Young dog, new tricks: Illusionist Curtis Adams in Aspen
December 18, 2009
ASPEN – The ultimate magic trick might be getting Curtis Adams to stop talking. Adams is a 25-year-old who seeks not only to entertain audiences with his unique stage show, but also to inspire people in their lives. He wants to turn younger people on to the living arts. He seeks to be a model for living honorably (or at least avoiding scandal). Perhaps above all, he wants to serve as a reminder to dream big and not allow naysayers to interfere with the more enchanted realms of existence. On a recent morning, these desires are expressed, by phone from Las Vegas, in an idealistic, irrepressible, earnest and nearly uninterrupted stream.
The second-hardest magic trick might be transforming the practice of magic. The art, at least in the popular perception, has hardly changed in a century: playing cards; coins; men in their tuxedoes, assisted by scantily clad women and an utterance of “abracadabra,” vanishing into thin air.
“Magic, for a long time, has been so cliched,” Adams said from Vegas, where he was preparing the latest version of his show, Curtis Adams: Magic That Rocks, for a tour that opens with dates in Beaver Creek and, on Saturday, Dec. 26, at Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House. “People conjure up ideas of rabbits and hats and cards. When I was finding my voice, I was running away from the cliches. I wouldn’t touch cards.”
Instead of embracing the old tricks, Adams looked inside himself, to discover what truly turned him on, and what was up-to-date. He thought of video, the digital world, rock ‘n’ roll, humor. And more than anything, he focused on dance.
Magic was not Adams’ first love. It was the music videos on MTV, and especially the extensive choreography that often marked late-’80s videos. Call it the Paula Abdul/MC Hammer era.
“Everything was in synch. At 3, 4, 5, I tried to do the dances. I thought it was so cool, performing in front of the television,” Adams said. And the pint-sized Adams wasn’t so cool that he wouldn’t bust a move outside his family’s Huntington Beach, Calif. house. “Every Christmas, people would decorate their houses and do these tours. I’d go outside and start dancing – and people would stop and watch. I was just in it, in the moment, and small audiences connected. At the end of the routine, I got loud roars of applause.”
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When Adams was 7, his father took him and his sister to see illusionist David Copperfield. Adams knew nothing about magic, and their seats were in the back of the Orange County Performing Arts Center. But he was blown away by the show – the lighting, the enormous applause. “It was more than a magic show,” he said. The next day Adams got his first magic kit.
As a 7-year-old neophyte, Adams entered with the basics: Houdini-esque escapes, pulling cards out of the air. “All the stuff that was there before,” he said. He became good at the old standbys: At 10, he was doing birthday parties and benefit gigs around his hometown; at 11, he moved to Reno, Nev., where he worked in restaurants and formed a production company, MOCA, for Magic of Curtis Adams. As he aged and developed, he nurtured a desire to break away from the sleight-of-hand that had been passed down through the decades.
“Like any artist – a musician, a comedian – everyone is inspired by the greats. You play guitar, you want to play like your idols,” Adams said. “Then you see what you really want to do. You find your own voice, and communicate your own voice.”
Three years ago, Adams created Magic That Rocks, a show intended to showcase the full range of his interests and skills. At one point, he referred to it as “a high-energy concert of illusion,” which comes fairly close to a full description. The show includes dance, music, comedy and audience interplay. Among the highlights of the show are pieces that combine elements. There’s one bit where Adams dances on the walls and ceiling of the theater. The show-closer is directly inspired by the MTV music videos that fascinated the 5-year-old Adams: He creates his own music video on-stage, and audiences watch as he moves into a huge TV screen, and becomes a two-dimensional figure.
“And I do things you can only see on TV,” said Adams, who travels with a 12-person crew, which includes between two and four additional dancers. “Then I step off the screen. I combine the music video world with the real world.”
Part of Adams’ mission to bring the magic performance to a new level has been driven by technology, and what audiences have become accustomed to in the digital era. Magicians, he notes, used to be employed as consultants on movies, to help create on-screen illusions. Computer-generated imagery, however, has made animators the magicians of film. In the process, the bar has been raised for illusions; it’s almost impossible to make a cinematic special effect that will drop an audience’s jaw. But if you could move those illusions out of the movie theater and perform them live …
“I want to take what they’ve seen on screen and have people say, ‘Wow, he brought it from the screen back to the stage,'” Adams said.
Adams aims to appeal to the broadest audience possible. His dance steps range from salsa to hip-hop; the musical backdrop runs from hip-hop to AC/DC to Broadway tunes. But if there is a segment of the audience that he especially wants to appeal to, it is those who are his age and younger. Adams concluded that card tricks weren’t going to get the job done as much as such illusions as cloning himself, or melting himself through a sheet of steel – a trick he compares to Han Solo getting stuck in carbonite in “The Empire Strikes Back.”
“I want to bring youth back to the performing arts. That’s part of my goal,” he said. “We needed to do something cutting-edge enough to get kids off their XBox’s and Gameboys, to get them unplugged and interacting and be in the environment.
“We’re going to change the way a magician looks. And the way a magician walks and talks. I am trying to change the way we look at an illusionist.”
Adams is well on his way. His show has played in the main showrooms at hotel casinos in Vegas and Atlantic City. He developed the illusions that rappers Lil Wayne and T-Pain used in their finale at last year’s BET Awards. The Las Vegas Sun said of Magic That Rocks, “this is as much a party as a production.”
Now that he has begun the process of giving magic a new-school makeover, Adams has a newfound appreciation for the classics. The card tricks he once shunned are an occasional part of his show.
“As I’ve grown, I’ve realized cards are a part of the history of magic,” he said. “It’s not that you’re doing a card trick; it’s what you’re doing with cards. You give it your own twist. How do you embrace it, update it, take it to a new level, to make it something that is part of today?”