Playing with Fire

Flam Chen is lighting up the world of performance. Is Tucson looking?

Flam Chen has created a niche in the arena of performance art, alighting the world with pyrotechnic theater merging fire and circus arts, modern dance, martial arts and traditional theater. It artfully challenges the traditional barrier between artist and audience, consistently redefining space and experimenting with set designs that encourage an intimate interaction. The troupe's dexterity between genres allows it the freedom and adaptability to perform according to audience and venue.

Performers spin Balinese fire chains, battle with fire staffs and flaming swords, dance with fire fingers and fans, eat and breathe flame, and often light themselves and their sets afire in the course of a performance. They spin through a room on flying trapeze, ziplines and bungees, hover over audiences on stilts, escape from straitjackets suspended in mid-air ... but in the most subtle of instances they are as breathtaking as their full-scale circus antics. The most minimal of cabaret-style performances leaves observers fascinated, with a taste for what more the company has to offer.

And most people in greater Tucson have never even heard of Flam Chen. Why, when it is receiving national attention, earning slots in the International Fringe Festival in New York City, and booking shows at universities in the Midwest?

The indefinable, often the most cutting-edge of art and invention suffers from the inattention of mainstream media, the gatekeepers of the status quo. To cover something new and inexplicable rather than the mandatory corporate-sponsored blockbusters is nearly unthinkable. But what Flam Chen has created caters to those dissatisfied with the role of the silent observer.

Flam Chen started out with two fire spinners and a couple of musicians, described by founding members Nadia Hagen and Matt Patane as very "street."

"There was really no other name or place for it four or five years ago, it was just 'street performance.' I wanted it to evolve into something more dance- and theater-oriented," says Hagen. In its early years the group helped organize the first Day of the Dead parades in Tucson with local sculptor Sue Johnson, and as the years have passed, seven members have come together to create a performance troupe dedicated to enacting scenarios and skits that bridge the gap between audience and performer.

Flam Chen members have been dedicated to creating a sense of community culture from the beginning. "[In the past] I feared participation in cultural appropriation because Americans have had very little opportunity to create and/or participate in their own culture. And as a troupe we've been trying to maintain the continuity of cultural participation through local, seasonal shows here in Tucson, Bisbee, Arivaca, Prescott," says Jes Daniels, a former activist who claims he moved to performance out of a need to create rather than react to an existing paradigm.

"We're a democratic troupe," comments Geneva Foster, the youngest member at 23. "We write together. We know where other people's strengths are and no one is considered the 'director.' Our ability to work that way, with everyone wanting to be center-stage all of the time, has us making sure we look good."

"People have joined our troupe by providing something we've needed. The additions happened organically. We can't accept people who just want to learn. You just can't teach someone to spin fire if you're not sure of the level of responsibility they are willing to accept. We have to maintain the respect for the medium," says Paul Weir, a designer from San Francisco who began working with Flam Chen in the spring of 1999.

The current troupe maintains seven core members, three women and four men ranging in age from 23 to 37. Hagen and Patane are the original founding members, joined by Daniels, Foster, Weir, Amy Dent and Tony Masone over the course of five years.

Their creative process is rare in today's world of highly skilled and divided labor. When they are preparing to create a new performance, "someone comes with a background, a start of some storyline, like that childhood game Colorforms, but with us everyone has their own set of characters," says Nadia. "Our ideas come from weird movies, books, journals, pictures."

The age range between them all ensures a variety of influences and experience. In the end, no one is taking responsibility for any one show.

"Safety issues have created a lot of new roles and allowed our storylines to expand as well. If you're in costume people will be watching you. That is a constant challenge and part of what makes our storytelling unique," says Patane.

"One of our greatest assets has been our growth in levels of dimension. The Cirque Vania show was the first show that brought us off the ground via ropes and stilts," adds Foster. Soon after that they started performing at raves and ambient light shows. "We got to a point where we could choose the genre in which to work--narrative, choreographic, aerial, theatrical--because of our ability to work in different dimensions. That point was what has really brought us to this type of sophistication."

"The applied arts are very intense with our pieces. We all create everything for a show, from sculpting metalworks to sewing buttons on costumes," remarks Weir. "We are unwilling to be half-assed. We'll do all the work and rarely will we compromise our vision because of difficulty."

Daniels describes their ability to pull it all off as a sincere expression of their earnestness. To create a new medium, to bring it due respect and to maintain good working, professional relationships with institutions like the Tucson Fire Department, they must remain earnest. It is not easy to pull personal funds together to pay for million-dollar insurance policies, performance space rentals, props and Web sites. To find venues for fire troupes proves to be time-consuming beyond comprehension. High-art venues are not equipped to deal with the safety issues, with the smoke, and rock 'n' roll venues are not always ideal.

While Flam Chen is willing to perform anywhere from festivals to Carnegie Hall, they've found that the world of local arts funding has provided no room for them to move. "We are not a non-profit institution and don't strive to become one. That requires us to have a board of directors involved in our decision-making and that provides just too many voices having a say," explains Hagen. "There is no funding for groups on the summer festival circuit, so we are stuck in this strange niche."

"We all have the common dream of being ourselves and people taking notice--on an international level!" laughs Hagen. And it seems that their recognition has come on that level. The French Ministry of Culture has approved a grant for a filmmaker to spotlight Flam Chen. They've been featured in the magazines Detail and the European Cosmopolitan, participated in photo shoots with Italian fashion photographer Oliviero Toscani for United Colors of Benetton, and received offers to perform in Singapore. The New York Times featured the Day of the Dead parade as one of the highlights of Tucson, and people come here specifically for the procession as Tucson is one of only three cities in the U.S. (with San Francisco and New York) to have a major Day of the Dead celebration.

And still there is no institutional public support, no available grants, no major funding.

They are who they are because they live in Tucson. They came together here, they have the time to do what they do because living in Tucson allows that. The lifestyle sets the tone for what they create.

Searching for that institutional support has not stopped Flam Chen from continuing toward its goals of international recognition. The local community has inspired and assisted the troupe from the beginning and kept the fire burning in desperate times. Hopefully the flames of fortune will light the path in coming months and prove that it is indeed the most enlightened thing to emerge from Arizona in a long time.

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