the magic all the moreastounding. They were hypnotized," said Dean.

From then on, Dean has been performing pretty much every week,and over the years he has perfected his performance to the level of anart form.

"Magic is like art, it can't really be taught," he said. "Youcan take lessons and learn the theory, but to take it to the highestlevel, you need to have a mix of talent and dedication."

"Every day I'd practice my technique, and in the performancesI'd perfect my stagemanship," Dean continued. "Stage presence is allimportant for a magician. You can be the best technician and have allthe cards up your sleeve, so to speak, but without charisma andself-confidence, you wont make it. You need to be able to sweep awaythe audience and suspend their belief. If you can do that, the audiencewill be eating out of your hand."

"The best magician in the world from that perspective is DavidCopperfield. He is unrivaled in his ability to hypnotize an audience,"said Dean. "I am still blown away by the things he does."

Dean said he used to spend hours mirroring Copperfield's performances.

"I used to wear out the video tapes of his performance. I knewevery look and every hand gesture and tried my best to mimic them asclosely as I could," he said. "He is still the most admired magician inthe world and his show in Las Vegas is sold out every night."

Dean's other role model is David Blaine, the man whose record he broke on New Year's Eve.

"Blainebrought back to magic some of its authenticity. A few years ago he cameout with a television show Street Magic, and there, with nothing morethan a deck of cards and some coins, he managed to blow people away,"Dean said. "He proved that you didn't need to do tricks on a massivescale in order to delight the audiences."

Dean, who has appeared all over the world and has even wonEuropean awards for his acts, said he liked nothing better than toperform in front of Israelis.

"They are a difficult crowd to perform to, because they refuseto suspend their doubt. Israelis are always suspicious that someone istrying to pull a fast one on them, and in my case they know for certainthat I am," he said. "The key is in the performance. If you show enoughcool and confidence they'll let you do your act; if not, they'll be atyou all evening."

OVER THE years, Dean's act took on additional elements andtoday he practices what is known as extreme magic. The difference is inthe levels of dangers involved in the trick.

"Every card trick has pretty much the same idea behind it,"explained Dean. "You take a deck of cards, ask an audience member tochoose a card and remember it. You then return the card to the deck,shuffle it, and in the end magically reveal it to the appreciatingcrowd."

"Inone of my acts I perform the trick, but in order to add to the dramaand excitement, I disperse the cards in a pool of water and then bungeejump from a 100-meter high crane and pierce the correct card with asword," he said.

Dean said that while the danger doesn't change the fundamentals of the trick, it does add to the drama.

"The trick is a trick, but the danger is real. When I jump overthe pool, there is no room for error. If I hit the side, or if there isa strong wind, our calculations go out the window and I could bekilled," said Dean. "That's something that the audience senses."

The preparation time for Dean's most recent feat took sixmonths. Dean said the idea to enclose himself in ice came to him all ofa sudden.

"I heard this song on the radio as I was driving by Tel Aviv.The song was Magnificent by U2, and as soon as I heard it the idea forthe act was born in my mind. From that moment on, I could think ofnothing else," he said.

For six months, Dean put everything else aside and beganpreparing himself, both physically and mentally, for the biggestchallenge of his life.

On the physical side, Dean began working out rigorously. Heneeded to prepare his body in such a way that it would support himthrough the long hardship.

On the mental side, he prepared by learning guided affectiveimagery, a technique that allowed him to keep his mind focused and ontarget for the marathon effort.

"I decided that I was going to do it and then began concerningmyself with the details," he explained. "I think that's a goodapproach, not just for magic, but for life."

"I started preparing at once and gave in to it totally. As soonas I knew what I was going to do and decided on the date, nothing stoodin my way. I removed myself from the world and focused solely onpreparation, no friends, no distractions, no new projects. Nothing butfocus," said Dean.

"I spent hours in a refrigerator to prepare my body," hecontinued. "I constructed a Plexiglas chamber so that I could get usedto being in a confined place and train myself to rest while standingup."

Dean said that despite all the preparations, nothing could match the actual experience.

"I went through three days of hell in there," he said.

What made things worse was that even though everything wasplanned down to the last detail, there was still room for error. Onesuch miscalculation nearly brought a premature end to the act. Dean andhis team assumed that the ice cage would melt in the Tel Aviv heat, butthey thought it would only melt from the outside.

"What we discovered pretty early on was that the blocks meltedfrom the inside too," he said. "What that meant was that after severalhours, the bottom of the block was covered in ice. That meant that Iwouldn't be able to sit, because I'd suffer hypothermia, so instead oftaking time to rest, I had to stand up the whole time."

Dean experienced several near-crises during his time in the ice, and a few times he was on the verge of asking to be cut free.

"I was sick and feverish. I felt that I couldn't stand anylonger and my mind began hallucinating. I knew that I was in the samespot, but it felt like I was being moved around. I felt like every timeI looked out, I was in a different part of the square," he said. "Whenthat happened, I focused on my own body. I looked at my hands andrepeatedly told myself that everything was fine, that I was still in mybody and that everything was as it should be."

Dean said the most difficult stage was the last day.

"I had a rough night and the knowledge that there was a full dayahead of me almost caused me to despair," he recalled. "By that stage Iwas fantasizing about being put in an ambulance and taken to thehospital. All I wanted was for the medics to lay me down and cover mewith a blanket. All I wanted was some warmth."

"I almost went crazy when they started the countdown," saidDean. "Through a clear window in the ice, I saw a crowd around thestage. I heard my crew count down from 10 and thought that the end wasnear. But it wasn't the countdown to midnight; it was the countdown forbreaking Blaine's record. I knew that I still had over an hour and ahalf to go and I began crying in despair then and there."

"What kept me inside was my love of the challenge and of theprofession, and the determination to succeed in the challenge I set outfor myself," he said. "It wasn't about breaking a record. If that wasthe case, I'd have gone out the moment I passed Blaine's mark. It wasabout subjecting my body to my will."

In the end, Dean made it. The next countdown was the realthing, and at 12 a.m. on January 1, 2010, the chainsaws cutsawed a holein the ice and Dean was pulled out of his cage. 

"It wasn't what I imagined. I was too weak toaddress the crowd and take a bow. The illness made me weak and I had tobe carried to the ambulance. But I knew that I had made it. It was amixture of joy and relief," said Dean.

Dean said his life was different after his episode in the ice.

"I put my body through one of the hardest experiences imaginableand it saw me through," he said. "That gives you a lot of confidence inyourself and makes all the other things appear trivial."

He said that since the experience, little things don't bother him anymore.

"I am up for anything now. What could be more demanding than what I've been through?"