Guest Post: Playing with Fire is who I am
A Guest Post by Irish Fire & Flow performer, Aidan Ring
So there I was on an exchange year in Melbourne Australia in 2014 at the tender age of 20. It still stands as one of the most stressful but also greatest and most formative years of my life. It was a year full of profound adventures, dumb mistakes, painful lessons… and gifts. And perhaps the greatest gift that came to me from that year was that it introduced me to the world of circus, flow arts and fire performing.
As my parents have probably asked themselves, how did this happen?!?
Well, I just had this notion that I wanted to learn some cool new skill during this year. Ultimately, I went with fire-performing because there is a vibrant scene for it in Australia and I’ve always been a bit of an adrenaline junkie with a thirst for unique experiences. Other than that, my instinct told me to connect with fire. So I went with it, got a university loan and paid for a course in the basics of fire performing. It was one of those decisions where you know it’s a good idea even if you have no idea why. I showed up to every lesson, even one that fell on a day when my nose was in a bad way due to a recent fight and I was doped up on painkillers (dumb mistakes etc). I wanted to have something to show for this year other than my studies. I completed the fire-spinning course and started attending flow meetings in the parks of Melbourne, run by a group called Viral Happiness - great people. Fast-forward 8 years to the present day and this is what I do! I spin five different props and perform professionally. Indeed, playing with fire is now a major part of who I am.
It is important to point out that you can enjoy flow arts and circus without the fire – fire just adds an extra element of danger and spectacle. This element of danger means that it would, in fact, be recklessly unsafe to start training in prop manipulation with fire - it is necessary to master the basics without fire first. Fundamentally, circus and flow arts are all about creating complex patterns out of simple objects – we call these objects props. Take the staff for example; it is just a hard, straight stick but, when the body manipulates it using hands, legs, neck, shoulders etc., the effect can be mesmerising. The more complex the movement is, the more effort it takes to master.
This process of mastering a new prop is a wonderful exercise in humility because there is no shortcut to learning; you have to fail and fail and fail some more. You will drop your props hundreds, maybe thousands, of times. But when you are finally able to perform that complex motion that you have dreamed up and trained your body to do, nothing is more satisfying!
Furthermore, when someone is trying to master an activity which is just within their reach, they can often enter a state of ‘flow’, being in ‘the zone’ the state of optimum absorption in an activity. This is accompanied by feelings of profound calm, intrinsic motivation and satisfaction. And watching someone perform in a flow state is deeply compelling. I have had people approach me after a jam and say that it felt great just to watch someone else be so immersed in an activity. It’s lovely to hear but that’s where the humility of a thousand failures can come in useful – I thank the people but them assure them that ‘Anyone can do this, I’ve just practiced enough.’ There’s a beautiful empowerment in the knowledge that nothing is stopping you.
But what are these objects which we light on fire and play with? The truth is that most of the props I train with did not start out as fire props. Many are based on exercise or self-defence techniques from ancient cultures. For example, poi (those balls on strings) were used by Maori women for fitness and coordination. The diabolo (that yo-yo like device with two handsticks and a string) is, allegedly, the oldest game in the world, invented 1000 years ago in China. And as for the fire katana, well, swords have been around since time immemorial. This connection to the ancient world is a powerful but, I think, often over-looked aspect of flow arts. In fact, the mindfulness and meditative aspects of flow arts and performance have a huge amount of overlap with movement practices like Tai Chi, Martial Arts and Acrobatics. Yes, we are deeply connected to our ancestors from past millennia by the universal desire for fitness, exercise and flow experiences; the only difference now is that we have the means to build bigger and more refined versions of these props and also to share them all over the world with anyone who is interested - and the category of people who are interested is expanding by the day!
There is, indeed, a vibrant flow arts scene in nearly every country and major city in the world. It is a beautiful thing to be a part of. And one of the best things about the scene is that, in general, people are not aspiring to be ‘the best’ but rather to be unique, to bring something different. The vibe at juggling conventions (yes they do exist) is all about helping each other to learn, not out-competing each other. It is highly inclusive and very accessible, especially when it comes to prop manipulation. Anyone can find, or make, a set of juggling balls or use a stick as a staff and start training in the park. And others will join. It’s not a rule-based sport – in circus and flow arts, the only limitations are what is physically possible and safe.
And on my journey from the park to the stage, I have just begun to explore the vast range of elements you can use to push the boundaries of my performances. These include things like speed of movement, your costume and audience engagement. On a broader level, I have found that the more I perform, the more I want my shows to actually say something – it’s a ‘come for the spectacle, stay for the ideas’ type of approach. This is why I have recently been combining fire performing with spoken word and Irish mythological storytelling. With funding from the Arts Council, I produced a fire show combined with a retelling of the myth of Cuchulainn and Ferdia at the Ford from the epic Táin Bo Cuailgne, the legendary Cattle Raid of Cooley from the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology. The overall combination of the props themselves, the ancient techniques they are based on, the primeval mythology and, of course, the element of fire, combine to make something deeply powerful. It’s a journey I am proud of.
This journey of reading, writing, performing, living and breathing fire has confirmed for me that fire is a source of fascination to every human being on this planet. Humanity went through a journey of fearing it to then mastering it and using it to warm and feed ourselves until, now, here we are in the 21st century, just playing with it. It connects us with our ancient, tribal roots and to the natural world; we have sat around fires and told stories for millennia. The multisensory experience, the smoky smell, the warmth of the flames and the relaxing effects of the red light all capture the imagination and enflame the soul. Pure magic.
Just as these modern fire props are a modern expression of ancient movement practices from humanity’s formative years, my current professional fire-performing practice is a modern expression of my formative year in Australia. And now it is my honour to try to capture the ancient and magical world of flow arts through the lens of Irish identity. I went abroad to learn it and have now brought it back to Ireland to give it the stamp of my own culture. And I think the thing that I enjoy the most about the fact that I’ve turned my teenage hobby into paid work is that it is so far from a normal nine-to-five and yet it brings so much genuine value into people’s lives. My misspent youth turns out to have been very well-spent indeed! They say that what you do when you are procrastinating is what you should be doing full-time… we humans will probably be doing this for the rest of history.
Check out aidan’s next storytelling event here:
And join him on Instagram here
Thanks for reading Monk! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.