Issue 7.5: October/November 2004

Catch A Fire

story by Liza Simon
photos by Tomasz Rossa

Junior Faitau (above) and
Steven Silulu (below) twirl
the light fantastic in
Cirque du Soleil's O.

Junior Faitau was in Waikiki, performing as a fire-knife dancer, when he heard that Cirque du Soleil wanted him for a show in Vegas. It sounded pretty far-out to the boy from Palolo Valley public housing who had immigrated to the Islands from Samoa, land of the fire-knife dance and cradle of Polynesian civilization. These two things about Samoa always seemed inseparable in Junior’s mind: The requisite bravery for fire-knife dancing lit up his imagination as the essence of his culture. So what was this about some circus in Vegas? "I’m thinking ‘Okay, someone wants me to dance with lions and tigers,’" he remembers. "I’m thinking, ‘What kind of circus is this?!’"

Imagine the Olympics running away with the circus. Imagine the Wizard of Oz collaborating with Fellini to perfect every last theatrical impulse, from Italian opera to street mime. Conceived more than two decades ago by a peripatetic troupe of French Canadian street performers, Cirque du Soleil has become a synonym for live artistry so awesome that even a toney New York Times critic bowed before it in verbal defeat, effusing: "Words cannot do it justice!" If you are not among the more than 40 million spectators who have experienced one of Cirque’s twelve extravaganzas, it is hard to imagine so many human miracles unfolding on one stage. Cirque sends in the clowns from Russia, the contortionists from Mongolia, the trapeze artists from France, mixing traditions from all parts of the globe with only the best musicians, dancers and countless wizards of stagecraft—all with a visionary aesthetic "to evoke, to provoke!"

Junior’s mission is a more exacting variant of the show’s. "Now I get to show the world the bravery and faith of my culture," he says, a modest smile spreading across his face as he relaxes an hour before the curtain goes up on what has turned out to be a juicy mango of a showbiz gig: fire- knife dancer in O, the Cirque production-in-residence at Vegas’ posh Bellagio Hotel. It’s a job he shares with Steven Silulu, another Oahu-bred fire-knife dancer.

Junior and Steve blazed the fire-knife trail together to the big time. Steve started fire-knife dancing at the age of two, when he was barely big enough to get his hands around the charred sticks proffered by a cousin. In high school, he met Junior at a Polynesian arts competition and started showing him a few moves in the family garage. In 1997, the two entered what they figured would be the pinnacle of their career, the annual Fire-Knife Dance Championship Competition at the Polynesian Cultural Center in Laie. Rumor was making the rounds that some new extravaganza was interested in recruiting fire-knife dancers, and sure enough, a Cirque scout was at the competition—and saw Junior perform.

Not long after, Cirque came looking for Junior, who by then was performing in the Waikiki show. Despite his initial trepidation about lions and tigers, Junior took the job in Vegas—and started looking for ways to bring Steven along. He handed the circus Steve’s name when the need for another fire-knife dancer arose. When the call finally came from a Cirque director, Steve was at his day job, working construction. "I agreed to the contract terms on the phone, thanked my boss for everything and told him I was leaving for Vegas," he recalls with a smile.

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.

All four note that Cirque has been an extraordinary bonding experience. "Basically, everyone in the cast is from somewhere besides whatever here is, so what we have is each other," says Karl, speaking via phone from Philadelphia a few weeks before Alegria heads to a six-month tour of Japan. In the world’s most elaborate traveling circus, Karl’s sense of normalcy is fueled by the presence of his wife and their five kids, who attend the Cirque’s traveling on-site home school.

As for just why they were tabbed to be the trailblazers of fire-knife style, none will speculate—they just thank Providence.

O goes on and so do the rave reviews. But Hawai‘i’s pioneering fire-knife dancers have no need to protect themselves from the paparazzi when they walk down Vegas streets. "I leave the theater in regular clothes and none of the people know it’s me," Junior muses happily. Cirque itself does give cast members the occasional celeb treatment. Steve tells the story of a special party: The cast was loaded onto a bus with blackened windows so that none of them would know where they were going. Finally, they arrived at a mini but decidedly magical city constructed in the desert just for the fun of it. There were masseuse tents, makeshift restaurants and all manner of strolling serenaders. There were the rich and famous out to mingle with the human miracles of Cirque. Well, says Steve, getting to the point of the anecdote, in the middle of this glitz, all-around cool popster Laurence Fishburne sought out the Hawaii comrades. Steve remembers feeling elated that the movie star could see them for what they were: "He asked us, ‘Isn’t what you guys do martial arts?’ He could see it plainly: We are warriors."