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The artist known as Mel Moondala entrances the audience with her fire fans at the Vulcan Crew's first performance at Jack London Square.

Vulcan Crew fire spinners light up Jack London Square

on October 9, 2013

Richard Hartnell is buying time. He’s pacing the stage at Jack London Square. He’s telling jokes, but he has his eyes towards the horizon, where the sun is slipping perhaps a little too slowly behind the stand of palm trees.

“The last time the government shut down, Coolio’s ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ was Number One on the charts,” he says into the microphone. The crowd laughs, but they are impatient. They haven’t assembled for a comedy routine. They have come for a fire show.

The show is a special one for Hartnell and his fellow performers, almost all of whom live together in a converted smelting plant in East Oakland called the Vulcan. This is the Vulcan Crew’s debut performance in a month-long Wednesday residency at Jack London Square.

While mastering different skills, the performers all fall under the umbrella category of  “object manipulators,” a term of circus art that refers to artists who work with props such as hula hoops or even flaming juggling pins.

“Promoters are terrified of anything you are going to do,” Hartnell remarks as his friends arrive in ones and twos, their hands full of fire staffs and gallon cans of gasoline.

Hartnell sees the perceived risk of fire spinning as a double-edged sword.  The public fascination with fire draws viewers,  he says, explaining, “Audience still thinks that if fire touches you, you’re going to be instantly engulfed.”  Promoters, seeing the danger, are often hesitant to book them.

As the performers tell it, dancing around with flaming objects is about as dangerous as brushing your teeth. However, they still have extensive precautions in place in case of an emergency.  There are always two performers ready with fire-proof blankets and they always keep a fire extinguisher handy.

“Every horror story we’ve all heard of fire performers who do explode is usually somebody doing something really stupid and not following safety precautions,” Hartnell adds.

Many of the performers, like hula-hoop expert Bridget Star Harrison, have been honing their craft for as long as eight or nine years. Others, like Noël Yee, have produced instructional videos and taught classes around the country.

But even as they gain acclaim abroad, participating in events like the European Juggling Convention in Toulouse, France, the Vulcan Crew have had trouble booking gigs in Oakland.

This is a rare opportunity for them to showcase their talents on a bona fide local stage  — and get paid to do it.

“Even if they’re [fire-spinning] full-time, all of that time is studio time and none of it is stage time,” Hartnell says of his peers.

As the sun finally sets, the performers take the stage one by one. There is no shortage of “Ooh’s” and “Aah’s” as fire is juggled, spun and danced with from one side of the cement stage to the other. Between sets, Hartnell plays the emcee, promoting upcoming performances and keeping the feel “colloquial.”

Arron and Nydia Emery, who heard about the show on Facebook, came to see “amazing tricks with fire.” Dynamic acts like the artist known as Mel Moondala’s gentle spins with twin fire fans, evoking both the elegance of ballet and the flashy excitement of Hollywood, keep everyone on the edge of their seats.

The crowd grows by the minute, picking up stray passers-by like a snowball. The Vulcan Crew’s friends are there, too, making a point of cheering and screaming louder than everyone else. Crewmembers are on hand to ensure that the giddy children drawn to the stage like moths keep a safe distance.

For a group often operating in the fringe of Oakland’s exploding arts scene, the performance offer an opportunity to be front and center. After the final act, Aileen Lawlor’s graceful dance with a flaming staff, the performers return to take an all-cast bow.

Afterwards, starry-eyed audience members approach the performers to shake hands and take pictures. Caught in the glow of the overhead floodlights, the Vulcan Crew beams. If only for the briefest of moments, they are stars.

Correction: The name of the Vulcan Crew’s emcee and performer is Richard Hartnell.  A prior version of this story misspelled his last name.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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