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Local performance artists light a fire in the nights

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 29, 2009 - Fire, an element of passion and danger, has held a mystique for people since prehistoric days. That makes it an ideal medium for thrilling and "death defying" performances. Many St. Louisans may have seen fire performances blow through town with circus acts, but they may not know that St. Louis houses a unique and rapidly expanding subculture that takes playing with fire very seriously. The St. Louis fire performance scene has blown up in recent years to include several different troupes and individual artists.

The Spark That Set It Off

Local fire performers Leef Armontrout and D. Lohr Barkley met approximately seven years ago before either one had played with fire. Armontrout, a visual artist and craftsman, had made and experimented with a few fire performance tools, but had yet to light them on fire until he met Barkley. The two researched fire performance videos on the Internet, practiced and eventually began performing for local art crowds.

"The City Museum had a lot of open space and time in the middle of the week and a bar there. They would let us light things on fire in the parking lot and we started practicing there," Barkley explains.

What started out as a very private thing, he says, developed into a fun social event, where lots of people would come to learn to spin fire and share tricks. Eventually more troupes spawned from those gatherings.

Rings of Fire

James Overturf, a system specialist of field services support for Panera Bread and founder of the local troupe, Fire Technicians, joined the practice sessions early on, seeking a community of individuals with similar interests. But, he says, he lacked a connection with the other fire performers in the early years.

"I just moved on and started playing with things on my own, trying to put something together as a solo artist, and quickly grew tired of having to be the only thing going on," Overturf explains.

Through art and music festivals and various events, Overturf began to find other budding fire performers, and eventually formed a performance troupe of highly dedicated, skilled and energetic artists from around the region. Last year, Fire Technicians made it to the second round of auditions for "America's Got Talent" in Los Angeles. They plan to try again next year.

"The people that I notice are much more accurate and focused on what it is they are doing and trying to achieve as clean and flowing of an effect as possible," he says.

Fire Technicians recently acquired some new members, a merger of two troupes, and are booked to perform at all Riverfront Times-affiliated events throughout the year. The group has undergone several ups and downs over the past year, and recently lost a member, Garrett Dickerson, a talented poi performer, whose death was related to a hidden drug addiction.

"[Fire Technicians] won't put up with [substance abuse] because you have to be so aware of what you are doing," says Dickerson's longtime friend, Amy Lynch. "Garrett made a really bad choice."

Dickerson's family is hoping to start a non-profit organization in his honor called "Guardians of Hope," which would offer a helping hand to get people into rehab effectively and easily, and Fire Technicians will perform in memory of their departed troupe member at a benefit for the organization on Jan. 27, at Koken Art Factory.

The Female Element

Although the vast majority of fire performers in St. Louis are male, the flames have attracted many females. Laura Speichinger, otherwise known as "Sturdy Gurlesque," started as a fire performer about five years ago, and added her fire dancing skills to a sizzling burlesque act two years ago. At the onset of her fire performing days, Speichinger, a former school teacher, says that she never would have imagined that she would be performing as a burlesque dancer.

"I was a little prudish," she says, laughing. "I started slowly, removing very little."

Female fire performers seem to bring an air of sexuality to the already somewhat erotic art. Women performers are generally seen as more "dance-y" and graceful.

Female fire artist and soon-to-be graduate student, Semilla Bland says, "I like to get up and dance for no particular reason, so, why not? Not to mention that little bit of a rhythm that comes from dancing really REALLY brings out your artwork."

Bland has been performing for about five years and says that she has received compliments on her performances as the only female member of her troupe.

Find the fire

Home of Poi www.homeofpoi.com

Sturdy Gurlesque www.myspace.com/sturdygurlesque

Fire Technicians www.myspace.com/firetechnicians

Koken Art Factory www.kokenartfactory.com/

"They'd say things like: 'All the guys are so technical, but I like you: you're flowing, you're dancing. You look like you're having fun,'" Bland recalls.

Leah Wilson, a relatively new fire performer, began spinning poi a year ago in Portland, Ore., where the fire performance scene there is dominated by women and burlesque.

"When I used to go to a club every Monday night, it was 'Fire Stripper Night'," says Wilson, who says that she was fascinated by the artistry of some of the performers. "Some of them showed everything, some not. None of them was a stripper by trade, they would just go there and perform because it was an outlet for them to perform."

After picking up poi herself, Wilson started developing her own routines and techniques, and has started picking up other modes of fire performance. She also notices a marked difference between female performers and male performers.

"Most of the men, the way their bodies are shaped, they can contort themselves in ways that females can't: Your bosom gets in the way, your hips get in the way. I've seen more technical things done by male performers. Most female performers focus more on the showmanship, and there's nothing wrong with that whatsoever, it's just two different styles," Wilson explains.

Male or female, St. Louis fire performers have personalities and professions that run the gamut: from students to professionals, to artists and teachers, to technicians for the Medical Examiner's Office. Each has a unique tale to tell and brings the grandiose magic, danger, and mysticism of "death defying feats" a little closer to home.

Solange Deschatres is a freelance writer. 

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