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Some Like It Hot

As their popularity surges, fire performers seek legitimacy.

April 15, 2002|JUSTIN HAMPTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

After 9 on Wednesday nights in downtown L.A., a usually abandoned parking lot catches fire. Soot-covered toolboxes, fire extinguishers, fireproof duvetyn blankets and metallic canisters of white gas are stacked on the asphalt. And a colorful group of characters ranging from young professionals to street performers and pink-haired ravers pull their hair back and reveal their identities as pyrophiles, members of Los Angeles' growing community of fire performers.

This informal practice group, called Fireplay, has been meeting here for a year and a half, bringing together a crowd of about 50 to trade information on upcoming performances, teach newcomers, practice acrobatic moves and dance steps, and occasionally "light up" their equipment.

Some juggle burning torches. Others might dance with "poi," flaming rectangular wicks that hang at intervals along chains or cables and swing across the body in incandescent streaks. Whatever the tool or technique, the goal is the same: to channel fire's paradoxical nature into fun, spiritual fulfillment--and even rent-paying gigs at raves, dance clubs and in films.

Once underground, pyrophile communities like Fireplay now thrive in practically every continent and communicate with each other through international online destinations such as Home of Poi. Dance clubs and films like "Charlie's Angels" "The Beach" and "Queen of the Damned" have tapped the chic atavism of the fire phenomenon for background flavor. A disparate group of acolytes ranging from ravers and Goths to Renaissance Fair attendees has discovered common ground in an undertaking at once universal and intensely tribal. And with the resurgent popularity comes a new desire for legitimacy, as local pyrophiles seek to adjust laws and public perception to support their ambitions.

Essentially, a typical performance consists of a provocatively dressed performer dancing with flaming props--poi, batons or ornate finger extensions with wicks on the ends--until the fire goes out. There's no denying that the inherent danger of manipulating fire accounts for some of its appeal, says James Taylor, author of the circus sideshow periodical Shocked and Amazed! On and Off the Midway.

"Fire fascinates people, because you're like a rising phoenix out of it. You're going into what people fear, and you're coming out of it apparently unscathed, surviving the worst that nature can throw at you. Fire plays with all of our primal fears at the base. [It's like] 'This is nothing any normal and intelligent human should do, and here are people playing with it like it's where they live.' It's very hard to top that as an act."

But invincibility is a hard-won illusion. Most longtime fire dancers have been burned at least once in their careers, and fire-breathers can suffer crippling "blowbacks" of the flame into their face or throat, as well as kidney and liver failures brought about by ingesting fuel.

E.J. "Tedward" LeCouteur, an L.A. fire aficionado, has developed a cottage industry within this growing community by selling poi chains, Kevlar wicks and other fire tools and toys through his online company Bearclaw Manufacturing (www.bearclawmfg.com). All are designed to be safer than those equipment performers make themselves.

Like many who now work with fire, LeCouteur first made contact with serious fire performance at the annual Burning Man Arts Festival in northwestern Nevada. He speaks fondly of a moment in the festival when he displayed his 10-year experience as a kendo instructor with a pair of flaming swords for an awe-struck crowd. Laid off from his job as a management information systems specialist, LeCouteur turned to making fire apparatuses.

At Fireplay, LeCouteur frequently safety-tests his equipment, which includes an ignitable fire whip and a pair of Kevlar wick-lined fiberglass bat-wings that extend from the performer's back. He also rehearses there with the fire performance troupe the Flamethrowers, who perform at clubs and social functions throughout Los Angeles.

Such paying jobs are hard to come by. Venue owners are jumpy and permits costly. The Los Angeles Fire Department requires "open flame acts" to submit a written permit proposal. Then typically, a fire marshal will witness the act as well as a pre-performance run-through--with the promoter paying the marshal $55 an hour for a four-hour minimum, says Inspector Michael Riley of the LAFD's Public Assemblage Unit. Since most performers are lucky to net $150 for an entire night, many of them believe there is a better, more cost-effective way of making everyone happy: setting professional standards.

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