Fire Fest to Erupt in Oakland

Fire dancers and fire eaters, along with fire and electric sculptures, will light up West Oakland's sky at the fifth annual Fire Arts Festival from July 12 to 17.

With performers such as Dr. Megavolt, The Flaming Lotus Girls and Capacitor, this is no ordinary summer arts festival, but a spectacle of controlled burns, explosions and channeled electrical beauty, which puts the natural elements of fire and electricity on display in artistic ways.

"It's a vibrant way to support and showcase the fire arts," said Michael Sturtz, the executive director and founder of The Crucible, the organizer and host of the festival.

The Fire Arts Festival will take place at The Crucible's 48,000-square-foot industrial arts facility and nearby outdoor arena in West Oakland. In addition to the fire performances, there will be a full program of arts and educational events throughout six days and four evenings, including lectures, classes, artist talks and arts demonstrations.

The Crucible is a nonprofit educational collaboration of arts, industry and community, which Sturtz and others founded in 1999 in Berkeley. It features everything from cast iron to neon, large-scale public art to precise kinetic sculpture.

At their first fire festival in 2004, The Flaming Lotus Girls unveiled the "Seven Sisters," a large sheet metal representation of the Pleiades star cluster, including three round stars and three seven-pointed stars that rotated and consisted of liquid fuel and propane flame effects.

Formed in 2000, The Flaming Lotus Girls are a San Francisco-based group of mostly female artists who create fire art and provide a resource for learning metalworking and other essential shop skills. "We've trained ourselves and learned by doing," said founding member Tamara Li.

Their first small installation was the original Flaming Lotus -- a sculptural fire cannon that gave the group its name -- at the 2000 Burning Man Festival. For 2005, The Flaming Lotus Girls will bring parts of their work in progress for Burning Man -- the "Angel of the Apocalypse," a giant sculptural environment that rises from the ground in the form of a bird. They'll bring two eight-foot feathers from the inner wing of the piece, which are welded sheet metal cut with three sides to them like a claw. The completed piece for Burning Man in August will have a head that's 15 feet high, some wings that reach out 20 feet, and a 30-foot-long driftwood body.

"The two feathers will have ambient flame with a special incendiary surprise for participants," said Li. Sturtz has asked them to also bring "The Hand of God," a 13-foot-tall copper hand, which shoots flames 150 feet in the air out of its fingertips. It was built for the 2003 Burning Man. "It's never been used within city limits except to be tested with water. We're hoping to get permission to use it from the fire department," said Li.

When asked why the group works with fire, she replied, "It serves our pyromaniac tendencies."

Most everything The Crucible does or sponsors is unique and attracts crowds, like moths to a flame, including the successful staging of a fire opera in 2004. Sturtz and company mounted a production of Henry Purcell's 17th century work "Dido and Aeneas," which included singers from the San Francisco Opera and orchestra members from the San Francisco Bach Soloists. It featured molten metal casting, glowing hot glasswork, welding, torch cutting, fire eating and fire dancing -- not things usually seen in an opera. Its two performances and dress rehearsal were sold out. "We turned away 800 people at the door," said Sturtz.

Another returning performer to the festival is Kristina CaƱizares, who, along with her dance group, The Nekyia, will debut their performance dedicated to the Orisha Oshun, goddess of sweet water, honey, dance and femininity. It's a celebration of woman in all her myriad expressions and will include fire props such as propane-powered peacock tails with flames instead of feathers coming out of the dancer's hips, and music that features traditional rhythms and instrumentation, said CaƱizares. Her original dance will combine Brazilian, Cuban, Middle Eastern, North African and modern movements. She also teaches fire-eating classes at The Crucible, and danced in its fire opera.

"I began working with fire about five years ago, and I enjoy the added layer of complexity that it brings to a performance. I am primarily a dancer who uses fire when it makes sense, rather than a full-time fire performer," she said.

Another demonstration will feature Dr. Megavolt and Mistress Megavolt and their Tesla coils, which will crackle the air as the two conduct and release thousands of volts of electricity. Don't try this at home, folks.

Electrical and fire danger is a very real part of the festival, so the challenge for Sturtz and an army of 300 festival volunteers is safety, both for the performers and spectators. "Safety is number one," said Sturtz, who has written a 45-page fire safety plan for the event. "The goal is to be as thorough or more thorough than the fire department, so to ease their minds," he said.

Sturtz has achieved that goal and more since the Oakland Fire Department is a sponsor of the 2005 festival.

In 2003, The Crucible moved to its present location on Seventh Street. Its growing educational program serves more than 5,000 people in more than 500 classes and workshops each year. In addition to classes for adults such as fire eating and welded sculpture, this year's festival also offers new classes for kids ages 8 to 18, which will run Tuesday and Wednesday, and offer instruction in bookmaking, black-smithing, welding, jewelry making, glass-frame working, and glass bending.

It will also have a benefit auction called "Fire and Light" on Thursday, where people can bid on donated fire-forged art works, including pieces made of glass, silver, steel and copper. The auction's proceeds will directly support The Crucible's adult and youth educational programs. The evening features a live bronze pour.

But Sturtz isn't just the impresario of this visual feast. He will also perform in the festival as Micro-Kanevil, riding a mini-motorcycle that sits very low to the ground.

"They'll have me jumping over fire," he said with a laugh.

But he won't be attempting to jump over the Snake River Canyon in Idaho as his namesake, the motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel, tried to do in the 1970s. Instead, he'll be jumping in the outdoor arena directly across Seventh Street from The Crucible's building, where all of the festival's evening performances will be held in the 200,000-square-foot parking lot.

Sturtz said this year's festival will be the largest ever, with more than 40 fire sculptures and 10 electric sculptures. "It's a fire and light symphony whose chaos you can't control but direct. I'm looking forward to it," he said.

WHAT: 2005 Fire Arts Festival

WHEN: July 12 -17

WHERE: 1260 7th St., Oakland

INFORMATION: Call 510-444-0919 or visit www.thecrucible.org.

Distributed by the Associated Press

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