Features

Fire Goddess – an interview with Ember Fox

Ember Fox (aka Cheryl Reubner), 30, is a poet, fire-flow/performance artist, entertainer, provocateur, gypsy, self-described “ham.” Her journey led her to Athens, which is not uncommon for artist-spiritual questers who meet up on the secret art nodes. Since her time here, she’s moved on to Chicago, where she created Blue Girl Magic — a “living statue phantasmagoria,” who can come to be anywhere really, she says, because she exists in a tote bag. At tbluegirlmagiche time of this writing, Fox currently resides in Bisbee, AZ. (she’ll be back)

Fox majored in Writing & Rhetoric at Stony Brook but dropped out of the graduate program after her “spiritual awakening processes” kicked in.

“Art is ritual action,” she says. “Dance is language; movement is a form of healing.”

Setting Solstice came about, basically, from a calculated dare. We were both reading at Word of Mouth — a long-standing monthly showcase for writers — and there we were, in the back, crammed in next to each other. Athens Uncharted had just been conceived and I had recently completed a short, experimental film, Limbo, which preceded a play of mine at an art event. So film was at the top of my activities at that moment.

I discerned a deep spiritual wanderer, full of power and joy and creativity. What would it look like if she worked her magic into a film? I challenged her then and there. She was intrigued. And in a few weeks Fox came through with a script. During those weeks she was studying Aerial Fabrics at Canopy Studios, a world-class training facility in Athens.

The interview was conducted in the Botanical Gardens in Athens on a Spring afternoon.

Mark Katzman

When did you become aware of fire performing?

I fell into it. The first time I saw fire dance was in my friend Lisa’s backyard in 2010. I spun fire for the first time that same day. Her friend, whom I became friends with later, was Sasha the Fire Gypsy, who had started studying fire dancing about 5 years before. It was a clan of people who spent time together because you’re in the same place. So then we all started learning. It operated like fire itself — one little candle or bit of flame was lit and just spread. It’s a process of overcoming for me. Especially as I became more interested in performing. When I first started doing fire, a lot of fear came up. You feel like you’re not so good. It’s an art form, so you want to be great at it. But it was also the “being seen” aspect. For me, it’s a practice in transformation and overcoming.

You work with hoops, fans, swords, staffs, all sorts of things. Is the process of creating a fire performance interwoven with the prop?

Yes. I practice without props just to get the movement in. The props – although they’re all different – all share some kind of inherent quality. On some level they’re all interchangeable. The dance story is extant whether or not the prop is there or not. But the prop is very important because it’s what provides the flame and it also provides the geometry of the movement. The prop is both a dance partner and also the language in which you’re dancing. So let’s say I have a staff. It’s general shape and geometrical qualities are going to define whatever movement comes out of it, if you’re dancing with it right. I mean I could flail it about and give it total freedom, but then it wouldn’t be a staff, it would be just any old object. I allow it to be a staff, it’s general shape. As a dancer we’re facilitating the prop to elaborate on its own inherent qualities through movement. So the staff wants to go in a line. And so I allow it to go in lines and create beautiful shapes with those lines or I can get with an axis and propel it. Some of my public shows are less artistic and more ”entertaining”. People really like to be wowed and it gives me an opportunity to be fun. It’s just a different process. An interesting aspect of my fire dance is that it allows me to be very intentful and abstract and avant-garde and then on the other hand to have a good time and be a ham and entertain people, which is a need that we all have.

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Are things in the performance spontaneously taking place beyond the choreography?

A choreographed dance is rehearsed. The final piece comes together from the rehearsal process. You don’t write a dance in your head. Your body tells you the dance as you move. The movement shows itself to you through the repeated doings of that movement. The curlicues, or flourishes, come out after the basics come out. So concept is important. There are different levels of it. There’s pure improvisation, going with it, having no preconceived idea, and on the other end of the spectrum there’s strict choreography, where every single move to every beat of the song is designated. I tend to work in the middle of that if I can. Obviously strict choreography is something that people study their whole lives and some become masters at it. It gets very involved. I’ve done it before and there’s always some degree of changeability. A dance is supposed to be fluid. It’s not supposed to stop. If something goes awry and you go off-step, you might be able to recover, but ultimately the momentum is going to perpetuate itself. There are going to be things you can’t control.

We’re talking about flow.

Flow is an interesting word. And it’s a word that has become a point of contention in our community. I’m beginning to stray away from the term “flow arts,” because of its vagary, but I still do use it. The term “flow” is used in reference to a concept by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who coined this psychological term “flow,”  that is basically when somebody enters the point when their energies are perfectly aligned and they feel good and their art is flowing out of them. They’re “in their flow.” It’s high-vibing — a positive, creative force. But its become a lazy term. And also it doesn’t indicate anything about the art form that we do, which is object manipulation. I’m in my flow when I cook, I’m in my flow when I dance, with or without props. I’m in my flow when I’m writing or practicing yoga or washing the dishes. So I’m straying away from it and some other people in the community are straying away from it. Nevertheless, I use it in casual conversation.

ember fox

Setting Solstice derives inspiration from myth, fairy tales and the perennial tradition.

Very much so. I think fairy tale stories go very deep down into the archetypes of the human experience. There’s been a lot of work done on this. The book, Women Who Run With the Wolves, goes into fairy tales and psychological archetypes. It really struck me and I find that applies just as much to the simpler fairy tales, like the animals, unicorns and things. In fact, many of those stories are very dark. Some unicorns are pretty brutal (laughing). I think that those archetypes speak to a need to be understood. We’re all thrust into families of people that don’t necessarily understand our internal experience. It’s pretty rare that everybody’s on the same page. And so when I was seeking images of things that I felt a greater attunement with, in terms of the reality of these beings that we call mythological, I found a more appropriate and experientially pleasant mirror. The fire dance and my movement art and my work with stories and myth are not something that were intrinsically connected at their genesis. Dance came later. And I find that it’s a much more bodily experience as opposed to mental and internal. I feel like one of the stages that I’m at in the development of my art is merging them together somehow. The fire dance is tied into a coming back into my body and celebrating my body. Using movement as a form of healing.

How does movement heal us?

Our bodies are made to move. And our physical bodies are also a manifestation of our energetic bodies. So when we move our physical body — when we stretch it, when we throw it, when we express it — blockages in our energy systems are released. It’s experiential. There are scientific fields that explore it. Somatics is the big one, but also Kinesthetics. For me it can be theatrical and emotional and a deep physical experience of healing. When a dancer dances, they’re dancing an emotion out. A dancer will reach, and in that reach, when you’re really reaching hard, muscles are being pulled, and through that process emotional blockages are released. We know this on an inherent level. It’s intertwined into our language. People talk about feeling things in their gut or carrying the world on their shoulders. Are inner experiences are always reflected in our physical body. And so movement is a way to extract those tensions that are in physical pain, in a beautiful way.

Are the concepts of authentic movement and slow movement meditation the same thing?

Yes and no. Authentic movement is a form of instruction that’s well-known in the somatics and dance community. It’s a process. There are workshops for it. Its goal is to provide a safe space for authentic expression of whatever it is that the mover is feeling. It’s a space to freely move. And there’s a concept that’s used in the authentic movement practice called “the witness”. So whoever’s in the room with them allows the mover to express whatever it is they have to express. It can get very emotional. People cry. There’s a sacred trust happening. And I find in that way it reflects the sacred space that’s cast of a magical or religious circle. It’s a sacred and safe process of healing and self-discovery. I integrate that into the slow meditation movement that I do. It’s just a title, basically, that describes what happens. But all dance is meditative. It’s the slowness that’s the important part. When we move slowly we are more able to authentically access what it is that is necessary. We get so stuck in a frenetic pace. In today’s world everything is so fast, that to literally slow down and wait to allow the energies that surround to literally manipulate the water in your body, like a pond shifting slowly — that’s how we truly know what the next step that we should make is, whether it’s in movement or in life. And so for that I draw from a yogic concept called Kriya Yoga, which means spontaneous movement. In the practice, you’re still in a meditative position or stance, and then you wait and allow the movement to happen. It’s sort of like Tai Chi, but you make it up. And there’s a Japanese dance style called Butoh that came out of the WWII era that also uses slow practice. My living statue was created partly out of Butoh. Butoh informs much of my dance work in general.

Would you talk about spiritual transformation?

It’s different for everybody. But for me, at that time attending Stony Brook, I was realizing experiential knowledge of having a soul, of being a spiritual being. I had been living my life in pursuit of an academic goal and realized how mundane it was. And how inconsequential in the longer scheme of my happiness, of my spiritual health. And that doesn’t mean that living a mundane life isn’t valuable, or precious, but it caused me to rethink my priorities. If the way that I was living my life on a day to day basis was really in line with my higher goals. That’s where the spirituality comes into play because I was doing a lot of reflection and meditation, but it was also coming to me through experiences of cracking open and having a deeper understanding. Channeling knowledge. Rapturous experience. Everybody experiences it in a different way. The spiritual experience has led me to an understanding of art in such a way where the art is a ritual action. It’s something that’s performed with intent. An artist creates an artwork with intent, just as a shamanic practitioner or a priest works with a ritual. For me, art is about creating not only the art piece, but creating my life, or creating something that I want to come to pass in the world. It goes beyond the esthetic now. I wasn’t able to follow the calling to pursue the spiritual experience in a meaningful way until I was able to leave school. When you’re in academia, whether you’re a student or an instructor, it takes up a lot of your time. You’re always doing research. And so you’re exploring other peoples’ ideas. For me, at that point in my life, and today, I feel it’s more important to explore what’s in my own mind. But also researching holy books, reading what people have to say about consciousness.

What role does reverence play in your work?

It’s one of my favorite words. There’s a phrase by Thich Nhat Hanh that’s almost become a mantra for me, “Reverence is the nature of my love.” Reverence is a practice for me. If we don’t revere what it is that we create or what we see — if we don’t revere something, then we’re lost. To be reverent is to be a person of humble holiness.

What drew you to Athens?

Chance took me to Athens. I didn’t really know that Athens existed before I arrived here. My partner at the time and I left our native Long Island. I have done a lot of travelling but had never lived anywhere else. We really had nothing in mind and were basically hoping that we’d find work, to busk or find some kind of work. We had very little money. We met a friend at a fire festival and he offered space on his land in Athens. So this is where we landed. The wind took me here.

Are you finding a sense of community here?

There’s a pretty strong fire dancing community here, which is intertwined with the burner community, if you’re familiar with Burning Man. There’s a very heavy burner community here. I haven’t been to Black Rock City, but in Athens I find that the fire dance community and the burner community are like a Venn diagram; if you have a card for one you have a card for the other. I have been lucky to know and become friends with some of the folks that create the massive art installations. The first place I lived in Athens was at the home of the creators of Incendia, these huge open-space fire domes. I was able to witness the beginnings of their project, and now they are building the domes at events all over the country. The creativity that goes into the installations is incredible. People spend all year preparing for Burning Man. It’s a lifestyle thing. The tenant of “radical self-sufficiency,” I find, in bringing people together, creates a community of doers, of changers, of creators that, when coming together, makes things happen with more gusto than in a lot of other creative communities.

What artists have most influenced you?

Most of the artists that have influenced me are not necessarily in my field. Tori Amos is a huge influence. I started following her work in my teens. She is unabashedly herself. She shape-shifts throughout every record, every incarnation, always doing something completely different and yet true to her core ethos. I am so touched and inspired by her. She just dives right into the dark stuff. I remember when I was fifteen watching a live video of her performing. She was fully possessed. Her eyes were in the back of her head, she was screeching, grinding the piano bench, and my mom walked into the room and it was just super-uncomfortable. A very deep part of me was telepathically saying to my mom, yes, this is a part of my creative force. She just didn’t get it. But Tori Amos’s work is part of the reason why I’m willing to work in the really grotesque processes, the ones that make me feel uncomfortable and others uncomfortable because I consider it, using magical terminology, self-exorcism, it’s healing. She made me feel comfortable with that process in myself. Kate Bush is another. She does music, dance, theater. Her work takes me into a fantasy world. But I move in and out of artists a lot. I’ve always enjoyed Nick Cave’s work. The first time I saw him I was convinced he was drawing his energy from the center of the earth, like a lightening bolt. I tend to go to musicians as sources of inspiration. But I have many literary influences too. I love Nabokov, he’s a true master. When I found out that he was a synesthete, every thing started to make more sense to me. I feel like he has great insight into what it’s like to experience the world with a merged perception of all senses. Everything has meaning. His eloquence is something that I attain to in my own writing. All of these figures are controversial. They’re guides. They push the envelop in a way that’s at the top of that which is still respectable, at least in an artistic sense. Somehow I find myself a paradox, in that when I present myself, I prefer to be as articulate and deliberate as I possibly can, but I also really love to rock the boat.