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.
"Theater Bizarre provided a completely surreal venue, where you fit in there and it looks natural," Surline says dryly. "It's OK that a guy's dressed like a demon and swinging fire around his face — what else would he be doing?"
Inspired by further trips to Burning Man, Ely says, "I saw all kinds of performance I'd never seen, before, but I wanted to bring it home. And not only to mimic it, but to try to do it better."
After a lot of organizing and practicing, the guild put on its first show one year ago, the Motor City Vaudeville Revue at a space in the Russell Industrial Center. Not only was the show a success, it sold out many nights. A much more ambitious endeavor, the MCVR didn't just showcase a bunch of performers, but used live music, the fire arts, and a story to keep the show moving.
"Without the collective effort, we wouldn't have been able to pull it off," Bradish says. "It just exploded with creative ideas and possibilities."
"We're insane about theatrics, characters, costumes," Surline adds. "Other groups are a bunch of people who look like fire dancers. We have clowns, gypsies, an actual storyline. It's much more than burning stuff."
And the group kept gigging with small cabaret shows at such venues as the Old Miami, the Painted Lady and Hamtramck's now-defunct Trowbridge House of Coffee. Last month, some of the crew performed at a birthday party at a church on Detroit's west side; within a week the group also gigged at Lincoln Park's Hustler Club. Small performances might feature just a fire dancer or two, but their larger productions have live music from the Bride Stripped Bare — a "punk cabaret" band with Surline and drummer-keyboardist Noel Rivard — or perhaps dance-inducing music from Bradish as DJ Intercom.
In January, the guild staged the Winter Ball, a performance environment that drew hundreds to the Eagle Theatre at Pontiac's Crofoot complex. With live music, DJ segments, pagan themes, fire performance, a shattered fourth wall, and a largely out-of-control audience, the guild seems to have hit upon a winning formula.
Ritual and Religion
There's one other surprise: It turns out that Grassa, Bradish and Surline — the nonconformist pyros who've helped create pagan-inspired festivals of fire, music and hedonism — all attended Pentecostal churches as youths.
Though Bradish was baptized and raised Lutheran by his grandparents, and had considered entering the seminary, after confirmation he left the Lutherans and decided to attend Pentecostal church with his mom — "to make her happy."
For those unfamiliar with the faith, sometimes members of a Pentecostal congregation will leap up during a sermon and "speak in tongues," moved to do so, the church believes, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes other parishioners will interpret and translate what is being said. Moved by the spirit, worshippers can jump around and even fall down unconscious.
Though Bradish now says he's somewhere between "a total nihilist and a post-religious fanatic," he says, "I have no belief, but I am obsessed with religion, how people experience it and how it affects them."
In fact, he first met Grassa when they attended the same church camp, at the Michigan Church of God in Fenton, in the late 1990s and early '00s. Astonishingly, Surline was also at the camp when Bradish and Grassa were there, though they don't recall meeting.
"Later on," Surline says, "we'd meet at Burning Man and put it all together. You know: 'Oh, my god!'"
Surline's religious experience was more confrontational. "I was always getting kicked out of Sunday school," he says. "I always felt like an observer, an outsider. I always felt like I was collecting this information for something later on. I never spoke in tongues — I don't think I could have taken myself that seriously."
During one desperate effort to save his soul, he endured the "exorcism" of a "demon" — and to purge him of sin, the church burned all his belongings for good measure.
At this point in the conversation, the metaphor is running way too rich. They all went to a church that believes the Holy Spirit — often symbolized by a flame — moves us to theatrics? And the church set fire to all Surline's worldly goods?
Surline laughs, admitting that no matter how far he runs from religion, some things just never change. "At the Motor City Vaudeville Revue, naturally, I played the pipe organ. And the seating was church pews! We were hauling around these church pews, getting the seating ready, and I had to realize I'd come full-circle. I even called my grandma and said, 'Grandma, I didn't escape it!'"
So are the fun-as-hell shows actually a concerted effort to take fire, formerly a sacred symbol, and celebrate it profanely?
Surline admits, "In creating our own rituals, it's cathartic to the ones we've shed. But most of our rituals are just celebrations of existence."
Fire guild co-owner and fire performer Christine "Majik" Bingham, 21, has dropped by the bar. The Clarkston native helped co-write the Fires of Beltane show, timed to coincide with the pagan holiday, and she is a practicing pagan — even if she admits that often just means going out into nature. Her hair may be a nest of blond dreads, but she is — like the other fire-heads — coherent and professional. She's a serious-minded student working on her psychology degree at U-M Dearborn and helping manage the business of the guild; she has been to the Edinburgh Fire Festival for Beltane, she joins with pagans at the annual Starwood celebration, and she considers Burning Man to be a "sacred place."
For Bingham, whose British parents didn't enforce a parochial upbringing, the camaraderie the group feels isn't rooted in any reaction to religion, but a coming-together of people who simply didn't fit the mold.
"We're like misfits who found one another as a family. We used to get made fun of for being freaks," she says, "and now we get paid for it."
The Pagans of Moran Street
The center of this small community is a faded bungalow on Moran Street in Hamtramck. Surline, Bradish and a few of the other performers have called it home for more than a year now. Others on the street might call it "the freak house," but to them it's jokingly called the "International Sillyfuck Hostel Pancake Paradise and Used Car Parts Emporium." That's where the guild does "weird stuff," such as building a flame-throwing equalizer, for fun.
Why is there an ice cream truck parked out front? Several months ago, when Surline's car died, he had to choose between a car that ran and an ice cream truck that didn't. Naturally, Surline says, he bought the nonfunctioning ice cream truck. Bradish recalls Surline's excited voice on the phone, crying, "This is the most awesome and irresponsible thing I've ever done!"
Now they take a cab to work.
Luckily, they work at Detroit's Traffic Jam, where husband-and-wife owners Scott Lowell and Carolyn Howard are known to give their staff a bit of leeway. Bradish says, "They're supportive, and they actually think we should be doing this stuff. There is a wealth of creative, intelligent people working there."
Bradish jokes about his family of "high-minded lowlifes" living in the city, their meager lifestyles contrasting with how they push their fire performing to consistently higher degrees. But the city, with its cheap rents, do-it-yourself ethos and wealth of unusual performers, is what makes their spectacles possible.
These twentysomethings are satisfied to keep bohemian ways, leaving them free to pour their energy into creating big shows, combining music, visuals, set decoration, dance, pantomime, a kick-ass dance party and, of course, fire. "These art forms are not mutually exclusive," Bradish says. "They can come together for a complete, full, real, immersive, mind-blowing production."
Perhaps that's what makes the DFG formula such a winner. In an age when you can dial up anything on YouTube or Netflix, when video games look as real as a movie, it's possible that the culture can forget the thrill of a 360-degree, live action spectacle that envelops you.
Surline says the goal is to take that Theatre Bizarre, Burning Man sensibility and take it to other venues. "We're nuts about stage aesthetics, this idea of creating almost a lucid dream. Like, one time I saw a photo album on Facebook of a Detroit Fire Guild event, and it was called 'Whoa, where the hell am I?' That's what I want, a total immersion in our vision."
Bradish one-ups Surline, saying, "I think it's nice when people are out there with cellphones or Tweeting or blogging about it before they leave the venue. But the feeling of being in the moment, that this moment is really important, where you can't look away, where even the smells are part of the experience — that's the goal. When we're making people realize we're not just playing: This is a chosen perception of reality.
"I mean, people come to see us to escape, but we get to live it. We don't expect to make money or a solid living, but it's important to wake people up like I've been woken up. The stage doesn't stop at the footlights, but at where individual people are comfortable with it. We want people in the audience to take some ownership of what they're seeing. That's how it becomes bigger."
Taking a cue from Surline, he emphasizes, "We want to change the conversation from, 'You won't believe what I saw last night,' to 'You won't believe what I did last night.' Like, I became a Roman goddess or an alien. That would be the ultimate success."
To learn more about the Detroit Fire Guild, see detroitfireguild.com.