Local fire performance group Pyrosutra heats up the stage
Seattle Times staff reporter
Burns are part of the job description.
"You get used to the smell of burnt hair," said Brent Fall, 34, of Seattle's fire-performance group Pyrosutra. "If you do this, you will get burned."
With flaming hula hoops and blazing batons spun in every direction, it's difficult to determine where fire ends and the night air begins. But Pyrosutra members have mastered the natural element through dance.
"Just like water, air or earth, it's something that has its own energy," said member Kari Christensen, 26, a yoga instructor. "For me it's very spiritual, and there's also an element of danger that makes it exciting."
Formed about three years ago, Pyrosutra performs in front of crowds sometimes reaching the thousands in Seattle and around the country. It differentiates itself from the handful of other local fire-performance groups because of its "seductive" nature, members say.
"We're the sexiest fire performers in Seattle," said Fall, a molecular biologist at the University of Washington.
Fire licks at their skin as they brush clubs about their bare arms. Wearing sultry costumes, they lift each other, feed each other fire and sometimes end their performances with a kiss.
Much like a fireworks display at street level, there never ceases to be something that catches the eye — flaming spirals, burning figure-eights and fiery orbs seem to go in every direction. And with the smell of fuel lingering in the air and bumping music, it's as if pyrotechnics are being introduced to a rave scene.
But at the center of it all is fire.
"It's one of the most natural occurring phenomenons," said David Mills, 28, the man behind the group. "It's both sexy and aggressive. It will bite you and hurt you, but it will also soothe you and warm you. ... You can heat your food with it but it can also burn your house down."
Fall quickly learned not to wear cut-off pants while practicing or performing after the fringes caught fire once.
And each member of the group seems to have a fool-proof antidote for burns.
"Minor burns you let go," said Mills.
For others, aloe, tea-tree oil or antibiotic cream are the solutions of choice.
"There's such a thrill that once you get into the whole fire performing, you don't even feel the burns," said Christensen.
And they all insist that pyromania is not a term that describes them.
"A pyromaniac draws some sort of illicit pleasure from seeing something burn," said Fall. "This isn't some fetish-y fascination with flame. It's a medium. It's our medium."
A flame is lit
Dubbed "Tabasco," Mills first saw others dancing with fire in 1998 at Burning Man, an annual makeshift artist community formed for a week every year in a Nevada desert.
He returned from the festival, fashioned a set of poi — balls at the end of two lengths of chain — and began practicing in parks and other open spaces. It was about two months before he actually lit the flammable balls.
"I would do it and spend hours doing it," said Mills. "It became a meditation."
Mills quit his technology job and began working as a blacksmith. And he began teaching friends and others who were interested in the art of spinning fire.
The circle of friends performed at Burning Man in 2000 and later that year became Pyrosutra.
"I didn't want another circus group," said Mills. "I really wanted a dance troupe of fire performers."
The nine core members — not including two who recently moved to California and formed Pyrosutra Los Angeles — are continually choreographing new routines and skits often with eclectic characters such as funky chickens and go-go dancers as well as props like stilts and swords.
But what started as a hobby has become something of a lifestyle. The group practices twice a week and often will meet to discuss projects or simply to hang out. And whenever they are together, chains are flying through the air or hula hoops are spinning around gyrating waists.
"It's basically become our social life," said Fall. "This is our family of friends."
With the "unce, unce, unce" of electronic music pumping in the background, Mills spins a set of poi. While he varies the speed and size of the burning rings that seem to encircle him, every movement is calculated, ever thrust is deliberate.
His intent concentration hints of a child spelling his name with sparklers on the Fourth of July. Every bone and muscle in his face, lit by the glow of the constantly moving flames that surround him, is set.
"You never control the fire," he said. "You coax it, and you play with it, and you adjust it. But you never really control it."
Mills, who is never far from his Zippo lighter and often has black smudges on his arms and clothes from burnt poi balls, makes many of the tools the group uses — flaming fans, burning head pieces, fiery metal finger extensions.
The group performs at private parties, clubs, corporate events and festivals, checking in with Seattle's fire marshal's office before each show to ensure compliance with fire codes.
Two members regularly perform at the downtown club Contour every other week. And several members performed at a ski competition earlier this year in Park City, Utah. They were paid $6,000 including airfare and lodging for that show.
And for shows where fire isn't allowed, the group has developed glow-in-the-dark performances with the help of blacklights.
"We get invited to the best parties, and it's free," said Fall.
The group is booked to return to the Bite of Seattle July 18-20 at Seattle Center, after performing to no fewer than 4,500 people last year, said Jody May, vice-president and general manager of the Bellevue-based Festivals, which produces the three-day event.
"The crowd just went crazy," she recalled. "It was probably the largest crowd in front of that stage at last year's Bite."
May believes the attraction to fire dancing is much like the popularity of reality television.
"It's not just the same old local band playing the same old rock 'n' roll tunes," she said. "Plus, people like to watch other people do kind of daring and off-the-wall stunts. And in a very, very mild way, compared to what you see on television these days, they offer a little of that."
Gina Kim: 206-464-2761 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company