Playing with fire

Your parents probably told you not to do it. Still, highlight of many Algarve festivals are shows in which the performers literally play with fire. Enjoy the Algarve takes a closer look at the Nascer da Terra show in Silves and talks to the artists about their passion. Warning: hot contents.

Pictures by Kyle Rodriguez

See the original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine September 2016


Marisa Vieira (37) wets cotton wool with alcohol, “Not too much or the flames will transfer to your hand,” and lights it. She moves the burning cotton balls around in her hand for a while before throwing them on the floor. After half a dozen balls her hands are black from the carbon. As she slowly strokes the flames, moving her fingers through the fire, she seems almost in trance. “I used to do this as a kid with the candles on my birthday cake.”

Pedro Estevam (40) is also fascinated by fire. “It’s mesmerising and magical, like looking at the Moon. Humans have been meeting up around the fire since ancient times.” Pedro, who’s been working with flames for 18 years, was a fire-eater and fakir – with the scars on his arms to prove it. As regularly swallowing fire isn’t that healthy, he now mostly sticks to manipulating flames in other ways. Pedro: “I was 21 when Marisa introduced me to a group of fire performers. I immediately fell in love.”

For Marisa and Pedro this love eventually led to working together with Joana Domingos (32), Sofia Freire (28), Hugo Ribeiro (31), Chandra Malatitsch (27), Carmen Viegas (29) and Alfredo Teixeira (22). All street performers with different backgrounds, most of them come from the north of Portugal and spend the summer giving shows on festivals with their groups: Anymamundy, Malatitsch and Boca de Cão.

In Silves, together they perform Nascer da Terra (Born of the Earth), a co-production with Silves’ city hall in which they are assisted by a fire technician and a sounds & light technician. They wet the stage before the show, which is especially important in the castle: “It’s a National Monument, so we better not burn and blacken the castle walls,” Marisa smiles.

The show is about a day in the life of Algarvian farmers in Medieval times. It includes a love story, parkour, acrobatics, circus acts, dance, singing, music and puppetry, all enough to fill a show by themselves. The reason to add fire to this already spectacular mix is a logical one. Marisa: “During the day, you juggle with balls, but in the night, the audience can’t see that. Putting stuff on fire has a nice impact.” It certainly does; from a sizzling pyrotechnical sun and a watering can full of fireworks, to a bull with burning horns and flaming garden tools.

The rakes and scythes look like ordinary garden instruments, but, as everything that’s used during the show, are especially designed for the event. Made out of wood and double density aluminium, they’re lighter than their normal gardening counterparts, allowing for easier manipulation on stage. The top end is wrapped in Kevlar tissue – yes, the bulletproof stuff.

At €100 per square metre, it doesn’t come cheap, but is very durable. The Kevlar tissue is soaked in controlled paraffin oil (not the industrial use kind as that’d produce too much smoke). Marisa: “It’s important to pay attention to the inflammation point of the fuels we use in the show. During shows up North you need liquid that inflames easier as it’s more humid there. In the Algarve, especially in summer, there’s a lot of heat already so the fuels should have a higher inflammation point.”

Every move is carefully planned; in the 18 years Pedro and Marisa have been performing the ever-present firemen never had to intervene. Pedro: “When working with fire, you need to respect it. First step is to know how to extinguish it. Sadly, this knowledge is missing in most groups; many accidents happen to young people without fear, but also without proper information.”

It’s not like fire performing is something you start from scratch. Joana was already an expert juggler when she tried it with burning objects. “They lit up the balls on the chain, I started turning them around and I still remember the noise. It went ‘woosh, woosh’ – I was captivated.” Singer Sofia is quite new to working with flames. “I had no idea how much prior planning and consideration is needed,” she reveals.

Key to manipulating fire is the wind. Marisa explains: “You should always be aware of both wind direction and strength. Because if the wind moves the flame down, it also moves the heat down.”

Non-flammable clothes are also a priority. “If you wear cotton, like we do, you have the opportunity to put it out once it catches fire. But wear synthetic clothes and a single spark is enough to not only set your outfit on fire, but also burn the material into your skin, which is very nasty. Most accidents happen because performers don’t wear proper clothes.”

Other safety measures seem logical: don’t carry pyrotechnics on your body or walk around the stage with a bottle of fuel tucked into your belt. The same way you wouldn’t BBQ while carrying a jerry can either. Yet, that’s almost what Hugo, who controls the fire-spewing dragon, does. He carries the wood and leather dragon on his back, together with a 2kg bottle of camping gas.

He isn’t worried though: “We always check all the equipment before each show.” Quickly setting fire with a lighter, he tests the dragon’s breath. Although the flames can barely be seen in the afternoon sun, the increase in temperature is noticed immediately. Later that evening, the audience screams and recoils on their hay bales as the dragon comes close enough for the public to feel its hot breath.

This audience interaction is why the performers prefer the streets over a theatre. Pedro: “On the streets, you have to captivate the audience and keep them entertained or they’ll walk away. Also you’re bringing culture to people who might have never seen a show, as they maybe can’t afford going to the theatre.” Another reason why they perform out in the open might be that their pyrotechnics wouldn’t be possible indoors.

“Working with fire always gives you a thrill. It’s dangerous so you can never fully relax. You can rehearse it 20 times, but when it’s show time and the wind has changed, you need to improvise,” all artists agree. Pedro: “The fire connects us; we’re not only colleagues, we’re friends. During the show you’re always looking out for each other.” This certainly is necessary when all eight of them are closely together on stage and there’s a serious risk of accidentally setting your fellow performer on fire.

Still, in these situations they don’t actually touch the flames. It’s when Marisa and Joana set the cotton wool balls alight in their hands that the audience breathes in sharply, imagining the burning sensation they must feel. Because surely, touching fire hurts like hell?

“Like with a candle, the flame is hotter on top. That’s why we mostly touch the balls on the bottom,” Marisa reveals. “It’s funny, my mum always used to tell me not to touch fire and yet that’s exactly what I’m doing now,” Joana adds. “When I see myself holding fire, my brain says ‘let it go’. I had to learn to override that impulse.” Playing with fire, it seems, is very much a state of the mind.


See the original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine September 2016

Posted in Features, People.