Illusions of grandeur

After spending 64 hours enclosed in a block of ice and breaking David Blaine's record, magician Hezi Dean says he is "up for anything."

Hezi Dean. (photo credit: Courtesy of Hezi Dean)
Hezi Dean.
(photo credit: Courtesy of Hezi Dean)
After spending 64 hours enclosed in a block of ice, magician Hezi Dean said he has a much more chilled attitude towards life. Puns aside, Dean said that his time on ice changed him fundamentally.
"I went through hell in there," the magician said. "After that, nothing seems difficult."
Dean made world headlines last month, when at midnight of New Year's Eve he emerged from a block of solid ice the size of a shower stall after freezing inside itthere for nearly three days. In doing so he broke the record set by American illusion artist David Blaine, and proved 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 natural performer who started his career as a professional magician at the age of nine, he plans to go on to bigger and flashier things. As far as he's concerned, the feat he performed at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv served 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.
"Illusion artist sounds more grandiose, but I prefer the classic term. Magic means more than just an illusion. Magic is associated with the supernatural. It boggles the mind and sparks the imagination, but it's also much simpler," he said. "An illusion artist tends to have big sets and lots of bells and whistles. A magician can astound viewers with a coin or a deck of cards."
Dean tries to keep his professional life separate from his personal life. For that reason he doesn't keep any of his equipment where he lives. His studio, the place where he creates and practices his magic, is at his parents' house. His Rehovot apartment is (disappointingly) empty of magic chambers and floating tables. The lone indication that it is the home of a magician is a single painting on the wall.
The painting shows a little boy wearing a tuxedo jacket many sizes too big and holding a black top hat. Out of the hat peers a kitten, and the boy holds another one in his hands. Surrounding him on the floor and on the desk behind him is a jumbled collection of magic equipment. The boy has a big smile on his face and looks like he just pulledrevealed the kitten in his hand out of thin air. On the wall behind the boy is a gigantic poster. In it a grown magician holds up a white dove in the same position as the boy.
"That's the only item in the house that's connected to magic. I have it up here because it's meaningful to me. It constantly reminds me of 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 was enchanted. It was only later that I started to want to know how it was done. In the beginning it was all about the feeling of awe seeing the impossible happen before my eyes," he recalled.
Later in the same visit, Dean's uncle gave a performance at his daughter's birthday party. He taught little Hezi a trick and had him perform it in front of the other children.
"I guess I did it well because the responses were great," said Dean. "When you're a kid, you're not used to being at the center of attention. After I did the trick all the children came up to me and asked me how I did it. It made me feel special. I was hooked from the first time."
When he returned to Israel, his parents encouraged his newfound love for performing and bought him his first magic kit. But Dean didn't just tear at the box and start a collection of magic tricks. He was much more interested in learning how the tricks worked than in just obtaining the equipment.
"What I did was peel off the cover carefully and examine each piece until I learned how it worked. After revealing the tricks, I'd put everything carefully back in its place and seal it up as if it was never opened. I'd then take it back to the store and replace it for a different one," said Dean.
In this way Dean quickly grew as a magician. His expertise increased because he understood the fundamentals of the tricks. He eventually began making the tricks himself out of household items, and his 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 child performing for other children. In my first performance the other kids were only a couple of years younger than I was, and for them seeing me perform, a child not much older than them, made the magic all the more astounding. 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 an art form.
"Magic is like art, it can't really be taught," he said. "You can take lessons and learn the theory, but to take it to the highest level, you need to have a mix of talent and dedication."
"Every day I'd practice my technique, and in the performances I'd perfect my stagemanship," Dean continued. "Stage presence is all important for a magician. You can be the best technician and have all the cards up your sleeve, so to speak, but without charisma and self-confidence, you wont make it. You need to be able to sweep away the audience and suspend their belief. If you can do that, the audience will be eating out of your hand."
"The best magician in the world from that perspective is David Copperfield. 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 knew every look and every hand gesture and tried my best to mimic them as closely as I could," he said. "He is still the most admired magician in the 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.
"Blaine brought back to magic some of its authenticity. A few years ago he came out with a television show Street Magic, and there, with nothing more than 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 massive scale in order to delight the audiences."
Dean, who has appeared all over the world and has even won European awards for his acts, said he liked nothing better than to perform in front of Israelis.
"They are a difficult crowd to perform to, because they refuse to suspend their doubt. Israelis are always suspicious that someone is trying to pull a fast one on them, and in my case they know for certain that I am," he said. "The key is in the performance. If you show enough cool and confidence they'll let you do your act; if not, they'll be at you all evening."
OVER THE years, Dean's act took on additional elements and today he practices what is known as extreme magic. The difference is in the 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 to choose a card and remember it. You then return the card to the deck, shuffle it, and in the end magically reveal it to the appreciating crowd."
"In one of my acts I perform the trick, but in order to add to the drama and excitement, I disperse the cards in a pool of water and then bungee jump from a 100-meter high crane and pierce the correct card with a sword," 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 over the pool, there is no room for error. If I hit the side, or if there is a strong wind, our calculations go out the window and I could be killed," said Dean. "That's something that the audience senses."
The preparation time for Dean's most recent feat took six months. Dean said the idea to enclose himself in ice came to him all of a 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 for the act was born in my mind. From that moment on, I could think of nothing else," he said.
For six months, Dean put everything else aside and began preparing himself, both physically and mentally, for the biggest challenge of his life.
On the physical side, Dean began working out rigorously. He needed to prepare his body in such a way that it would support him through the long hardship.
On the mental side, he prepared by learning guided affective imagery, a technique that allowed him to keep his mind focused and on target for the marathon effort.
"I decided that I was going to do it and then began concerning myself with the details," he explained. "I think that's a good approach, not just for magic, but for life."
"I started preparing at once and gave in to it totally. As soon as I knew what I was going to do and decided on the date, nothing stood in my way. I removed myself from the world and focused solely on preparation, no friends, no distractions, no new projects. Nothing but focus," said Dean.
"I spent hours in a refrigerator to prepare my body," he continued. "I constructed a Plexiglas chamber so that I could get used to being in a confined place and train myself to rest while standing up."
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 was planned down to the last detail, there was still room for error. One such miscalculation nearly brought a premature end to the act. Dean and his team assumed that the ice cage would melt in the Tel Aviv heat, but they thought it would only melt from the outside.
"What we discovered pretty early on was that the blocks melted from the inside too," he said. "What that meant was that after several hours, the bottom of the block was covered in ice. That meant that I wouldn't be able to sit, because I'd suffer hypothermia, so instead of taking 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 any longer and my mind began hallucinating. I knew that I was in the same spot, but it felt like I was being moved around. I felt like every time I looked out, I was in a different part of the square," he said. "When that happened, I focused on my own body. I looked at my hands and repeatedly told myself that everything was fine, that I was still in my body 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 day ahead of me almost caused me to despair," he recalled. "By that stage I was fantasizing about being put in an ambulance and taken to the hospital. All I wanted was for the medics to lay me down and cover me with a blanket. All I wanted was some warmth."
"I almost went crazy when they started the countdown," said Dean. "Through a clear window in the ice, I saw a crowd around the stage. I heard my crew count down from 10 and thought that the end was near. But it wasn't the countdown to midnight; it was the countdown for breaking Blaine's record. I knew that I still had over an hour and a half to go and I began crying in despair then and there."
"What kept me inside was my love of the challenge and of the profession, and the determination to succeed in the challenge I set out for myself," he said. "It wasn't about breaking a record. If that was the case, I'd have gone out the moment I passed Blaine's mark. It was about subjecting my body to my will."
In the end, Dean made it. The next countdown was the real thing, and at 12 a.m. on January 1, 2010, the chainsaws cutsawed a hole in the ice and Dean was pulled out of his cage.
"It wasn't what I imagined. I was too weak to address the crowd and take a bow. The illness made me weak and I had to be carried to the ambulance. But I knew that I had made it. It was a mixture 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 imaginable and it saw me through," he said. "That gives you a lot of confidence in yourself 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?"