Hotfootin' It

Pyrosutra dances in a burning ring of fire.

Fire dancing is a skin-prickling combination of circus act and performance art. Flaming orange spheres whisk past limbs and under legs, moving dangerously close to the body. In the dark, the glowing trails of fire appear to be disconnected, like instruments operated by a phantom puppeteer.Pyrosutra, a six-person troupe of fire dancers based in Seattle, have been performing together for eight years (the group was actually formed in 2000, but the founding members have since dispersed). Twirling chains and juggling clubs may look easy enough, but when fire is added, each movement must be precise and calculated. Everything, from the blazing hula-hoops to the flame-resistant clothing, is carefully engineered to fit the act."It's the manipulation of an element," says Jay Benham, who adds that fire dancing is an infusion of new mediums with traditional art forms. Benham draws inspiration from the circus, but any art that showcases movement—martial arts, belly-dancing, hula-hooping—can also be incorporated. Though the troupe doesn't design its shows around a theme, classic images or figures, like the eight-armed Shiva, can serve as starting points for new choreography.Just as important are the tools Pyrosutra uses. The troupe works closely with metal workers and engineers to devise equipment that complements their performance. Batons, poi, fans, hoops, wands, torches, and nunchucks may sound like props in an S&M skit, but the objects can be ignited and synchronized with the dancing.People often ask the troupe if their performance is magic, but like any respectable illusionists, Pyrosutra members don't reveal the secrets of their trade."We design a lot of tools ourselves," says Elizabeth Harazim. "The design work is the proprietary secret."Fire dancing has become increasingly popular; consider the many people who practice at Golden Gardens after hours. And the troupe feels it has a universal resonance, because man's first dominion over nature was to tame fire."People are drawn to it," explains Benham. "From a nice candle to a giant bonfire, people understand it, but they also have a cognitive fear of it. And we're obviously not scared of it; we're aware of it. We have to let go of that fear a little bit to swing flaming balls of fuel around [our] heads."The group practices together at least once a week and several times individually. Unfortunately, strict city regulations have made it difficult for fire dancers to perform in public spaces, forcing the members to move indoors or to private backyards. If a venue has not already been approved by the fire department, a fire marshal must do a walk-through. The troupe is also required to maintain a yearly permit ($396) and give the fire marshal five to seven days notice before a performance. Leslie Rosen feels these regulations are a consequence of the pyrotechnic act that went horrifically wrong at a Great White concert in Rhode Island in 2003.The members of Pyrosutra all have scars and their share of nightmarish tales about tricks gone wrong (fire once singed Benham's skin after traveling up the chain he was twirling), but the precautions and dangers of fire dancing are not enough to dissuade them."I think our long hair is a testament to how skilled we are," jokes Rosen, knocking on a wooden coffee table.ckareiva@seattleweekly.com

 
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