Marissa Gough has done comedy, slam poetry and burlesque, but she'd never thought of performing with fire until Ash Circle's Ivan Bellari made her an offer. Gough, mohawked and travelling in the same pair of pants for weeks, was applying to be a cigarette girl at a cabaret. Bellari, a big guy smoking a cigar and wearing a zoot suit, saw something else in her.
"You're perfect," he said. Gough leaned back and said, "Oh really?"
That, Gough says, is how her apprenticeship began.
"I'm terrified of fire," says Gough, "I really didn't understand it and I really never thought that I would do this for a living." Bellari settled a lot of Gough's fears, taught her fire safety and trained her to focus and to trust herself. "There's a lot of fears that are battled when you eat fire, when you bring it that close to you," she says. "You have to trust yourself implicitly."
Six years later, Gough is still cautious when she performs, watching for the direction of the wind, her torches and fuel, and what the crowd is doing. Fire dancing at Casino Nova Scotia, Gough carefully moves her dreaded hair and shirt out of the way before running fire over her belly. The dangerous thing about fire breathing, she explains, is that it's not hard. "If I breathe in, 90 seconds, bye, bye," she says. "No calling an ambulance."
Petite, soft spoken and 26, Gough tells her story like a writer. She was born in Halifax, but she grew up in Montreal, where she lived everywhere from the gay quarter to Mile End. Bored with office jobs, she sold her things and spent a year hitchhiking and WWOOFing (volunteer work on organic farms) from Ontario to Cape Breton. She landed back in Halifax in 2003, crashing in the band room of a cafe.
"I think that my life has always centered around being extraordinary," Gough says. She compares her choose-your-own-adventure life to playing it safe. "The type of person to be a fire performer is the type of person to bring themselves to the edge and then jump off," she says. For edge-avoiding observers, fire performance can be a vicarious art, something beautiful to experience in the moment.
But sometimes the crowd doesn't fully appreciate the effort that goes into it. "They want to find the trick," says Gough. "There's no trick. That's the thing. It's a stunt: pure guts."
Gough, also known as Miss Molotov, swallows fire, breathes fire and puts fire on her skin (fire flushing). Her show is sensual and captivating, fusing vaudeville with belly dancing. Her vapour tricks include the human candle, which is a long tube of fire, and a big puff called the ball of fire. Gough recently choreographed torch dances and fire finger dances (with a set of small torches fixed to her fingers) into her act. Thanks to Atlantic Cirque, Gough has been busy gigging all summer, but she is particularly excited about performing at Halifax's International Busker Festival this week.
Gough will be performing twice a day at the WestJet tent next to the wave. Joining her will be rope dart and poi artists Chuck and Kerry Kaye from the Wildfire community she belongs to in Connecticut, fire hula-hooper Katherine Langille, torch balancer Haleigh Sheehan, and drummer and Frisbee juggler Mark Buchynski.
Gough is always looking for new ways to entertain with fire and gives kudos to her mentors and colleagues. "It's so easy to take a burning torch and stick it in your mouth," she says. "But to do it artfully is another matter."
Marissa Gough, Thursday Augusr 7 until Sunday, August 17 at Halifax International Busker Festival, Halifax Waterfront, 4pm and 9pm, free/PWYC.