To visit with Flambeaux Fire at Chashama Studios, you must venture out to the Brooklyn Army Terminal with its monstrous, looming buildings near the water in Sunset Park. After finding your way through the ominous labyrinth of concrete, it is something of a relief to be warmly greeted by the charismatic performer himself, ebullient and talkative. Surrounded by the headdresses he’s custom-made for his performances from scavenged multicolored electrical wire and dripped with paint and wax, Flambeaux sits down, runs his fingers through his soft Mohawk, and dives right in.
Although he was raised in southeast Africa, Flambeaux (then Chris Reilly) moved to the small town of Chryston in the Scottish lowlands at age five – from the baking sunlit savannah to the drizzly Gothic moors. Even as a wee bairn, he found the “twisted wildness and all the mountains” to be simply spectacular. Two years later, in the winter of 1974, the UK coal miners went on strike, and there was no electricity or heat. He remembers, “Everyone was poaching firewood … it was cold as hell … an icicle haven. But to me it was a time of pure magic … lit through the seventeen-hour nights with candles and firelight.” It was around this time that a troop of gypsies passed through his hometown and was permitted to perform a fire show outside the tiny town hall. “It was like the ultimate romance,” Flambeaux reminisces. The blazing contrast of the dark and the light in a time of such turmoil and uncertainty stuck in his young heart. From then on, working with fire had the ring of pure destiny.
Though he seriously considered becoming a priest and he relished the notion of being a shaman and “close to God,” he knew his vocation would involve the intensity and purity of naked flames. He made sure to get fire-lighting and coal-shoveling chores, and in his youthful wanderings on the moors, he would often spy on the gypsies fire-eaters as they practiced. By the tender age of fifteen, he was ready to wander, and eventually he hitchhiked southward to see just what the world had to offer his rebellious, exhilarated, and determined soul.
By the late 1980s, he had made his way to London and immersed himself in a burgeoning and angry counterculture. He settled into the squatter scene with his gang and was “going to war with the government … nothing was to be left standing.” Though he may now feel the occasional pang of regret for his militant nihilism in those days and for the fear he incited in his friends, he fully accepts that his life was working out as it must. He muses, “Everyone has to be a badass at some point in his life. That’s what it is to be a human being.” Throughout those angry years of giving the finger to the status quo, his obsession with fire sustained him. “That’s what I clung to,” he reflects. “It was the only thing that was going to save me.”
And just as a novitiate pores over religious texts, Flambeaux studied the techniques of the circus performers he lived with. He tirelessly and painfully mimicked the flame-throwers until he managed to overcome his initial physical fear of the flames and finally succeeded in breathing them. “I burnt myself to a crisp,” he says. “Hardcore days, baby.” The simultaneously destructive and regenerative entity of fire became the voice of his particular brand of revolution, which took him all the way to San Francisco and eventually to New York’s Lower East Side. “I anarchist-ed out way more in this country,” he says. When police ransacked Tompkins Square Park in 1991, riots erupted, neighborhoods were broken up, and death from violence or drugs became a real possibility. Flambeaux and his squatter friends would have six-hour-long trance sessions in the abandoned East River Park bandshell, and there he took on the mantle of Fire Shaman, praying for relief from the conflict and struggle. He remembers, “I’d get in the center and do insane things with fire, and then I wouldn’t be able to move for days. I’d be covered in scars, but I didn’t care. Pain … sacrifice … and I felt like the sacrificial priest.” And by negating his body, he remained committed to the ideal of the free Self.
His identity as an artist became fully galvanized after he moved to New Orleans in 1992. There he discovered a coalescence of cult spirituality, a unique blend of the urban and the rural, and the twisted wickedness he had so loved in Scotland. He reflects, “New Orleans introduced me to beauty and art, and to me, beauty means nature, and the city means action, so it appealed to both the nature lover and the city dweller in me.” It was there that he took on the name of miscreant Haitian deities, “Les Flambeaux,” derived from the Angolan god of fire. In New Orleans, legend has it that escaped slaves would dance the “Flambeaux” with torches on the first night of their freedom.
Over time, Flambeaux realized that it was only fitting that he should create a career with all this talent and passion. After a couple of years in New Orleans, he returned to New York, learning more about himself and his art and rising to the top of his profession. This July, in fact, he will be a featured performer in Queen of the Night, a spectacular fire show staged at the Paramount Hotel’s Diamond Horseshoe.
Like fire, Flambeaux has been destructive and dangerous yet regenerative and comforting, a source of warmth around which people gather, and now he maintains that “the community aspect of the fire is much more important.” He hopes to use his work to inspire people to not only find their vocation, as he so luckily has, but also to embrace it. He asserts, “At the very least, you want to go to your deathbed knowing that even if you only took one step towards it, you at least did that for something that beckons you.”
And so Flambeaux’s use of dramatic combustion has matured from an expression of tear-this-building-down anarchistic rage to a device for social cohesion and inspiration. As a youngster in the lightless lowland winter, he was awe-struck by the gypsy fire-eaters, and in that moment, the die was cast. There’s little doubt that now, as Flambeaux spits out another geyser of flame for the crowd, someone else watches, wide-eyed, caught up in the witchery of the spectacle, and ready to bear the torch.