For some reason, in October 2011, I decided I wanted to be a fire performer at Burning Man. I was sitting and eating lunch at my first hula hoop workshop in London, having only very recently and vaguely heard of Burning Man – it is on the other side of the world, after all ― and here Emma was, talking to us about playing with fire, in the desert. I had been hooping for six months; never, ever used fire before; never left Europe; and, I was totally sold on the idea.
The next few weeks and months were spent absorbing, sponge-like, every piece of information, image, video of Burning Man I could find, counting down to the ticket lottery day. A festival? In a desert? Why not? (Although I have to point out here, until this year I have never been an avid festival go-er. Looking back, it’s easy to see why people thought I might have gone crazy.)
The UK’s conclave group is a little different from the others: a) We are the only entrants from our country; b) we are nationwide, having to film our submission in segments performed by regional cells (mostly in the rain due to the stupid British weather); and c), possibly not important to non-fire-spinners, is that the UK uses a different fuel than fire-spinners in the United States, one that doesn’t spontaneously set you on fire.
This year was our collective’s largest entry ever, with around 25 members. Logistically, Burning Man is a challenge for our group, as gathering and guiding spinners is a bit like herding cats at the best of times. The London cell alone lost four members out of nine total ― two of those to the Paralympics closing ceremony (although we can hardly blame them!).
We even make our own props: a member of the London group welded all of the cell’s fire fans, and members from the whole cell sewed on the kevlar wicks, one by one. Although a pair of four-foot high fire wings were specially made, along with a fire “horse,” they sadly didn’t make it across the Atlantic.We may be small, but our ambitions are mighty.
One of the London cell’s main issues is the fact that we were all so green at the start. Charlie and I were all enthusiasm and no skill, having taken up fire especially for the conclave, and only the one veteran Burner had ever performed in front of a crowd.
One of the rites of passage of being a collective member is performing our routine at two festivals prior to leaving for America. Literally: a trial by fire. Each of these shows had it’s problems ― weather (Black Rock City might have dust, but Cambridge has mud, an entire ocean of the stuff), nerves, and so forth ― but this only served to illustrate that we were actually doing “it.” That Thing In The Desert was becoming less of an imaginary specter and more someone tapping on the shoulder.
TTITD arrived speedily. Suddenly, we were in the pre-compression that is San Francisco, meeting fellow Burners on every corner. The whole experience started becoming less real as we picked up our respective rental cars, a week’s worth of food and water each, and rabbit ears. Before we knew it, we were having a full-length, 20 minute-long rehearsal outside Center Camp with loaded art cars watching. We were ready. We looked badass. It was time.
The morning of the Man Burn, I did not feel as I’d expected. I was in that blissful, serene playa-state where actually everything is OK, man. Pink Heart camp served the collective vegan sloppy joes, as we collected our fire conclave passes. Then the long walk to the Man, and the wait. We knew the drill. Practice couldn’t help us now (we had an eleventh-hour disaster in the London cell with a sudden drop-out, meaning an impromptu mental re-choreograph).
We waited as the art cars enclosed us around the Man. We waited until drums filled the air, beating like Black Rock City’s expectant heart. Then we were on fire, spinning against the ink-black night. Months of work rushing back and away again, like the sounds of our lit wicks brushing past our ears.
Then… nothing as we huddled down as the Man started to burn.