During the week of Burning Man, the area that surrounds the Man appears to be just another place to play. But on Saturday night, that 600-foot diameter circle lined by 2,000 light-emitting pods becomes sacred territory, where entrance is permitted only for those with a special mission to create amazing wonders.
Just over 600 members of the Fire Conclave convened inside the Great Circle this year, the largest convergence of fire performers in one place at one time. This gathering of people, so diverse in style, experience, and focus, increased slightly from last year. Our numbers are approaching critical mass within the Great Circle, since that space will hold only so many people playing with fire. Each year, requests from fire dancers to join the Fire Conclave grow, so those who are chosen must exhibit a high level of responsibility.
FIRE CONCLAVE SHIN
Interactions with each group of performers start with one lead contact person, called a Shin (a Hebrew word that means Mother Fire). To hold this position, a person must demonstrate responsible management of a group. Critical skills include communication, ability to rally a group of free-spirited individuals, leadership with a firm but flexible hand, and a very strong sense of safety protocols. Each Fire Conclave group displays its own energy, style, and level of commitment. Each has created a unique, unwritten code of ethics as diverse as the regions from which they come.
Show Me Salons began as a way to connect with groups of fire performers. These events have now matured to become the Community Outreach program. Auditioning new fire performers is the responsibility of each group’s Shin. The Fire Conclave cannot — and does not want to — micromanage groups. Each group grows in its own way, and the Shin knows best who has the skills and responsibility levels to take various roles. In 2003, the manager of the Fire Conclave traveled to many places as part of the Community Outreach program to support local group activities. Destinations included Colorado (Steamboat Springs), Nevada (Reno), California (Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, San Diego), and Washington-Baltimore
FIRE CONCLAVE CONVERGENCE
The name of the Fire Conclave camp changed in 2003 to reflect what happens when many fire performers come together on the playa. Once again, members found the camp to be a central place to check in, a source of information about activities on the playa, and a distribution point for laminates that allowed entry into the Great Circle. (These special badges have become mandatory for anyone allowed to dance at the foot of the Man on Saturday night.) We simplified the check-in process this year with the creation of the master book. Refined from practices in years past, this book serves to communicate who is actually on the playa. These records not only indicate who receives laminates, but also help during the year to track membership. With the amount of activity that happens during the week in Black Rock City, a central way to communicate to every member has become an elusive goal. Plans under consideration include creating a larger camp where members could camp, hold meetings, gather, communicate about their positions before they hit the Great Circle on Saturday night, teach classes, exchange ideas, and meet other like-minded lovers of the flame.
DANCING WITHIN THE GREAT CIRCLE
The performance the night of the burn requires organized distribution of 29 different groups of various sizes so they spread evenly within an area where the only light source comes from the neon of the Man. To accomplish this organization, easy points of reference (POR) are extremely important guidelines. This year, the space layout and activity within the Great Circle followed the layout of Black Rock City itself. Four broad, ceremonial avenues stretched outward from the Man toward Center Camp at 6:00 o’clock, the Temple of Honor at 12:00, and the two plazas at 3:00 and 9:00. These markers provided a perfect way to divide the space; along with entrance points for performers and pyrotechnicians. They also provided emergency access for the Black Rock City Fire Department (BRCFD) through the thousands of people who gather around that Great Circle waiting for the Man to expire in pyrotechnic delight.
To separate fire performers from the huge amount of pyrotechnic material loaded inside the platform and the Man, a 75-foot perimeter circle around the platform is created, and no one may cross that line except the pyro crew. This boundary is usually marked with some glowing marker. Outside that circle, controlled chaos can happen, as long as safety and communication are maintained. Each spot designated for a Fire Conclave group is assigned a Fire Watch, a refueling station, and a Radio Head. The stage manager cannot be everywhere during the show, so the position of Radio Head was created several years ago to ensure that everyone is connected to central instructions through the radio. This person is the eyes and ears for each group, who listens for cues, communicates instructions to performers (especially when to start and stop playing with fire), and speaks up if an emergency occurs.
Safety of a performance is more important than the excitement created when the fire performers do their thing. A Fire Watch person monitors a group’s performance, making sure that performers stay safe and that fire stays where it is allowed. The number of Fire Watch personnel assigned depends on the size and experience of the group. The refueling station is a metal container with a lid that contains all fuel that each group will use during the performance. The metal lid is a vital tool, for it closes off the fuel once the cue comes that all fire performers are to stop dancing. This precaution ensures that no stray pyro reaches inside a can of fuel.
For years, performers have tried unsuccessfully to bring music into their burn-night routines. No one has found a way to make sounds audible around the Great Circle – dancers just hear too much other beautiful noise from everyone’s excitement. A sound system would have to be so large to overcome the background clamor, that everyone would feel as if they were inside a rock concert. This year we tried a cooperative solution. Earlier in the year, drum music for the performance was created and made available on the web, so everyone — participants and members of the Fire Conclave — could download the same music and become familiar with it before they hit the playa. This one gesture worked. The musicians gathered on site and played, but fire performers still could not hear the music coming only from the perimeter of the circle. The availability of the music well before the playa was an improvement, though. This concept will be developed further for next year.
Fire Conclave Membership Members made up 29 different fire-performance groups from seven states and Canada:
- Boom Tribe – Bay Area
- Burning Otter – San Francisco Bay Area & beyond
- Garnish – Los Angeles
- Fire Conclave Jugglers – Sacramento & beyond
- Fire Arts Collective – Oakland
- Future Trybe – Bay Area
- Infinite Kaos – San Francisco
- Los Angeles Fire Conclave
- Phoenix Rising – Traveling
- Promethians Contrition – Santa Barbara
- Santa Cruz Fire Conclave – Santa Cruz
- San Francisco Fire Conclave
- Saturnalia – Santa Barbara
- Sintillation – Alameda
- Temple of Poi – San Francisco
- Zonerhill – San Francisco
- High Fire – Colorado Springs
- Controlled Burn – Reno
- Liquid Flame
- Luminous Flux – Portland
- Nocturnal Ignition – Portland
- The Alchemists – Salem
- Portland Fire Conclave – Portland
- Psyco Pyro Gyro – Cave Junction
- Northwest Fire Conclave – Seattle
- Pyrosutra – Seattle
- Cirque de Flambe – Seattle
WASHINGTON D.C. / BALTIMORE
- Playa del Fuego
- Wet Rock City Fire Flies – Vancouver
For further information, visit the Fire Conclave section of the Burning Man web site.
Our ongoing Community Outreach efforts have confirmed what we already knew: The primal nature of fire is a compelling force. Burning Man continues to evolve into one of the largest venues for fire arts in the world..