Great balls of fire in front of the Palais de Tokyo, Paris
A crowd mills about in a darkened courtyard to a background beat of drum and bass, reggae, and electronica. It’s January in Paris, it’s chilly, and people are wrapped up to keep warm – with a few notable exceptions.
There are flashes of light in the dark, twirling and exploding outwards in huge fireballs. And this is just what the thousand or so spectators have come to see.
Every Saturday night, a gathering of awesome fire jugglers, fire-eaters, fire breathers and dancers show off their spectacular – and potentially dangerous – skills at the Palais de Tokyo. And if this weren’t enough, there’s an even larger gathering once a year known as the ‘Fire Eaters’ Birthday Party’.
This fire breather looks like he’s about to be consumed by a flaming beast.
Now an established fixture on Paris’s underground calendar, The Palais de Tokyo gathering began back in 2004 at an out-of-the-way location popular with skateboarders. Before then, fire-eaters and -breathers would meet up in parks to practice their chops and were often interrupted by police for safety reasons.
A well-placed finger allows this fire breather to shoot out twin streams of fire.
Although the performers have never received any official permission or approval for the Palais de Tokyo meetings, the regular events are allowed to continue. “The organizers are very strait-laced when it comes to being good neighbors,” says website Vingtparis.com. “Volunteers are recruited to clean up after every event and courtesy notices, dotted around forums and featuring alongside the event announcements, are never an after-thought.”
These days, the event brings together both fire performers and spectators from around the world. It has become a well-known, if still somewhat fringe, gathering. And it’s not difficult to understand why. “The normally dazzling Eiffel Tower seemed dim when its foreground was lit with continuous spontaneous bursts of flame,” spectator Meredith Mullins recalls. “And the artistry, passion, and crazy look in the eyes of each soul on fire – took over the stage.” Andrey Das, an organizer who also performs as a member of the Burn Crew Concept (a dance troupe), calls it an “orgy of fire”.
An incredible fire sculpture comes to life, if only for a few brief moments.
Of all the fire-based performing arts on show at the Palais de Tokyo, the most breathtaking and dangerous has to be fire breathing. Fire breathers can produce amazing streams of flame that are best admired from a safe distance. As anyone knows, fire can get out of hand very quickly if not handled properly.
And while professional fire breathers follow strict safety procedures, there are still risks involved in working with open flames and combustive fuels. Accidents can, and do, happen, sometimes with deadly consequences.
The fuel used by fire breathers is clearly visible in this shot.
One of the first lessons we’re taught as kids is not to play with fire, so to become a fire breather in the first place must surely involve a certain amount of rebellious nerve. Professional fire breather Pele says, “I discourage people from trying it every chance I get.” Although the general techniques for fire breathing can be looked up by anyone, many of the skills and tricks are kept secret, passed down from expert fire breathers only to their apprentices.
This is one skill that’s probably not advisable to try and learn. Most fire breathing-related injuries happen when people attempt to perform without the proper training. Making matters worse, many of the injuries occur while the individuals are under the influence of alcohol – party tricks gone terribly wrong, we imagine.
This performer creates a gorgeous mushroom-shaped fireball.
Of course, there’s no fire without some sort of fuel – and there are a few different types favored by fire breathers. The best are substances with higher flash points (the lowest temperature at which they can vaporize and burn), like highly purified lamp oil, or paraffin. The worst are spirit-based fuels, alcohol, or most petrochemicals. In France, a popular fire-breathing fuel is a de-aromatized oil called kerdane.
Fire breathers have to be careful that their fuel doesn’t fall back on them.
Most fire breathing is performed indoors. The danger with outdoor events, such as the performances at the Palais de Tokyo, is wind. Using their torches, fire breathers will carefully note wind direction before they exhale.
Even with all her experience and skill, Pele found out firsthand the damage that wind can do. In 2002, she was performing her fire-breathing act when a gust of wind suddenly blew the wrong way and she inhaled some of the fuel she was using. The incident left her hospitalized for several weeks, recovering from serious injury.
An incredible fireball
According to the experts, performing without a shirt on is actually a good idea. Clothes, especially those made from materials like polyester or acrylic, can ignite and burn rapidly. Due to this, some fire breathers even choose to perform naked – although we imagine Paris in January might be a little too cold for this. Still, fire breathers choose their fabrics carefully to avoid becoming fireballs themselves. And just in case the fire does get out of control, responsible fire breathers often perform with an assistant who has a fire extinguisher and fire blanket to hand.
Here, it looks like the fire breather has created a flaming angel figure.
To produce these stunning streams of flames, fire breathers have to spray the fuel from their mouths at a high velocity. The direction and consistency of the discharged fuel controls the shape of the fire, and the angle is also an important consideration. Pele advises: “Between a 60 [and] 80 degree angle… Lower can make the flame come up on a body part, and higher can cause un-ignited fuel to fall back into the face. The angle is extremely important.”
A fire breather is almost concealed behind the huge bank of flames he has created.
Another risk when fire breathing is ‘blowback’. This is when a flame follows the fuel back into the performer’s mouth. As you can imagine, the results aren’t pleasant.
But even if nothing this dramatic happens, there are still risks involved with using toxic fuels. Fire breathers and fire-eaters quite often end up with a condition called hydrocarbon pneumonitis from the amount of fuel they inadvertently inhale. It is such a common ailment among fire performers that it is also called ‘fire eater’s pneumonia’.
Two streams of fire form a giant flaming heart in the sky.
The Palais de Tokyo seems like the place to be when it comes to catching some astonishing fire acts like those shown here. Just remember: although the performers might make it look easy, this is definitely not something to try at home. Leave it to the professionals!
Thanks to photographer Philippe Lejeanvre for sharing his amazing photographs of this festival of fire with us.