The power of art has taken this British performance artist around the world - without ever getting in a plane

The power of art has taken this British performance artist around the world - without ever getting in a plane

Firebending from 'Avatar: The Last Airbender' might not be real, but 21-year-old Cassia Chloe can wield flames like she was born with the ability

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Cassia Chloe has travelled to 25 countries in three years without a plane, performing fire art.
Photo: TNS

Cassia Chloe found her voice in fire.

When language failed her – on the frosted steps of Northern Mongolia, amid the wet lushness of ancient Japanese forests – she turned to flame.

Over the past two-and-a-half years, the 21-year-old British performance artist has hitchhiked nearly 10,000 kilometres from England to Cambodia. She has travelled alone – no translator, no vehicle, and no plan beyond a general direction: east.

“I just knew since I was younger I had to get to Asia, and I had to get there by land,” she said.

Fire dancing – a series of acrobatic movements with flaming hoops and other equipment – supplies the funds Chloe requires for her journey. When she needs cash, she said, she busks for local currency in a nearby city, carving out just enough pavement space to safely swing her fiery props.

But Chloe has artistic motivations beyond just profit. Aside from giving her the financial resources to travel, dance offers the artist an unmatched means of universal communication, allowing her to overcome differences in language and reach her audiences on an emotional level. The awe her show inspires, the collective gasp she evokes while whirling, ablaze, through the darkness, transcends boundaries of language.

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When Chloe can’t speak with words, she speaks with feelings.

“With any kind of art, the medium itself is irrelevant,” she said. “The point is where it comes from inside.” Drawing, painting, and writing – three activities Chloe also practises – tap into the same spiritual core as dance, she said.

Watching videos of the artist perform, all shadow and glow, calm expression unwavering despite the flaming hoop encircling her calves, it isn’t difficult to believe she is drawing energy from some peaceful inner force, an emotional tranquillity that doesn’t flinch in the heat of danger.

In one particularly striking clip, taken in China, Chloe crouches in the darkness, buugeng – S-shaped wands of fire – undulating gracefully in her outstretched hands. The movement of her arms is so natural, the small smile on her face so relaxed, that the equipment appears an extension of her body. When she finally rises, she doesn’t stand, it seems, but rather glides upwards, as if borne aloft by fiery wings, a strange phoenix floating in the night air. The performance is ethereal, chillingly serene.

To see Chloe dance is, in a sense, to become a part of her act, to forget one’s surroundings, hypnotised by the flames.

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The grace in Chloe’s movement derives from an “intrinsic understanding” of her tools, as she termed it in an Instagram post from March. She has reached a level of artistic proficiency where her equipment is as “reactive as [her] own limbs”, and “mind is lost”. For Chloe, dancing is not a thought, but an instinct.

This skill level is all the more impressive because the entertainer is relatively new to her art. She saw fire dancing for the first time six years ago, when she was 15.

At the time, she lived in the county of Bedfordshire, just outside the British capital, in a village of only 1,000 people. It was a beautiful place to grow up, she said, full of rolling fields, and rich greenery. But as much as she loved the countryside, city life also had its allure.

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Every weekend, Chloe and friends would travel to “underground” urban parties several hours away. At these gatherings, the teens met circus performers and others involved in countercultural, Gypsy movements. Often, the artists there would give a show.

In the darkness, watching fire dancers paint the air with flames, Chloe felt entranced.

“There’s just something innately beautiful about fire. Something very tribal and ritualistic about it,” she said. “And then to wield it is kind of powerful. To be able to not only manipulate it, but dance with it – there’s something very magical about that.”

So as a teen, she started practicing the circus arts every day, first teaching herself poi – a dance with weights swung in a geometric pattern – then performance with hoops and staffs. She added the element of fire after a few months and began spending her summers following festivals around Europe. Eventually, she began to publicly perform.

Chloe looks over the Wakhan valley on the Pamir Highway of Tajikistan; Afghanistan is on the far side of the river.
Photo: TNS

The dancer’s parents aren’t surprised by her chosen career path. Chloe’s mother Maria said that, since childhood, the artist has been “incredibly individual in her thoughts, style, and outlook”.

Starting at the age of four, she developed a taste for adventure, often wandering off on family outings – much to the alarm of her guardians, Maria said. On several occasions, she had to assemble a search party to find her roving daughter.

“We used to say it wasn’t a family holiday if Chloe didn’t go missing,” she recalled. “We called her our own intrepid explorer.”

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A decade later, the artist’s wanderlust has only intensified. Her current, trans-continental trek began when she was 19, after a French group invited her to fire dance with them in Morocco.

“After that performance, it was either go west, go back to Britain, or go east,” Chloe recalled. She decided to travel, she said, for the same reason she would read philosophical writings for hours in old bookshops as a kid: “I wanted to see the ways in which we not only see things differently, but how we look at things the same – what unites us across the world.”

To date, Chloe has crossed 29 countries. The kindness she meets is striking, she said.

When Chloe crossed the border between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, the sun setting, a woman rushed out of the trees, shouting “chai, chai,” or “tea, tea,” the dancer recalled. “I was just thinking ‘where am I going to sleep tonight?’ But she invited me in for tea, which of course leads to food, and to a shower and bed.”

The Tajik family spoke no English. Chloe spoke no Tajiki. They communicated in basic Russian and hand gestures, she said, but “it wasn’t a barrier at all.” Shared humanity – visible in expression and tone – is often enough to get by.

Chloe makes friends wherever she goes, like in this village in Laos.
Photo: TNS

“There are so many things you can say without words,” she reflected. “We’re all so similar.” And moving slowly across the continent has allowed her to see that unbroken, human unity in close detail.

“When you travel by land you come to see how the cultures are kind of heaping and merging into each other regardless of borders,” like the pigment in “an ink wash picture”. Architecture, art, philosophy – they evolve from country to country, she said, but softly, slowly, so similarities are often more apparent than differences.

And in the watercolour of the world, Chloe says she has a dozen families. One in Serbia. Another in Kazakhstan. Japan. Cambodia. The hospitality she encounters is beautiful, she noted. “I come away with the feeling of having more trust and hope for humanity.”

Edited by Ginny Wong

 

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
This girl is on fire

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