Like so much of modern life, Michael Ravenwood’s life-changing moment came at a Starbucks. The writer and performer had been wondering about incorporating electricity into his performances for a few weeks when he was standing in line at the coffee shop and overheard a stranger talking about a lightning project using Tesla coils. Ravenwood joined the conversation to say, “This may sound strange, but I'm a fire dancer. I was just thinking about dancing with lightning, and now I hear you talking about lightning project.”
As luck, or fate, would have it, the man Ravenwood met that day was Jeff Parisse, the former owner of a company making Tesla coils for entertainment and the inventor of a high-voltage protective suit made from chain mail (like medieval armor) that enabled the user to channel ten-foot arcs of electricity without injury. The rest, as they say, is history, and Ravenwood has been thrilling and scaring audiences with his million-volt performances for more than a decade.
Ravenwood’s background in fire dancing grew out of his love of movement and choreography, having studied martial arts while growing up and then learning about fire dance at California’s Esalen Institute and honing his skills as a fire dancer in the Burning Man community. The version of fire dancing that Ravenwood practices is a little removed from the traditional tribal practices of Polynesia and New Zealand, and incorporates swords, chains, whips and other types of instruments. Because of that, it wasn’t too much of a stretch for his choreography to incorporate tools that “throw” and conduct lightning on stage with his company SkyFire Arts.
SkyFire dancers illustrate different stories, but the narrative is always heavily rooted in an appreciation for nature and the need to protect it. Ravenwood says, “Originally, I did not fire dance for people to watch me, I danced because it felt good. But then I understood that I have this precious moment where I have everyone’s attention. So I wrote these pieces encouraging everybody to look at how we’re all connected and to spread ecological awareness.”
Art is one of the few elements that bring everyone together, and Ravenwood and his company of dancers use this platform to promote this awareness. “Through storytelling we can show characters in a parallel dimension in which they live in harmony with nature, to show them that being environmentally conscious is heroic.” Ravenwood, who drives an electric car, has solar panels, and no longer uses single-use consumer goods, goes on to say, “We don’t have a technology problem in terms of environmental sustainability. We have a lot of lifestyle practices that need to change but people are not motivated.” Ravenwood wants people to take inspiration from his work, both because of the themes and because of the technology. “I’ve seen people literally pinch themselves because they don’t believe what is happening, it is not some movie set CGI, it is happening in front of them. It is expanding what people think of as humanly possible. Human beings throwing one million volt arcs of lightning is literally mythological.”
Working with such high voltages and temperatures that can reach 5,000 degrees comes with some risks, although Ravenwood says, "If there was no danger at all, there would be no thrill and there would be no attraction, right?" However, at every show the Tesla coil operators have their hands on an emergency stop button in case of accidents, there are safety barricades for the audience, and the performers check their high voltage suits the way sky divers check their parachutes before each jump.
In addition to traveling the world giving thrilling performances, SkyFire Arts has begun using its unique craft to educate. The SkyFire Arts Academy teaches practices which develop the mind-body connection, enhancing life experience, and improving performance.
Catch SkyFire at LDI2022 before the New Technology Breakfasts.