Saturday, September 10, 2005

Fire Conclave

Many of you know that I was invited to be part of NY's own 1337 for this year's Fire Conclave. Many of you don't.

Here is a picture of the Fire Conclave at Burning Man 2004. I think there are about 500 people who are in it, all fire performers--poi spinners, breathers, staff/double staff, firesword, whatever. They do about half an hour's worth of performance before the burn, then the stage is cleared and the Man get torched.

The people at the front of the picture? Add about 34 thousand to them, and you'll have an idea of the size of the crowd. It's fucking awesome.

Now, believe it or not, I'm incredibly shy by nature. If I don't know you, I won't speak to you unless you ask me a direct question. And public speaking? Fageddaboudit!

So last year, when Burnzie asked me to be part of the Conclave, I looked at her like she was nuts.

This year, she got me early, and with the flanking attack of our own Oubliette, I agreed to perform. Immediately afterward, my stomach began to cramp.

As the weeks flew by, more info came my way: Conclave was an umbrella under which various groups performed, directed by someone in the Burning Man organization. Last year, the Org had required all performers to learn a specific routine, which as you can imagine, judging from the...individuality...of anyone who plays with fire for long periods of time, didn't go over very well. Unfortunately the brunt of the whining fell on the ears of the group leaders, instead of the Org, where it belonged. Anyway, I was too drunk to see the Conclave last year anyway.

This year, the Org kind of learned from their past "mistake." They required each group to do "something" pertaining to the theme, but didn't require anything specific. The result was 1337 Presents: Alice In Wonderland.

Now, naturally, I'm a fit for the Mad Hatter, not least because I've got the hat. But someone else (Bryce?) with a hell of a lot more seniority (that is, SOME) than me wanted that position, and furthermore pointed out that as a fire BREATHER, I should be the Jabberwock, a fire breathing dragon sort of thing. Which wasn't precisely Alice In Wonderland, but I would have been happy playing a plastic turd for this one.

The night before, I met Stacycats (hi, Stacycats!), who as it happens was also performing in 1337 the next day, and we made a night of it, actually watching the sun come up with members of Image Node.

Now, sleeping during the day is pretty much impossible, so I at least was pretty well strung out by the time we were to gather at Burnzie's place to prep and get laminates (that's right, I had ACCESS!). It was there the story really begins.

When we arrived at the meeting place, I was pleased to note that I'd met almost all of the performers before, in some capacity or another. Burnzie did her normal fine job of orienting everyone and motivating or calming certain performers (I was obviously in the latter category)...and then it was time to wait.

We waited forever, it seems like. People went away, came back. People showed up, were greeted, and began to wait. Finally our Rabbit and Alice showed up. Rabbit was nonplussed to find that my entire Jabberwock costume consisted of a pair of leather pants and vest (which looked GOOD, dammit!), so we began sorting out how to go about getting a winged effect. Ultimately, we decided he would stand behind me as I was breathing, spinning his short staves in a sort of winglike manner. Fuck it, it was dark, the crowd was all on drugs anyway...and nobody was going to be able to see "wings" behind a big ball of fire anyway.

The walk out to the site beautiful. The sun had just set, the temperature was perfect, and I was walking with a crew of professional fire people to do a show in front of a stadium sized crowd. I was reminded of the scene at the beginning of Reservoir Dogs, and actually began to hum the song they were playing, until I realized I was actually humming the Blues Brothers theme, and Burnzie asked everyone if anyone had to pee. People cheered us as we walked by, bristling with wick and dressed to the nines.

We were greeted at the circle by about a hundred firefighters in full yellow gear, one of whom checked our laminates before allowing us to proceed. I started to worry again, briefly, but this time for my own safety, and the safety of others around me. Did I know what I was doing? Shit, no. I mean, I knew what I was doing, but I had no idea how far away from the crowd I needed to be, or how the wind was going to affect my fireballs.

Stacycats did a great deal to calm me during the next few minutes, as we got to our fuel dump and began discussing what was going to happen. The group was divided into three subgroups. There were 13 performers, 7 safeties, and two auxiliary personnel (Twin C as Helmsman/radio man and Brother Bacon as photographer/secondary safety). It's the safeties job to put you out if you catch on fire. It's their job to light your shit up when you're ready to burn, and basically be your back in case of emergency. I had never worked with a safety, but they're absolutely critical in a big event like this.

To explain further, the fuel dump is a big can that contains all the smaller cans of fuel the performers will use during the performance. It's obviously very dangerous to have open flame near the fuel dump. Our photographer and all around badass Brother Bacon took some group shots, and we began to sort out the performance.

In theory, Alice would come out and spin for a second, then "go down the rabbit hole" by means of a kind of spinning movement. At this point the Rabbit would come out, complete with fire ears, and interact with her somehow--this was left to the performers. Then the Card Army would come out, marching in step and spinning the same routine, very professional looking. Then the Queen of Hearts (Burnzie, who was awesome) joined the crew, berating the cards and hassling Alice.

At this point, I was to begin doing my thing somewhere close to her, but preferably upwind. Rabbit would then come behind me, I would lift my torch, and he would touch off his staves from that, begin spinning, and making wings. That would be the end of the first set, once we all "spun out."

Now, more waiting. Twin C had the radio, and was calling out periodic admonitions and answering five questions a minute. Other groups all around began practicing, shouting and moving about in the near darkness. Nobody was lit. It was hard to tell where we were supposed to be. I could see the crowd growing and hear them getting louder, and there was nothing for me to do but wait, and watch the people on stilts next to us practice their fire staves. I began to wonder what I was doing there. Burnzie came up behind me and touched my arm. "Hey, thanks for coming out. We're going to be awesome." Gratitude welled up in my black little heart, followed swiftly by confidence (or at least bravado).

Twin C began a kind of countdown--"20 minutes!" "10 minutes! First crew should start soaking!" "Two minutes!"

"Shitshitshitshit," I thought, "it's too late to back out now. I'm trapped-better dazzle them before they think about eating me alive." I started lighting wicks.

First Dorothy, then the Rabbit came up. I lit his ears, and off they went. The Card Army marched by, then Burnzie. I spun my torch a couple of times behind the group, checked my fuel, and started slowly walking towards the front.

At that moment, the Rabbit came bursting into my field of view, yelling "safety! safety! someone put me out!" He then pitched himself face first (it appeared) onto the ground practically at my feet. Safeties swarmed him, but I couldn't see much other than that his head had a lot more fire than I'd anticipated on it.

Then it was my turn. I couldn't look back, or help, I had to hurry away, in fact, and pretend like nothing was happening. I did, and I don't think I was more than a second behind my schedule.

I blew a big gout, and didn't get much response. I walked a little closer, and did it again. Shit, I was bombing. Hopefully they were looking at the Rabbit behind me. I got a little closer, took another swig out of the bottle. I took another step to the crowd, which I could barely see, and blew off another one.

Now, the thing about firebreathing in darkness is that you lose all your night vision the instant you look at the fire, which you can't help but do. And when you're performing in something like this, you can't really watch where it's going, either, so you're effectively performing blind, except for about one second between blasts to gauge where you are. I'd been doing this fairly successfully, and edging my way closer to the crowd.

Suddenly, I heard Rabbit behind me, and held up my torch for him to light off. When I did, my vision came back-and less than three feet away from me sat the first row of people. Since they were sitting down, I didn't see them silhouetted against the art cars and sky, and wasn't in danger of catching them on fire, but I got oil on half a dozen of them or more.

I couldn't even say I'm sorry to them, cause my mouth was full of fuel.

We finished, backed off, and watched another group do their thing.

The rest of it went without a hitch--I aspirated a bit of fuel towards the end of "free spin," the last 10 minutes, but pretty soon we were being hustled off and sat down in the front fucking row, a hundred fifty feet away from the Man.

Which promptly went up in fire and fireworks. I hugged Stacy, and Brother Bacon, and Burnzie and pretty much anyone else I could get my hands on, and sat watching the dust devils dance out of the fire.


At 9:04 PM , Blogger Muskrat Love said...

Awww, now I really wish I had gone!

At 4:52 PM , Blogger Daisy-Girl said...

that was beautiful. even if you did spit oil all over some of them them :) at least you came out of it without needing skin grafts.


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