To witness Crimson Rose in action wrangling performers and staff is to experience a force of nature at work in her element… and yes, that element is fire. One of the six Co-founders of Burning Man, Crimson oversees everything to do with performing at and participating in Black Rock City’s Burn Night rituals, be it the Processional that brings the flame to the Man, protocol for entering the effigy’s Great Circle, and the Fire Conclave.
Crimson took time out from her Black Rock City 2022 preparations to speak with us about her journey.
People often think of you as the fire queen or the fire priestess.
When did you realize that fire was a powerful force in your life?
A very good friend of mine in the late 1980s was dancing with fire. She was kind enough to gift her knowledge, to teach me how to dance with fire. Of course I was very nervous about it. She had a little bowl of 70% rubbing alcohol, and a candle. She said, “Get your fingers slightly wet and then touch the flame; you can pull it away from the candle.”
And I’m thinking, “Oh my god, oh my, oh my god.” It was this magical moment when I felt like I was a conduit for it, that by just pulling off a little bit of the fire there was this magical thing that was happening. The fear of it sort of went away. But that also means that I couldn’t have an ego about the fire because it will burn. It’s really simple. You have to have respect for fire.
The quote that I created years ago is: “Fire is the very heart and essence of all life, for it is more phenomena than substance that is revealed, seen, and touched through ritual and risk.”
Phaedra, who has since passed, gave me this gift, and I felt like it was then the ability to channel and bring other people into the process.
So the fire came first. How and when did Burning Man cross your path?
When Larry Harvey and I talked for the first time, he told me they did this thing in the desert. “We do this thing with fire,” he said. “Let me send you a video.”
So he sent me the video. It was really dark and there was a lot of fire and I couldn’t figure out what the hell these people were doing. It was starting to piss me off. And so I called him back and snobbishly I said to him, “Do you do this on Solstice or on Equinox?” And at that point he said, “No.” I said, “I have no time for you.”
You told Larry you didn’t have any time for him? How did you eventually get involved?
Yeah. That was 1990. In 1991 they were doing an event at Fort Mason and the Man was on a barge. I showed up and these people were standing holding a rope. As soon as they started pulling up the Man, something in me clicked. I didn’t know what it was. I knew I was drawn to it. I went into the theater where they were showing a video from the year before where a guy blew a dragon’s breath onto the Man that set him on fire. And I thought, “I have to go. I don’t know why.”
There are times when somebody says to me, “Thank you, you changed my life.” And I have to tell people, “No, you changed your own life.” For me, it wasn’t that Burning Man changed my life. It was about me taking responsibility for my own evolution and going towards this unknown adventure that was about to happen.
What was your role that first year when you went to the Black Rock Desert?
Just as a participant, I was asked at a certain point to help light the Man on fire. The first thing I did when I got to the playa was to put on my 16-foot silk wings and start climbing the Man. It’s funny that John Law came running up to me and started to stop me and then realized I was stepping where I was supposed to step — you step on the rings. I got all the way up to [the Man’s] armpit and I was holding on and stretching out and the fabric was blowing and, oh my goodness — it was an incredibly erotic experience. I felt at that point that I was the protectress of the Man. If we were going to release him, we needed to do it with intention, correctly and right.
And that first year in ’91 with my torches, I attempted to light the Man and I did start a little fire, but I needed people to come in and help as well. And that was an opening up within myself… I cried, I cried like crazy after that. It was an emotional release. I knew that I had found a place where I belonged, I think for the first time. It was Black Rock City, even though we didn’t call it Black Rock City in those years. I was like, “Oh yeah, I have to go back.”
What did you envision after that first year?
I knew that there were other fire performers at the time. And I knew that, as the years would grow, that it was more than just me. There was something about the energy that should happen around the Man… We raised the Man, we set him on fire, there needed to be more. The future was for all of these different fire performers to actually honor the Man, honor the moment, and set the intention to release the Man.
How did the ritual evolve from a fire jam to choreography, and then Fire Conclave?
It took a while. It really did take almost 10 years of inviting people to come in, try things. Even though we did not have a safety perimeter it was the free-for-all chaos that was kind of happening around that ritual. It became this evolution of free form to establishing the choreography of dance with fire. And then what goes along with the choreography is the safety of it.
I like to think that the Fire Conclave was there on the playa with me in ’91. And then about 2000 with the formation of the Fire Conclave Council, which has been instrumental in supporting so much of the processes and evolution of what is now the Fire Conclave. Because each of the five members of the Fire Conclave Council is a fire performer who used to run a fire group, they understand safety, understand choreography, and they really represent Burning Man out in the community.
Tell me about the process of bringing in the different fire troupes every year. They have to audition?
They definitely have to audition… There’s a whole audition process where they have to submit a videotape and show us a choreographed dance to see if a fire group will actually be able to be invited into the Great Circle or be support staff.
How many conclaves were performing on Burn Night 2022?
Thirty-three fire groups applied and 29 were invited to become members of the Fire Conclave this year. Because the last three years were very hard on everyone, we decided to allow the last four groups to take on the position of the Sentinels. These positions take up the space between the different fire groups, to delineate the space within the Great Circle. Once you get on playa, every member — and this year, there were more than 1,200 people within the Fire Conclave — has to check in. We want to make sure those people are on site and that everybody understands all the safety aspects before anybody receives an access pass to the Great Circle.
Over the years we have established the criteria and set a precedent that getting into the Fire Conclave is serious. You can dance on the open playa, but to actually be invited into the Great Circle, there is an honor and a responsibility that goes with it. And the fact that they in turn are honoring the Man with this special ritual on Burn Night. It really is the largest gathering of fire performers at one place at one time on Earth.
Apart from the burning of the Man, which is a ritual that everyone can create their own meaning for, what is the significance of fire in Burning Man culture?
Fire must be respected. The fire can either bite you, soothe you, or take you to a spiritual place. When setting one’s artwork on fire, I always call it a release. I don’t talk about burning the Man. It’s releasing. And ever since that one time, when I climbed up the side of the Man, it feels like there’s this responsibility of doing it right. And making sure that anybody who steps in the Great Circle understands the fire, understands the power of it. And to not only be honored by receiving the energy of the fire, but to make sure that you’re giving back to it, as well.
I always feel like: if we can release the Man, we’ve won.
Cover image: Crimson leads the Processional, 2022 (Photo by Grant Palmer)