Dan Sperry. Picture: shahab@alchemy-project.com

How does a nice boy from Minnesota transform into a pierced, tattooed magician and illusionist whose appearance on America's Got Talent in 2010 garnered him more than a million hits on YouTube?

For Dan Sperry, AKA The Anti-Conjurer, the short version runs thus: see a David Copperfield show at age four with your grandparents, get interested in learning how to do magic tricks, take those tricks to class, become a disaffected youth, start playing in a band at parties and do a bit of magic, mayhem and amateur horror moviemaking on the side.

"Growing up I was the only kid that was into magic and it was my own little thing," the black-clad, pale-faced Sperry confesses.

"Later, it sort of grew into this kind of secret thing. I did it, but nobody really got to see me do it. I didn't want to shove it in front of people and say 'worship me, look at what I do'. I just wanted to be able to do something that I enjoyed and hopefully sustain a comfortable living from it."

Sperry has managed to do just that, parlaying a fascination with fringe culture, freakshows, conjuring and ancient magic tricks into a career that has seen him perform around the world. He's now one of seven performers in The Illusionists, a spectacular stage show that has toured around the world from Dubai and Las Vegas to Auckland and now Perth.

Along with the card-playing Trickster (tall, lanky "Magic Dave" Williamson, a veteran of the magic profession), the Escapologist (Italian Andrew Basso), The Inventor (the mad professor-ish American Kevin James), The Mentalist (Australia's own Anthony Laye), and the duo of The Gentleman (Mark Kalin) and the witchy Enchantress (Jinger Leigh), Sperry is part of a crack team of slick, seasoned performers who manage to fuse old-fashioned basics with newly minted trickery in an evening of fun - and sometimes goosebump worthy - entertainment.

Each performer has a distinct personality, but Sperry makes clear when I chat to him in Melbourne that his Gothic, Marilyn Manson-meets-Edward Scissorhands get-up is not just a stage costume. The piercings, the jet black hair, the tattoos, are all for real.

"I really don't have a stage outfit; I just kind of wear whatever I feel like," he says. Sperry incorporates certain sideshow elements into his performance - he can pull a piece of string through his nose and out his eyeball - but he also performs a full-throttle Russian roulette routine and a quite elegant, gasp-inducing conjuring feat towards the end of the show in which he produces, and then makes disappear, a flock of pristine white turtle doves.

Although he admits that he tones down his usual repertoire for the all-ages audience that The Illusionists targets, Sperry maintains a demeanour of menace and threat throughout the show that has audiences laughing and shuddering in equal measure.

"I hesitated about doing the thread trick because it's a bit gross, it's not 'magical' in the usual sense of the word," he admits. "But there is certainly an element of wonder to it and I think that is the key to a lot of what you see in this show. As it turns out, it's been a good way to break the tension in the opening moments."

While Sperry is now based in Las Vegas, his career trajectory has meant a somewhat nomadic life. He has lived in Chicago and New York City, where he had his own magic show and lived above the Times Square theatre he was performing in.

"I don't know that I had a 'big break' - I just kind of did stuff," he says in typically laconic style. "In Chicago I was doing birthday party shows, daycare centres, schools. I had an edgier show that producers in Vegas were interested in, so they had me fly out as a fill-in magician. They didn't bring back the guy I was filling for, so I guess you could call that my break."

In 2010 he appeared on America's Got Talent and it really snowballed from there, although he says he had a strong following on social media and YouTube well before then. "I don't think I really understood YouTube at first, so I'd put any old s..t up and suddenly loads of people were watching it," he laughs. "I've since taken a lot of those early videos down. I guess I am much more conscious of my 'brand' now, if you want to call it that."

While Sperry and his cohorts succeed in keeping us guessing throughout The Illusionists, one of the biggest gambles is who will be pulled out of the audience to appear on stage. No one is "planted" in the audience for the show, which has made for a couple of hairy moments.

"In New Zealand last year I got a girl up on stage who was clearly off her head on something," he laughs. "For the Russian roulette routine I had to ask her if she was left-handed or right-handed, and she actually couldn't tell me. That was when I thought 'uh-oh, let's just get this over and done with'."

The West Australian

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