Letter From America - Part One: Kinetic Fire Festival and The Vulcan

Kinetic Fire Logo. Copyright Kinetic FireI was lucky enough to have the opportunity to spend a month in the States doing a tour of just a few of the many fire and spinning (flow) arts festivals that have sprung up across the pond recently. My trip took me from Kinetic Fire Festival in Ohio to Fire Drums in North California, via the Vulcan, and then down to IgNight in South California. Needless to say, I had a great time so I wanted to recount some of my experiences for you here.

The first stop was the Koi Pound in Cincinnati, OH, in preparation for Kinetic Fire festival. The Koi Pound is a complex of private accommodation and workshop and training space. The few days I spent there were a chance to recover from jet-lag, train and start to get to know the band of instructors in whose company I’d be spending the next few weeks.

One thing the US festivals excel in is sourcing awesome instructors from around the world. This year’s instructors hailed from countries including England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, France, Italy and Australia. There are, of course, loads of instructors from all over the United States as well.

Once we were all suitably acquainted we piled into the minivan and headed to Kinetic Fire Festival.

The Kinetic Fire site is located in the lush, green landscape of rural Ohio. There’s a reason this part of the world is so heavily forested; when it rains it damn (dayum) well rains! The event was no wash out but when the showers hit you knew about it! Thankfully they were short-lived and the baking sun came out soon after they passed. We did have an exciting moment one afternoon when there was a tornado warning and we all took cover into the barn to escape the downpour. Our shelter turned into a mini-party and was a good exercise in spinning in a confined space. The short video below is of this barn session. Recognise anybody?

The site was spread over three tiers with camping and vendors on one level, the fire circle and workshop spaces on another and more workshop areas plus a few cabins and indoor areas on the upper level. With around 500 attendees Kinetic is a similar size to Play and Southern Lights festivals, the UK’s spinning-focussed events, and provided an interesting comparison. The format of the US and UK events is very similar in many ways; the days are packed with workshops, the evenings hold entertainment and celebration and the people are kind, friendly and wonderful.

The track between tiers. Copyright Malleable RealityThere are some notable differences though, and these are true for all three of the US events I attended. There seemed to be many more workshops, particularly at Kinetic and Fire Drums, than at their British counterparts and the general standard of participants is extremely high. That’s not to belittle the talent in the UK but I had to rethink a workshop on the spot when 75% of the attendees could already do everything I planned to teach.

There is also less integration with the jugging community in the States. Play and Southern regularly feature guests like Wes Peden or Sebastien Valade and attract quite a few jugglers as well as spinners. The US scenes are starting to merge more and more though with juggling influences coming from the likes of Keith Marshall, Valery and Kyle Johnson. Kyle, along with Noel Yee (who co-organises many US spinning events including Kinetic and Fire Drums) are also nominated for the IJA (International Jugglers’ Association) board of directors this year which bodes well for further integration.

Partner Dragon Staff in the fire circle. Copyright Malleable RealityBy far the biggest difference between events on either side of the Atlantic is the evening’s activities. In the States the focus is completely centred on the fire circle. DJs accompany hundreds of fire spinners as they dance and spin through the night until sun up. Almost everyone at the event will spin fire every night and while they’re not, they watch the ones who are and make merry. People really see it as a chance to perform and it’s great watching them do their thing – something you don’t get much of a chance to do during the jam-packed day time.

By contrast, in the UK, the fire circle may have a handful of people spinning and a few spectating but the main events of the evening are the structured performances, be they fire shows or indoor stage shows. This sort of show wasn't really present at any of the events I attended, though Pacific Fire Gathering, an event I'd love to go to one day, does have a Flow Show. There is then often a band or DJ for people to dance the night away to at UK events, but in a marquee instead of the fire circle.

Kinetic’s fire circle provided my first insight into some of the weird and wonderful rituals of the US fire spinning scene. The night is littered with “takeovers” where certain groups of spinners literally take over the fire circle. These groups can be geographical, an Ohio takeover, for example, or they can be prop based such as a dragon staff takeover or a fire breathers takeover. Kinetic was also the first time I witnessed initiations to, and the takeover by, the Masked Skulls, a kind of fire spinning fraternity. But more about them in part two…

After Kinetic it was time to head from the Mid-West to the West Coast. With roughly ten days between the end of Kinetic and the start of Fire Drums the lovely people at the Vulcan accommodated the rag-tag band of flowbos (like hobos but “flow” artists). The Vulcan is an old forge complex in the Bay Area of North California that consists of 50+ units where various artists, musicians, jugglers and spinners live. Each unit has a large area for a dance floor or other type of work space plus bedrooms and a living space. The Vulcan has gained a somewhat legendary status in the spinning world with many of the US’s most high-profile and talented spinners and jugglers residing there. It is also the home of the Vulcan DVD range and the setting for a huge number of videos and tech blogs.

Some instructors lark about in San Francisco. Copyright Jason DivadThe Prop Box, one of the Vulcan studios, played host to the Circus of Flow show, a showcase of some of the international (and domestic) instructors’ stage acts. Acts included Nicky Evers, Giovanni Nulleamai, Keith Marshall, myself, Gail O’Brien, Bri and Mumu, Malcolm Stuart and Rob “Bluecat” Thorburn. Due to being part of the line-up I only saw the first half of the show but stand out acts for me were Rob’s entertaining umbrella dragon staff routine performed to a cover of Rihanna’s “Umbrella” and Gail’s amazing hoop act that received a well-deserved standing ovation.

We indulged in a bit of sight-seeing but most of the days we spent at the Vulcan were spent training and bouncing ideas around with the collection of awesome spinners gathered there. Before we knew it, it was time to load up, leave the sanctuary of the Vulcan and head to the Sierra Nevada Mountains, near Lake Tahoe, for Fire Drums.

Thanks to Malleable Reality for the use of their photos. Check out their Facebook page.

Want to hear about the second half of the adventure? Tune in next week for the concluding part!