Like every great magician, Cath Jamison knows the secrets to an entertaining show. Sassy, bold and confidently funny, after 20 years it’s not surprising she’s the number one female magician in the country. Like many before her, Cath includes doves in her show, and as Lisa Louden discovers, this is where the magic really begins.
Working with doves, Cath explains, is more than a trick, it’s about building a relationship. ‘You have to treat them like pets,’ she says. ‘It’s about training and handling and it can take years.’
As with anyone who has or works with animals, we know that each and every one of them has their own personality and certainly that’s the case with Cath’s doves. She’s had several over the years, and used to work with five doves on stage. The advent of the bird flu and the logistics of performing with live animals have prompted her to use only two birds now, Scatty and Flighty.
True to form, Flighty does indeed like to take off from time to time, though not usually during a show. ‘Working with animals keeps you challenged,’ says Cath. And the case in point is that Flighty decided one night to fly over the audience. He landed on a boy with Down Syndrome who was utterly delighted by the visit. Why he decided to fly to this boy no-one knows, except the result was overwhelmingly positive, and will stand in memory as one of her great shows.
Cath admits part of the charm of including doves is watching the audience and their reaction to them. There is definitely fascination, but often, funnily enough, she is asked if they are rubber. ‘I think sometimes they don’t really understand that they are live doves,’ she says. ‘They think it must be another trick.’
Watching Cath with her doves is indeed to watch a relationship in action. By a gentle, almost invisible movement of her hand, she can make them flap their wings, and another tiny movement makes them fly. She calls herself ‘The Dove Whisperer’ and it’s easy to see why. She moves deftly and confidently with them, with what could be described as a type of calm, and these gentle creatures respond.
After seeing The Prestige I am prompted to ask if cruelty or death of birds in magic tricks is common practice. According to Cath, thankfully it’s not – it seems the deaths of birds in tricks in The Prestige were for Hollywood impact only. Of course, as in any industry, there are magicians who do not have positive relationships with their birds. Cath tells a story of when a magician recently had his bird fly off and not return. ‘No wonder,’ she says, ‘he treated it terribly.’
Cath believes very strongly that her relationship with her doves ensures her magic with them is successful. It’s a case of treat them well and they’ll do what you ask. She admits rather sheepishly that she talks often to them, and seemed grateful to hear it’s a common practice among all pet owners. After a performance she says she often turns to them and says, ‘well, that was a good show.’ There is never any disagreement.
In 2007, Cath was bestowed the honour of being the only female in a show celebrating 100 years of the Australian Society of Magicians. There were 13 performers in total, from as far away as France, Sweden, Canada and America, including some of the world’s greats. For any female who has risen in the ranks of a male-dominated industry, this is both testament to her skills and persistence and is most certainly a world away from when she attended a magic class many years previous and was assumed to be a magician’s wife.
While it’s an industry that has traditionally attracted men, with the popularity of Harry Potter books it’s a profession undergoing change. ‘Boys have always thought magic was cool, but now girls are starting to get into it too,’ says Cath. ‘Recently I’ve been teaching magic to children and in my classes I’d say 50 per cent were girls. Twenty or 30 years ago, it [magic] was pushed to the boys, where as girls had to knit and sew … I was different.’
And different she was. Cath has always been fascinated by magic and took to it at a young age. While her female counterparts were undertaking traditional domestic pursuits, Cath was learning magic, practicing tricks and juggling chickens. No, they weren’t live – they were rubber and apparently made for an entertaining show. So much so that Cath won Australia’s best busker one year by juggling chickens. Evidently, her skills span several bird species.
Cath’s affection for animals may be restricted to birds on stage, but at home Houdini – naturally a true magician’s dog – is number one. Houdini is a gorgeous girl, who Cath says is a Whippet, Silky Terrier, Kelpie and Pomeranian Cross. It’s almost a magic trick that she has so many crosses, so it’s little wonder she’s called Houdini. Like her mother, Houdini also has a special relationship with the doves, and watches over them like a protector. Naturally, she also has a good relationship with Cath and like most dogs has the intuition to sense Cath’s moods.
While we are there, Cath performs magic tricks and our photographer is fascinated. ‘I was watching so carefully,’ says Zoe, ‘how did you do that?’ It’s a question asked repeatedly and one that Cath answers with the quip ‘very well’. And while audiences will continue to scratch their heads trying to figure out how her tricks are performed, one thing we do know, when it comes to her doves, it’s not just about magic.
Photography: Zoe Phillips