Jennifer Brooks
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A dragon arched its wings over Powderhorn Park, flapping a few times to get the feel of its performance space, then burst into flames.

Flames licked up the metal framework of its wings, down its flaming ribs, along its pitchforked tail. As the fire ignited its great head, metal jaws worked up and down, as if the dragon were singing along with the music that filled the grassy stage. Below the metal skeleton, below the flames, performers from Northern Fire Dynamic manipulated the flaming puppet, dancing with the flames.

It was last Monday evening. On Mondays, Northern Fire Dynamic plays with fire.

"The fire, it's alive," said Heidi Leaf, the group's administrator, who hand-built the flaming props she wears each season. "You learn to dance with the prop, because you have to take into consideration the wind, the movement you're doing. Because you can easily get kissed by fire."

Around the dragon, other members of the Minneapolis-based fire performance troupe rehearsed. They juggled fire, they hula-hooped fire, they glided across the grass in flaming hoop skirts, twirling flaming parasols, playing flaming instruments, breathing fire.

It was a sneak peek at the free public performance Northern Fire Dynamic will stage in Powderhorn Park on Monday night.

Last week, families drifted over from Powderhorn's splash pool and ball fields and settled onto the grass to watch the rehearsal. They saw the flaming dragon, they saw the dancers weaving between the props. They didn't see the months of choreography, rehearsals and safety precautions that came before.

The troupe ran through the entire routine without flames, working out the kinks after a few weeks away from each other over the Memorial Day holiday. Then the call went up: Fire in the hole. Fuel station crews ignited the first props.

At each corner of the rehearsal areas, safety teams waited, ready to extinguish flaming props or rush in to aid any performers at risk of burns.

Since the troupe's founding, Northern Fire Dynamic has seen about 200 members come and go. At the start of every year, newcomers answer the open call to audition. Some who show up are experienced fire performers. Many are not. Some are looking for a challenge. Some, after the loneliness and dislocation of the pandemic, are looking for their people — and sometimes it turns out that their people are the ones on fire.

Newcomers start off slowly, working on the safety teams, watching the experienced performers.

"Once you become comfortable and safe with it, it's freeing," said James "Gnome" Allen, the troupe's safety lead. "It's just playing with the movements, so the fire does what you want it to do."

All the training, all the local performances, are leading to the group's ultimate goal each year: Burning Man. Northern Fire Dynamic is hoping to be chosen again to perform at the weeklong celebration of community, self-expression and Instagram-worthy moments in the Nevada desert.

Northern Fire Dynamic's free performance starts at 8 p.m. Monday in Powderhorn Park.