fire fest

A flaming sculpture by Keith D’Angelo from a previous iteration of the Telluride Fire Festival, which will be held this year from Thursday through Sunday. (Photo courtesy of Suchitra Baker)

Like so many other gatherings in this unusual year, the Burning Man Festival was canceled.

As the Burning Man Journal put it: “We’re going to build Black Rock City in The Multiverse!”

Yet in the Box Canyon, the annual gathering of the Burning Man tribe goes on, albeit with extensive safety precautions. (Think of them as rituals — the slathering of hands with sanitizer, the donning of masks — rather like the annual ritual burning of “the man” in the Nevada desert each year.)

“It’s probably the only in-person festival that’s taken place this year,” Chris Myers says of the Telluride Fire Festival. Myers and his partner, Erin Ries, cofounded the festival because they were inspired during their years attending Burning Man. The Telluride fest is an annual showcase for demonstrations that involve fire; for both local and visiting performance artists who work with fire; and for sculptures that go up in flames on the Telluride Ski Resort’s mountain on Saturday night. 

This year, the annual show will most definitely go on, but safe to say, it has been recalibrated, and not only because the part at the Palm Theatre has been canceled. Even before COVID-19 arrived, Myers and Ries had determined that they would refocus the festival. 

“We’ve expanded our scope of work in promoting the arts,” Myers explained. “Fire is the catchy, unique artistry part of Burning Man that captures people’s attention, but there’s so much more to the Burning Man community. And part of that is self-expression.”

“There was an exhibit about Burning Man at the Smithsonian entitled ‘No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man,’” Myers went on. “Attendees at Burning Man are encouraged to be a part of the art. To interact with it.” 

And so it will be at the fire festival this weekend. “We encourage people to be expressive,” Myers said. “Wear a costume,” if you’re so inclined. “Contribute to the playfulness of the experience,” if you would like.

All of this is voluntary, but as Myers pointed out, fiery displays “are just icing on the cake. Without people to come and appreciate and interact with the festival and express themselves” — in the same way that Black Rock Desert is rebuilt from scratch every year — “the festival is nothing.”

If you’re searching for costume inspiration, you might swing by the Slate Gray Gallery, which is exhibiting costumes worn by the California artist Micki Flatmo during the years she’s been attending Burning Man. (The artist had hoped to attend a reception tomorrow in her honor from 5-8 p.m., “but her husband is immunocompromised,” Myers said, and so she’ll remain in California.)

This year has been difficult for many, which brings up another way the festival has changed. “It’s a little more somber,” Myers said. “There will definitely be elements of play,” but at the festival’s signature event Saturday evening, the big burn on the mountain, a more reflective mood is likely to prevail. “One of the sculptures is more whimsical and playful,” Myers said. Another, by longtime Telluride resident Niel Ringstad, will be a burn that anyone who is so inspired is encouraged to contribute something to. “It’s time to reflect and let go,” Myers said. “We’re heading into the darkest part of the year, just two weeks from the Winter Solstice. This has been a year when some of us may have lost loved ones. It’s been a challenging time. And so, it may be time to let go of whatever may no longer be serving you. There’s no judgement.”

There is, however, an opportunity to bring whatever-it-is that you would like to let go of by the sculpture, leave it there, and watch it (or simply know that it will) go up in flames, on Saturday at 8 p.m. 

“Fire’s a very emotional element,” Myers summed up. “It’s both destructive and constructive. We need to acknowledge what it’s done for us, and is sometimes doing to us.” The festival this weekend involves fun and creativity and play, but also offers a space for, grieving and letting go. The ritual burning on Saturday, and indeed the entire get-together over three days, in both the Transfer Warehouse and on the mountain, “allows us to honor fire,” Myers said, “to celebrate it, and to respect its power.”

The Telluride Fire Festival goes through Sunday. Although it takes place outdoors, state and county health and safety restrictions apply. Masks are required; be prepared to be wait, as only so many people are permitted in the Transfer Warehouse for “Hot Time in the Old Town” events Friday and Sunday at any one time. For reservations and more information, visit telluridefirefestival.org.