Keepers of the Flame
How the Detroit Fire Guild is igniting Detroit's most anarchic pagan parties
Published: May 4, 2011
It's Saturday night at Pontiac's Crofoot ballroom, and people are milling around the dance floor expectantly. The stark modern space is an unusual setting for the anarchic pageant that will follow, but there are hints of the weirdness to come, including masked and costumed attendees and a video projector showing scenes of mostly naked, torch-bearing pagans celebrating Beltane, the springtime pagan holiday, in Scotland. It feels kind of like Halloween in May as the energy begins to build. The DJ plays eerie music matched with Tibetan throat singers, the main video screen shows ripples of fire, and a dancer sashays back and forth swinging wands draped with purple cloths that glide through the air.
The lights go down a bit and the mood changes as a procession of performers streams through the entrance. The celebrants are led by a duo carrying burning lamps, and a train of wildly decked-out drummers and dancers follow them in slowly, taking over the dance floor. Soon, the center of the room is a mass of movement, an odd collection of people hula-hooping, doing modern dance moves, ballet, even pantomiming wild animals. They're done up in spiky mohawks, fauxhawks, dreadlocks, tattoos, horns, body paint, tattered garments, fur and feathers. Some wear boots, some go barefoot and half-naked, wearing flowers in their hair, or with menacing stripes of paint across their faces. It's like a vision deep in some tribal future.
After a few minutes of this crazed dance party, the leaders of this procession take to the stage, staging a battle with double-ended torches. Fire is the potent symbol tonight, and it drives the crowd bananas. As the performers twirl, spin and juggle the torches, the audience erupts in a roar and a 100-cameraphone salute. This is what they've come to see: The Detroit Fire Guild's spring spectacular, the Fires of Beltane.
Before the night is over, the crowd of several hundred will be treated to fire juggling, modern dance, an aerial trapeze show from the ladies at Detroit Flyhouse Circus School, striptease burlesque from the lovely Chloe Bowie, belly dancing with a flaming sword by Chantal, human sculpture from a team of contortionists, more than a little dirty dancing, and a "human sacrifice" — as well as performances from two bands. The men and women on the stage expose their muscled and supple flesh, and the fire is the binding sensual metaphor. The whole while, performers range through the audience, engaging the mob. Outside in the smoking area, burners stand on the stairs or climb atop the outdoor bar to whirl flames to joyous shouts. Orange firelight leaps over the walls, and over the din you can hear the whooshing of the torches as they rip through the air. And this audience of hundreds is ready to have fun: Even during lulls and stage setups, they're dancing along to the music, or spontaneously playing limbo with a long feather boa, or donning yet stranger costumes, such as one reveler with an eye patch and face paint who carried a spear around all night.
This exciting, immersive experience is the stock in trade of the Detroit Fire Guild, a group of several dozen local folks who've joined forces to create the ultimate in over-the-top spectacle. And it has grown from a small collection of misfit performers and musicians into a full-fledged enterprise in just a few years.
Rising From the Ashes
Detroit Fire Guild co-founder Evan Bradish and DFG member Matthew "Ely" Surline sip on beers at Hamtramck's Painted Lady bar, sketching out the beginnings. Aside from generous sideburns and a two-gauge barbell piercing in his septum, Bradish looks clean-cut, with close-cropped red hair and a work jacket. Surline exudes mystery, with only a soul patch on his chin and a shock of hair on the back of his shaven head. They're polite, organized and friendly guys — although when they're really having fun they can get a sinister sort of glimmer in their eyes.
Originally a raver from Flint, Bradish moved to Detroit from Genessee County in 2006, shortly after getting involved with Fire Fabulon, Detroit's most high-profile fire-slingers at the time. Upon his arrival, a whole new world of performance opened up to him.
Bradish laughs and says, "Seeing the weirdos in Detroit really inspired me. It turned out that all the absurd things I'd thought about doing were not just doable, but in demand."
Ely, 26 as well, is a former folksinger who also moved to Detroit in 2006 from Port Huron, because, as he says it, Detroit "wasn't Port Huron."
"I had a few friends who said they'd let me crash on their couch if I did some dishes," he says, adding with a laugh, "I still owe some people some clean dishes."
That year, Bradish and Surline joined the tight-knit group of Detroiters who make the annual pilgrimage out to the Burning Man Festival in the Nevada desert, a 1-million-watt spectacle in which thousands of performers, neo-hippies and just plain oddballs converge to create a temporary city for a week. The two missed each other at the festival, but met in a hotel room in Reno, Nev., where several Detroit people had stopped on their way back to Michigan. Surline's soon-to-be girlfriend, Jessica "Rabbit" Grassa, a Fire Fabulon performer herself, introduced him to her ex, Bradish. The three hit it off.
And not a moment too soon. Over the next year, Fire Fabulon's momentum slackened to a standstill. "Right as I was becoming active and learning a lot," Bradish says, "people in the group had a lot of other goals in their lives. They weren't as interested in performing as much." The members drifted away, and by 2008 it was all a memory.
Luckily for Detroit, Bradish and Grassa connected with a few other performers and organizers eager to rekindle interest in a fire group. With the help of such seasoned folks as Eric Miller and Danielle "Doxie" Kaltz, they had expert advice on performance. They designed their own courses in fire safety, using advice culled from other fire groups, such as Chicago's Pyrotechniq. They made pains to befriend fire marshals and try to codify fire performance safety in Michigan. And they found a supportive venue to strut their stuff in Detroit's Theatre Bizarre, whose freakish, haunted midway hosted Detroit's best annual Halloween party for years on West State Fair.
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