At Burning Man each year, the members of the Fire Conclave are granted the opportunity to showcase their wares as the Man burns and they have consistently used their time to roll out something to push the envelope further outside the box. With an unyielding creativity and a focus on safety these performers won’t settle with the status quo. You might even say that Fire Conclave wants to go boldly where other performers haven’t gone before. To explore what’s possible with fire they spend countless hours training, endure burn after burn and many even seek out more experienced masters of flow to level up their skills. Contrasted with the fire dancing of the first documented fire dancer at Burning Man, Crimson Rose, who uses a bowl of fire with a simple torch in her performance, the art has come a long way indeed.
Expanding Technique and Combining the Old
Several performers like those at Hellfire Society and Ministry of Flow (two groups in the Fire Conclave) like to present abilities that haven’t been seen much before in the great circle, if at all. Sometimes this includes a signature flow or a juxtaposition of techniques that form a peculiarly mathematical choreography, as is seen in sacred geometry. Just perusing the fire circles at Camp Question Mark this year would have demonstrated another form of reinvention occurring in the fire community. In what may seem like random combinations of tools some experienced members of the fire conclave are showcasing a new brand of flow. Popular combinations include one poi with one fan, a contact staff with contact sword, or three contact staffs – just to name a few. Armed with these combinations fire performers are demonstrating a refined martial prowess along with the ability to take their understanding of flow and apply it universally across different tools.
Imagining the New
Perhaps the most inventive quality alive in fire spinning today is the novelty of weapons being constructed. Some are inspired by an earlier time where weapons were forged to be brutal and beautiful, while others seem more like magic artifacts from some dark and terrifying future where Blade Runner meets MadMax.
Each of the conclaves brought something interesting and new to the table. Ministry of Flow had massive angelic wings and a 3-dimensional Ceptar. Both had a heavenly design that looked more like something from the depths of Hades once lit and put into action. Hellfire Society had fire symbols, a flaming german wheel and a 40-wick dragon staff that appeared like tumbling dumbells of magma. One conclave even brought out an entire dragon of flames.
With these experiments the line between drama on a stage and ceremony seems to be lost in the smoke. It’s no wonder the spectacle of fire dance is so often called “prayerformance”. It may be that the constant drive to evolve the art comes from a natural curiousity or a deep seeded human propensity towards the New. It taps into a form of expression that honors one of the most tenacious traits of Burner culture: ingenuity. While strong among Burners it seems that in some form this creative spark exists just about wherever communities are found. Since fire is about as old as time it’s difficult to speculate where it actually originates.
Wherever it comes from, it’s a marvel that each year new and different feats are achieved with fire at Burning Man. It’s a stark reminder of our everpresent human desire to do and be greater than those who came before us. It’s also this natural drive that propels us forward both as creatives into an experimental performance and as humans into a better world.
Photos by Graham Berry