1337, a 14-member “industrial performing arts collective” formed six months ago, practices the dance-like moves of firespinning at underground parties, clubs, and city parks. On June 7 and 8, these outsider art circus performers will lend their talents to “Dante’s Inferno: the Augenblick Remix.” Spectators will travel by subway from Union Square on the L to the Classon Avenue stop on the G, encountering the successive levels of hell, and finally emerge for a party at 12-Turn-13 Loft in Brooklyn, where members of 1337 will portray the Eighth Circle in jets of flame.
The group met on flambévolupte, an online discussion list for local firespinners, estimated at a few hundred. On the West Coast, troupes like Fyrestorm entertain at galas, but as far as full-out performance art groups in New York go, “we’re the only game in town,” says Ben Bartelle, 25, a former Kung Fu instructor, molecular biologist, and founding member.
“The fire is really a visceral experience,” says Alex Southgate, 25, a software designer and core 1337 member. He first picked up a set of spinners, called poi, on a trip to New Zealand and added fire by trial and error. “You can see it, feel it, smell it,” he says of his chosen element. “I love the way it sounds . . . There’s this fine line between control and freedom of expression.” Picture two 30-inch-long chains, like dog leashes, with leather straps and a Q-tip like head wrapped in nonflammable Kevlar. Soak the wicks in kerosene, a relatively safe, slow-burning fuel, and you’ve got a set of fire poi, spun in dizzying patterns, with a satisfying whoosh around, behind, and under the body or bodies. The routines 1337 choreographs may involve martial-arts-style sparring with burning staffs, a sensuous fire-breathing sequence with a couple exchanging flames by mouth (white gas, which burns at a lower temperature, is used), or even a fire-waving trapeze artist.
The burners may be new to New York, but they are part of a truly global underground. Poi are a Maori tradition, and backpackers often try spinning on the beaches of Australia, New Zealand, and Thailand. At Homeofpoi.com dozens of international burners trade tricks, tips, and rants.
“Performance with fire is very old and worldwide,” says John Bell, professor of performing arts at Emerson College and a member of the Great Small Works Theater Company. “It is cheap and spectacular and titillatingly dangerous.” The danger is authentic: The members of 1337 have crescent-shaped scars on their torsos or shins, although spectators who remain a few feet away are at almost no risk. Bell relates 1337 to a broader do-it-yourself, semi-amateur performance movement encompassing new-vaudeville troupes like the Bindlestiff Family Circus, street theater groups like Bread and Puppet, and as far back as European family traveling show. “The firespinning I saw (in Paris) seemed to be part of a kind of popular performance at a grassroots level,” Bell said. From this grassroots background, 1337 is forming serious artistic aspirations. “We’ll become something that New York is known for . . . New York needs to have room for cultivating love and self-expression,” says Cassandra Marshall, 27, a Parsons student, of 1337’s future.
The connection between “love and self-expression” and a girl in a leather halter swallowing fire may not seem obvious, but it’s a natural one for the firespinning community. There persists in the scene a New Age, creative, neo-tribal ethic best exemplified by the Burning Man festival in Black Rock, Nevada, where the mantra is “radical self-expression and participation.” Skunk, a 25-year-old audio engineer originally from Israel, said, “After coming back from the fleeting survivalist utopian bliss of Black Rock City to the incessant pressure-cooking nightmare that is New York life . . . I found myself, like so many others, seeking out other ‘burners’ to chill with.”
Southgate adds, “I think both Burning Man and what we do are manifestations of the same kind of desire that’s been building in a lot of people to create and do things themselves, not sit back and be passively entertained.”
The rooftops and basketball courts of New York are certainly less hospitable to burners than the wide-open deserts and beaches of the West, just as New York’s culture has historically had less respect for amateur, communal pursuits than professional, individual achievements. But the arrival at this moment of a new public art form that combines dancing with juggling, fear with fascination, the makeshift with the otherworldly, might be just the thing to capture the city’s collective imagination.
“Dante’s Inferno: the Augenblick Remix” is Friday and Saturday at 9 p.m.; 1337 will perform at 10 p.m. Go to www.augenblick.ws for details.