Once a year, tens of thousands of people gather in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert to create Black Rock City, a temporary metropolis dedicated to community, art, self-expression, and self-reliance. In this crucible of creativity they call the Burning Man festival, all are invited to participate, including a small group of fire performers from Santa Barbara, Ventura, and Camarillo, known as Pyrophylactics. This will be Pyrophylactics’ second year inside the Great Circle alongside fire artists from all over this world, a prestigious honor that you must audition for annually. With quick, flowing movements rooted in hours of practice and technical tuning, Pyrophylactics performs using fire tools, including hoops, fans, poi, staff, palm torches, Levi Wand, and rope dart. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Pyrophylactics’ Shin, or “Fire Mother,” Dana Morton on fire spinning at Burning Man.
Tell me about Pyrophylactics. Pyrophylactics was formed in 2013, with Kenny Katz as Shin (leader), and is made up of a mix of fire spinners from Camarillo, Santa Barbara, and Ventura. About half of our performers were a part of Pyrophylactics last year, and a few of our members were previously part of the Santa Barbara Conclave, which existed from 2010-12. The rest of our members are first-timers, so we have a wide range of experience in our group. We have 14 performers total, plus fire safeties and drummers — a total of 25 members. This year we have eight different tools, and most performers use at least two tools in our Burning Man act.
Can anyone join? In the early planning stages between February and March, we are open to anyone joining as long as they are willing to commit and work hard. If people don’t already spin fire, that’s okay; they just have to really want to learn! Last year, some of the people who had just started fire dancing are now some of our most skilled members.
Do you know where the tradition of spinning fire originated? My understanding is that fire spinning originated in Polynesian culture (poi especially). I know that Crimson Rose, a founding boardmember of Burning Man Project, is responsible for the origins of fire dancing at Burning Man and the creation of the Fire Conclave.
What does it take to perform at Burning Man Festival? The Burning Man Fire Conclave is special because you get to perform at the base of the Man on Saturday night, right before he burns. The conclave forms a giant circle around the Man, and all of the groups perform at once, so there is this ring of fire spinners around the Man with everyone in Black Rock City watching. Fire-spinning groups have to audition every year. We had our first planning meeting in January, then submitted our “intent to audition” in March. We really started practicing and building our choreography after that. We had to submit our audition video by June 24 (watch the video below) and found out we were accepted early in July. Our entire group of 25 will be attending.
What is the most challenging part of being Shin? The Shin is basically the point of contact between the Fire Conclave Council and the rest of the group. The most challenging part for me was working with everyone’s schedules to find practice times that work, making sure everyone has transportation and that people show up. There is also the anxiety associated with not knowing whether you did enough to get accepted to perform. Of course it is everyone’s responsibility, but as Shin I would have felt terrible if we did not get accepted. Our group this year has worked really well together, and I think it shows in our performance.
How do you become Shin? At the very first planning meeting in January, which was only members from the previous year, we talked about who would be Shin for the upcoming year. I guess I made a good impression last year because I was suggested, and everyone was on board with it. Our Shin last year, Warren Ramos Geisler, agreed to be Assistant Shin, so that was reassuring. The Shin really just needs to be someone who is organized and good at working with people … and good at checking their email.
Pyrophylactics will perform Saturday, September 5, at Burning Man, Black Rock City. For more information, additional performance dates, and booking inquiries, email Dana Morton at firstname.lastname@example.org.