THE MASTER OF MAGIC
On a random night somewhere in Los Angeles, a handful of incongruously dressed people gather on a stretch of sidewalk adorn with palm trees and phone poles. Some stare at their phones. Some look to each other for confirmation that they are in the right place. Over and over, Siri says they have arrived at their destination.
“This is it,” says a suited man to his date. A young woman in heels and a black dress peeks into the open doorway of a window-barred building that looks like a scrappy bodega. “It is?” she asks. “This?”
This is Borrowed Time, a pop-up, sold-out and twice-extended magic show. It is the brainchild of 33-year-old Helder Guimarães, a sleight-of-hand wunderkind who is dedicated to exploring the places between possible and impossible, past and present, beginning and end. Guimarães is in control of where his show starts and stops, and it all begins with this mysterious location.
Those in attendance help narrate, select cards and shuffle. His carefully crafted brand of close-up magic deals with intense personal experience, resulting in intense personal reactions.
“I want the show to go behind magic,” Guimarães explains one evening, sitting at suede-topped round table that serves as the epicenter of Borrowed Time. “When I see good magic—it affects not just the way I perform but also how see the world. I want people to have that experience where they leave and they see things a little bit different, even if it’s the front of a liquor store. It’s all about what possibility allows.”
It is a challenge to report on a show so shrouded in secrecy, but reviewers describe Borrowed Time as “mind-blowing” and “enthralling” and “stupefying” (as a compliment). For others, Guimarães is capable of making them believe almost anything is possible. Anything.
It’s one thing to watch this in his popular TED Talk video, but it’s a whole other thing to see the man perform these miracles right in front of you. There’s no smoke, no mirrors, no sawing of women in half. Despite their huge crowds, ample money and flashy Vegas appeal, big stage shows have never really interested Guimarães. At his performances, two audience members always sit right next to him, only inches away.
For the Los Angeles-based Guimarães, this show—which explores the themes of memory, creation and the odd tendencies of time—is 33 years in the making. Guimarães grew up in Portugal around close-up magic, and he first performed in kindergarten. By age 10, he “got serious.” He eventually toured internationally, teaching himself Spanish and English for competitions. He won the World Champion of Card Magic at 23, the youngest person to ever win the title.
Guimarães’s audiences were growing. He was a rare combination of youth, talent and class. His fitted suits and clipped ties made him look more like a magazine editor than a magician. He performed in big rooms, winning audiences over with only a deck of cards, but he never waivered from his roots in close-up magic. (The front row at his packed TED Talk held more people than the entire audience at Borrowed Time.)
Big shows continue to bring in big audiences and bigger money, but Guimarães was one of the very few close-up performers such as Ricky Jay or Steve Cohen with a strong draw because his work became the stuff of legend. He not only entertains the audience, he deeply connects people with an ancient form of art.
Guimarães came to see magic like all art forms—as a medium. He wanted to create a dialog about the philosophies behind his art..
“We want to create a memorable experience—an experience that starts before you even get to the show, he says. “I’m borrowing people’s time at that moment when we’re all together, but it’s in order to give something back.”
Anyone who has witnessed his performance agrees: Guimarães’s magic feels alive. One fan is fellow magician Neil Patrick Harris, who met Guimarães while he was performing at The Magic Castle in Hollywood. Soon after, Harris directed Guimarães in Nothing to Hide, a 2012 show with extended runs at the Geffen Playhouse and Off-Broadway. Borrowed Time has found even greater success—twice extended and still sold out—with an eye on moving the show to New York.
But this is stuff his publicity people explain. Guimarães is more interested in the magic itself, what it is and where it happens.
“Magic doesn’t exist without an audience,” he concludes. “If I’m home practicing in front of a mirror, there is no magic. Magic only happens when people are in front of me, when we interact. Those moments make it unique—because each audience will never choose the same cards, not in a lifetime. And that uniqueness makes everything more powerful.”
Borrowed Time runs in Los Angeles through May 29.
Cole Louison is a Red Bull correspondent. Follow him @colelouison on Twitter and Instagram