That Junior and Steve are of a singular mindset is evident in the story they tell of Cirque directors who suggested that they abandon the traditional knife blades that top their sticks and use only flames. "I told them, ‘No, we can’t do that, because it would be disrespectful to the guys who gave us this,’" says Junior, alluding to Letuli Olo Misilagi, whose story of inventing the fire-knife dance is told and re-told in Samoan households as a parable of pride and ingenuity. Olo—nicknamed Freddie after Fred Astaire—was a charismatic Samoan chief who moved to Hollywood in the 1940s, where he subsequently thrived as a stuntman. In search of a distinctive act, he took the double-bladed, wooden-handled knives used in Samoan martial arts—modeled on ancient war clubs—and added fire. Olo eventually returned home to serve Samoa as both a judge and territorial Congressman but not before his incendiary act had become the climactic moment anywhere that Polynesian entertainment thrived. "Fire- knife dancers want the audience to pick up on something important. It is all about accepting the challenge, coming into your manhood," explains Junior. And so the knives had to remain for, he adds, "We can’t go out there with cupcakes."
With O, Steve and Junior have traded a Waikiki luau platform for a massive set that includes an overhead mirror designed to generate a double dazzle of flame; lavalavas for lavish costumes; and the traditional toere drum for the rich melodies of an eighteen-piece orchestra. In the show, the two are avatars of the warrior ethic, caught up in a fantastical waterworld. O is a phonetic representation of eau, the French word for water, and most of the show is performed above and about a huge pool of water. The story loosely follows an Everyman named Guifa on his kaleidoscopic quest for selfhood. Midway through the show, Guifa’s identity crisis is heralded by a tall acrobat who roars, "Where is your passion?" The massive pool appears to evaporate. A performer sets his entire body on fire while settling into an easy chair with a newspaper—props that are likewise covered in flames. Guifa freaks out, splashing residual water in the direction of the flaming figure, who trundles offstage, oblivious. Enter Steve and Junior with lit knives. They are full of grace and rhythm as they twirl the knives around and under their limbs, all the while leaping and backbending, filling the stage with flames and confidence, waiting for Guifa to get in sync with a riveting game of catch and throw. "I think of it as teasing Guifa. We swipe at him," says Junior. "He is like a little boy and we have to teach him, ‘Step up! Be bold!’" adds Steve.
The fire segment in O was born in a primordial period before the production came together. That period, known aptly as Creation, was essentially a series of performance art workshops for the cast members. As to why Cirque wanted fire to begin with: "Cirque’s founder Guy Laliberté is a fire performer himself. He spins fire and spits fire," says Junior. "He told me that long ago, before Cirque was even born, he was sitting on a beach somewhere in the Hawaiian Islands, dreaming up the idea for a circus of the sun that would use fire."
Perhaps the only people in the world who really understand the rarified experience of Steve and Junior are those few who share it: Time Sumeo and Karl Sanft are Cirque’s other fire-knife dancers, featured in Alegria, a touring production that has played on four continents. Growing up, neither envisioned a life at the circus, but both danced with fire: Karl, the son of Maori and Tongan parents, was cast in his father’s Polynesian revue; Time, a third-generation fire-knife dancer from Samoa, moved to Colorado, where his first performance consisted of running around the Denver Zoo stage, holding up blazing knives. He was eight years old.