It’s a hot Wednesday night at an obscure park just east of the bright lights of downtown Reno.
A strong, gassy smell looms at nose level, but nobody seems concerned.
At once, orchestrated electronic music booms from the back of a parked Jeep at the side of the parking lot. Eight dancers appear, spinning flaming batons and chains high overhead, keeping rhythm to the beat of the pumping music. The music reaches its most intense, and a soloist takes the center of the level, concrete stage. The eyes of the 30 or so spectators turn in intense anticipation. Like a rock star in his finest moment, he balances a fiery baton on two longer sticks and knocks the glowing comet high into the night sky. As it re-enters our orbit, he skillfully cradles it back between the two sticks, and resumes without hesitation. The crowd applauds. He disappears into the pattern of dancers, and another emerges into the spotlight.
It’s another Wednesday night for the performers of Controlled Burn, a local fire-dance crew that takes its show on the road as one of the main performances at Burning Man each year.
Started six years ago by Reno residents Cody Canon and Dave King, Controlled Burn has become one of the largest ensembles of fire dancers in the country, performing at Burning Man’s finale with groups from Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Seattle. Reno may sound like the black sheep in the group, but, according to Canon, Reno’s proximity to the playa has brought a lot of creative minds to the area. “Burning Man is the reason Reno’s art scene is thriving right now,” says Canon, who auditioned for a Cirque du Soleil production but lost the gig to the Canadian Olympic Gymnastics team. “Controlled Burn has had a huge part in that. I think we have had a hand bringing all this creativity to the area.”
But, as Monique Baron, a senior member of the group, says, safety comes first. At a certain point during the rehearsal, flaming chains flew astray, and a dancer’s pants were ignited. Within seconds, a designated safety team had the man’s legs wrapped in fire-retardant blankets, and fire extinguishers were at hand in case the blankets weren’t sufficient. The team, she says, also avoids wearing flammable, synthetic clothing. “It’s a radical, free expression,” Baron says, “but you’ve got to be safe and do it legally, or the cops will shut you down.”
Controlled Burn has far more going on than Wednesday night practices at John Champion Park in east Reno. According to Baron, there is a business side to the operation as well.
“We want to do this very professionally,” she says. “When people see fire spinners, they think it’s really cool. When people see it done professionally and organized, it goes to a whole new level.”
The group has made a collaborative effort to market the team with promotional DVDs, a Web site and good public relations. In addition to performing at Burning Man, Controlled Burn spins at shows in Wingfield Park for Artown, various benefit shows around Reno and Tahoe, and joint performances in the alley behind Green Room with local belly dancers.
But, as Canon says, you better catch them soon if you want to see fire spinning in its pure form. “We try and foster a safe and creative team of fire performers,” he says. “But it’s getting so big now. It’s going to be the new skateboarding.”