Carolyn: Fire and dance have been combined to enhance the sacred for millennia. From Greece to Bulgaria, from Native American to Maori tribes in New Zealand, fire and dance have spun together to capture the imagination and raise the consciousness of the dancers and viewers alike. Over time, this sacred art entered the realm of performance, but the raw power and grace of the human body dancing amid circles and arcs of flame continues its hypnotic effect.
One man who brings the sacred meaning of fire dancing into the world of performance is Antonio Fini. Antonio is a professional dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company and the Whitney Hunter Dance Company, both in NYC. In 2005 he won the Olympic dance game in Milan for his choreography. He has danced for Teatro Massimo di Palermo, Campagnia dei Giovani Carcano and Talenti in Scena. He danced and choreographed for Ethno Show at Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in Milan, and Diego e Isabella at the Siris Festival. One of his passions is fire dancing, which he explores as a member of the Italian performance troupe, I Giulliari di Piazza.
Antonio was born and raised in the little town of Villa Piana Lido, on the Ionian Sea north of Cosenza, in Calabria, Italy. Antonio learned about playing with fire when he was 16 years old from his sister, Grazia, who returned to Calabria from Naples where she was attending University. Grazia is a fire breather.
Antonio: She come back in Calabria and she was playing with the fire And we were in the beach at night and she was also, like, blowing the fire; it was really amazing. I don’t even remember the first time that I tried with the fire. But what I remember, I remember when she was blowing the fire and we were in the beach and many people were there. She didn’t want actually to play, other people were kind of playing with the fire, and this guy was blowing the fire. So at one point he heard that my sister know how to do it, so he was like, oh, let’s see, you know? Really because she was a girl, they were like, oh, what she can do? So when she starts to playing, when she starts blowing the fire everybody went nuts because she was not just blowing the fire but she was blowing the fire with the dragon.
Carolyn: To blow fire with the dragon means breathing fire in such a way that the flames begin very close to the outside of the breather’s mouth, closer than is considered safe by many.
Antonio: Also the way that she was moving, she was like going back and she was blowing out and it was just amazing.
Carolyn: She must have been magnificent.
Antonio: Yeah. Beautiful.
Carolyn: It turned out that Antonio also had a natural affinity for the fire.
Antonio: She teach me a little bit without fire and it was funny because I learned really fast. She was upset about it. She was like, Oh this is too hard, maybe start with this, and after I was doing that and even more. So, I learned really fast how to do, how to play with the bolas.
Carolyn: Bolas is a Spanish word used to describe a certain type of fire dancing equipment: 2 small metal dishes at the end of chains held in each hand, that the dancer swings and twirls in performance. Each dish usually contains Kevlar blended wicking material that is easily ignited.
Antonio: It’s an experience. I didn't have enough time to practice that with my sister, so and actually it’s hard to do it in New York for many reasons. We had the opportunity to do the fire in theater, but blowing the fire from the mouth, that’s another story. So, I had the experience in Calabria it was just me And my sister, she was coaching me how to do it, how to be safe and everything, so it was our experience. I never performed that.
Carolyn: Rather than fire breathing, Antonio developed his skill as a fire dancer. One night in a park in Milano, he and Graceila met another woman who would further challenge Antonio’s abilities.
Antonio: We were just playing, dancing. So she start to show me some new stuff and I get some of that, and after she’s like, can you play in your back? I was like, what do you mean? And she’s like can you do all this movement but having your hands in your back? So and I was like well, I thought about doing that but I never tried.
Carolyn: it sounded dangerous!
Antonio: Well, without the fire I started to try And try and in the end of the night, I was doing it. And so she didn't know how to do it, my sister, either but at the end we came out with something. And so that makes my fire dancer even more particular, I think. I can go in this really hard combination. But at the same time I don’t do that often on stage even because it takes a lot of my attention on doing that and I think it’s just nice if I can dance thru. So, not have too much attention on what is the movement of it.
Carolyn: Antonio’s relationship with the sacredness of fire is at the core of his dancing.
Antonio: Having this relationship with the fire, it’s so strong, because it’s something dangerous. But at the same time you move with it, there is the music and it’s energy around you, you control this fire in a way. But I think it’s really interesting when you perform in the street, it’s a performance but in the same time it’s you learning this art. It’s really magic. Each time that I was playing in the street it was a performance but at the same time it was just like my time in a way. And I think that’s the magic of it. When we have in Calabria, many times we go on the beach at night and we can light fire and we can just stay there And play And dance, you know. I played a lot also in there with the fire, just for us.
Carolyn: it sounds like it’s a very intimate experience.
Antonio: It is.
Carolyn: As a viewer of the fire dancing, that’s the amazing thing. Watching the shapes that are created by the flames because they linger in the air after they’ve passed a certain point and they’ve already started to make a new shape, but the old shape is still lingering in the air and it is just so breathtaking. And especially when the movements are really fast, there’s no way to know which is the present moment flame and which is the flame past, and they meet in the air so often And it is just magical to watch.
Carolyn: Antonio is a principal dancer in the troupe, I GP, with Alessandra Belloni. In the production, Techno Tarantella, Antonio performs a breathtaking fire dance as Dionysius, the god of ecstasy and wine.
Antonio: I think my fire dance grows a lot with Alessandra because of the music. I dance the fire dance in the song that she wrote for her mother, the Requiem. And before sometimes I was thinking which next movement I was going to do or whatever, but going thru. And the music is telling me where to go, And the movement. Because I think is maybe different from other people playing with the fire that I am trying to dance more.
As you say before, it’s really personal in a way, even if you’re still performing for somebody. It’s magic, it’s powerful, it’s alive. And many people are like, are you not scared, the fire’s so close to your face sometimes, because I really like to do this thing with the fire going in front of me in a circle and I’m going backwards in a cambre, so it makes this illusion that I’m going one way And the fire’s going another way. And when I go all around me really fast, sometimes, you know, the fires touch my skin. But it doesn't burn, it just really slightly going and but it’s always fine.
Carolyn: in those moments do you remember how hot it is? Like do you kind of forget?
Antonio: Actually you can hear the sounds of the fire.
Carolyn: You can hear the flames?
Antonio: Yeah. That’s really intense. And it gives you strength. Even if you play slowly with it, if you go fast, it makes you so strong. And sometimes I think everybody should try.
Carolyn: Well, you make it sound really intriguing, I’m sitting here And I’m thinking, wow, this might be fun!
Antonio: It totally is fun!
Carolyn: if I don’t set my hair on fire! It could be fun.
Antonio: I think you should try first of all without fire.
Carolyn: I think so too.
Antonio: Actually I have a story about that. The mother of a singer, she made this gold bathing suit. It was a little bit puffy on the side of the back so I was worried that maybe some of the material was going in fire. It was the first night, after we practice in theater And I was fine, while I was dancing I think one of the bolas with fire touched my butt. And I start to feel a smell of burning And I was like, Oh my God, I’m on fire, but I keep going And I was trying to looking in my back if everything was fine, because when it touched my skin I know I could feel it that it’s fine.
Carolyn: Although Antonio lives in NYC and Grazia lives in Switzerland now, playing with fire still captures their imagination.
Antonio: So we are thinking about having a fan with fire, closing and opening maybe, it starts closing And opening and it has like moving in the back, they become the wings.
Carolyn: does this thing exist?
Antonio: I’m not sure. I saw once a bellydancer with something but she was just moving, she was not using as a bolas. I think there is. I mean I’m sure somebody tried but what I would like to, because from the bellydance they are really small and I want to create something bigger so that it has…
Carolyn: more of an effect.
Antonio: more fire. And you can move it faster.
Carolyn: No matter how much we talk about Antionio’s fire dancing, it has to be seen to be fully appreciated. To watch a video of Antonio’s performance in Techno Taranetella, go to the Essence of Italy links page and click on Essence of Italy at YouTube. To see photographs of his various performances, you can find them throughout the written transcript of this podcast on our Italian Journal page.
This is Carolyn Masone for essenceofitaly.net. Thanks for listening!