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Want to Know How David Blaine Does That Stuff? (Don't Hold Your Breath)

If there really were such a thing as magical power, wouldn't it be a waste to use it on card tricks? Or trying to break the record for consecutive minutes not breathing without dying?

But that is what magician, illusionist and "endurance artist" David Blaine does and he did some of it last night at the Winspear Opera House as the featured guest of the Brinker International Forum series.

It was a friendly audience of Blaine fans, full of kids and teens who've grown up watching him on TV doing stunts like encasing himself in a block of ice in Times Square or living for 44 days in a plexiglass box over the Thames. (Londoners reacted by pelting the container with eggs and golf balls.)

Blaine's appearance here began with one of his signature bits, the old Houdini water torture trick. At precisely 8 p.m., the opera house curtain rose to reveal, center stage, a large tank, seemingly filled with water, in which Blaine, wearing a thick, dark suit, sat submerged. In front of him a small table held a plate of fruit, bottle of wine and other props. Breathing through a mask at first, Blaine finally tapped his watch, indicating that he'd take off the mask and commence holding his breath for 12 minutes.

A loud soundtrack of a rapid heartbeat boomed out of the speakers and the digital clock inside the water tank started adding up the seconds. One minute, two without breathing. Then five. Blaine, always positioned in three-quarter view, lifted the lid on a silver bowl inside the tank, releasing goldfish that swam around him. He peeled and nibbled a banana. Occasionally, a few bubbles escaped his lips.

At the nine-minute mark, he floated slowly toward the top of the tank, headfirst but still underwater. On the large screen projecting his image via live video above the stage, he looked shaky. Two assistants scrambled up from the wings and positioned themselves over the top of the tank. Would Blaine make it to 12 minutes without breathing, risking brain-damaging hypoxia?

Of course, he would. Because he doesn't actually hold his breath that long. No human being can. It's a trick. One that's well-known in the magic biz. If you've ever watched that Fox TV show starring "The Masked Magician," you might have seen this episode, which revealed how the water tank illusion is done. Hint: A carefully concealed oxygen tube is involved. That rabbinical beard Blaine wears is good for camouflage. And if you looked closely at the overhead screen as he emerged from the tank last night, wasn't it odd how dry his hair was?

The crowd ate it up with a spoon, however. A bendy spoon. And they listened and applauded as Blaine, acting breathless and dazed, blathered on in his laconic Brooklyn drawl about his extensive training in techniques of breath-holding. He compared himself to Navy SEALs and mystic yogis.

Because the Brinker forums are more Q&A than performance-oriented, Blaine reappeared after the water stunt, dried off and wearing a rumpled brown suit, to sit onstage for most of an hour with former Good Morning Texas chat show host Rob McCollum, who lobbed questions so rabbit-y soft, he should've pulled them out of a top hat. No mention of disses by better magicians Penn Jillette and Criss Angel. No challenges to Blaine's claims of actually being able to live in a cake of ice for a week or go without breathing for up to 15 minutes, even though human beings cannot do those things.

Audiences just like to be fooled. "I like magic that looks real," Blaine said last night. "I like doing things that seem impossible."

"Seem" being the operative word. Because a gentle cruise over to any of a thousand videos on YouTube will reveal how Blaine and others like him do their "magic."

Blaine came to fame doing "street magic." ABC gave him his own TV special in 1997, showing him performing close-up card tricks and sleight of hand to the astonishment of people on city sidewalks. He admits he doesn't have much of a stage show (unlike, say, David Copperfield or Penn and Teller) and prefers the casual approach.

At the Winspear, he ventured into the audience to do a few card tricks with patrons sitting in aisle seats. With two young boys on the row in front of me, he pulled a couple of good ones. But from my vantage point directly behind Blaine, I could easily see his double lifts, his pinky breaks and Hindu shuffles (all basic card trick maneuvers). You could learn the same tricks in 10 minutes from any of the magician's "tutorials" taught by budding magicians who've studied the moves of Blaine and Angel and figured out how to teach them to beginners via YouTube. (Several young prestidigitators, including Coppell's 15-year-old Aaron Maynard, performed some impressively slick tricks in the Winspear lobby before the show.)

Blaine, not a sparkling wit or brilliant conversationalist, said if he hadn't discovered a talent for card tricks at the age of 5, he'd probably still be a waiter in Brooklyn.

He ended the 90-minute show with a group mentalism stunt so old it was probably first revealed in hieroglyphics. It starts with "think of a dessert other than ice cream." And always ends with "indigo." Google it.

For me the highlight of the evening was the moment when David Blaine helped a guy named Greg propose to a girl named Danielle. Greg had tweeted Blaine last week and asked for help setting up the proposal onstage. Blaine agreed and when he bobbed up out of the water tank, he brought the couple onstage under the pretense of having them try to hold their breath for two minutes. Blaine then plucked the ring box (gee, it didn't look wet) from his pocket and handed it to Greg, who popped the question. Danielle said yes. She now has a professional magician to thank for successfully pulling off a trick she didn't manage to do on her own.

Alec Baldwin will be the next celebrity guest at the Brinker Forum on March 2. For tickets, or 214-880-0202.

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