The Magic of Ascanio: More Studies of Card Magic by Jesus Etcheverry
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii January, 2009)
With the third volume in The Magic of Ascanio, compiler, editor, and author Jesus Etcheverry concludes a massive and stunning undertaking. With the three books to date comprising a total of 1,000 pages, Sr. Etcheverry has provided a complete course of study in the sleight-of-hand card magic and principles of the late Arturo de Ascanio. Thus the trilogy provides not merely a set of textbooks, but a guided tour, an education, a course of study, a training manual and perhaps above all, a monumental work that is as much about art as about craft.
The restrained subtitle of this new volume "More Studies of Card Magic" does little to capture the resounding climax to his project that Snr. Etcheverry delivers. A great deal of the material in these pages comprises many of Ascanio's personal favorites, and Ascanio kept much of it closely held for years; most has never before been published. Longtime Ascanio students and newcomers alike will be thrilled with the caliber of these routines. These are not just another set of variations on standard tricks; these are refined masterworks that the maestro himself polished to a high gloss over countless years and performances, often re-examining and reworking them in multiple versions. Much like Dai Vernon, Ascanio was forever reconsidering his work and striving for perfection, ever sure that such a goal was unachievable. To artists of such caliber, however, that knowledge served not as burden or frustration, but as constant inspiration.
The book consists of nine chapters, beginning with "His Classics." This section opens with four versions of "The Restless Lady," a plot originating with Tonka and bearing a decided relationship to the "Homing Card" (i.e., the Fred Braue plot [popularized by Ascanio's mentor, Fred Kaps], not the Francis Carlyle card-to-pocket plot). This is followed by two versions of the full-deck "All Backs," a Dai Vernon plot, owing something here to a version by Alex Elmsley. This substantial chapter includes "Alternating the Colors," a version of Bill Simon's "Call to the Colors" (a signature routine of Martin Nash's); Ascanio's take on Vernon's "Mental Card Miracle" from the Stars of Magic; Ascanio's version of Dr. Daley's "Cards Up The Sleeve," along with "Blue, Red, White: A Constructional Study," a multi-trick routine that weaves together the "All Backs," several colorchanging effects, and concludes with the "Nudist Pack," in an eight-to-10 minute visual symphony. The book continues with more of Ascanio's pet routines for classics, including the "Stanley Collins Aces;" the Ambitious Card (multiple versions); and the "Nudist Pack" (also multiple versions) while special cards are used for this, nevertheless these could have been dubbed Expert Nudists, because they combine expert thinking and construction with minimally prepared cards. Chapter Eight provides a number of Ascanio's take on sleights, including Double Lifts, the Le Temps Change, transformations and more, along with several more tricks utilizing them.
Finally there is Chapter Nine, featuring Ascanio's version of "Black Days," a trick of Juan Tamariz's that previously appeared in Sonata. It's difficult to do justice to this feat in a bare bones description, as the plot is unusual. In essence, the spectator freely thinks of any card among a group of black cards; then, under extremely fair conditions the card is mysteriously located with the spectator's own magical assistance, an effect compounded by the transformation of the remaining cards to red. In Ascanio's version, the routine is accompanied by a poetic story about lost and found love (perhaps a reflection of Ascanio's late-in life influence by the work of Rene Lavand). The trick requires nothing more than an ordinary deck and a simple seven card setup, but none of this description begins to even scratch at the surface of what is provided here.
In fact, the text of "Black Days" was written by Ascanio himself and first published in Spanish in 1996. This close analysis proceeds in three segments, comprising a general description of the trick and its procedure; a technical description of all the requisite sleights; and then a thorough examination of the theory and psychology behind the routine. The result is a 45-page masters thesis, fully a third of which is devoted to a final theoretical examination that reveals the full breadth and depth of Ascanio's thinking. "Details make for perfection, but perfection is no detail" was one of Dai Vernon's favorite and oft-cited maxims, and Ascanio's exegesis is a textbook example.
Just as a stripped down description of the "Black Days" plots does little to capture what Ascanio invests in the piece and what he offers to the reader, so a general summary of the contents of this third and final volume does similarly limited justice to the scope and power of the book. In Sr. Jesus Etcheverry's smartly constructed approach, the preceding works provided first a foundation and then a rising structure; with this volume he reaches heights that scrape the sky. I would nevertheless unhesitatingly recommend this book to any students who have as yet held back from investing in the trilogy, because the series reaches the full flower of Ascanio's contribution in the pages of this third book, and many of these tricks and routines border on genuine masterpieces. They are not pick-a-card tricks, reflecting Ascanio's passions (and perhaps his amateur in the best sense status); many of these routines are "display" tricks, lacking much direct audience involvement, and few of us would want to build a repertoire of such pieces. These are not tricks to be read over breakfast and attempted at dinner. This is a collection of routines that should be thoughtfully read and considered, whereupon the student should select perhaps a single one to his tastes, and commit to investing the months of practice required to do justice to it. And, as such a lesson is undertaken, even those of us who have read the previous volumes will now find good cause to return to them, thereby gaining even deeper comprehension of their principles, as they are brought to life in these remarkable routines. The Magic of Ascanio trilogy of card magic is a worthy tribute to one of the most important and influential close-up sleight-of-hand artists of the twentieth century, and while we salute the author for his achievement, we must stand in awe at the work itself, and at the unique mind and artistry of its extraordinary creator.