photography / TYLER SHIELDS
story /CAROLINE HEERWAGEN
art director / HEATHER SEIDLER
hair / CATHRIONA WHITE
make-up/JENNIFER CHARM@JENNIFER CHARM @ CARABELLA SALON hair+make-up/ STEPHANIE NAVARRO@JENNY KARL HAIR AND MAKEUP AGENCY
hair+make-up/ TANIA HAHM @JENNY KARL HAIR AND MAKEUP AGENCY
Special, special thanks to Doug Miller ++ Susie Culini of Zen Arts.
In the middle of August the sun has a way of setting over Los Angeles that can completely bewitch a person. Looking back it was the most apropos of times to be driving up to one of the most enchanting Hollywood Hills homes I’ve ever seen, let alone set foot in. One of those great, vine covered mansions that you see in films, but can’t imagine anyone actually lives in on a day-to-day basis, but they do. No one could say that they hadn’t expected this particular interview to be over the top in every way, or even peculiar at best, but what I walked into is really so much more than peculiar, in any sense of that word. I made my way to the lustrous backyard of this giant house to find a large group of moving, swirling acrobats and jaw dropping belly dancers careening through the gardens and the dimly lit pool, up the marble staircases and past me with cool sex appeal and perfect poise. Watching the cirque ensemble Zen Arts perform is like watching every dream you couldn’t shake the next day unfolding before you. The aesthetics alone were enough to send anyone reeling; with 20 lb head dresses and intricate designs painted on every limb you see but then you have people flying, twisting, eating fire, spitting fire, and just generally moving in ways you’re sure must be painful, and at times, not even really possible. This group of 20+ performers hails from every corner of the world to work with founders, and former fire-dancers, Doug Miller, and Susie Culini, and be a part of these extravagant and mind bending displays of illusion and mystery. They’re working harder than anyone you’ve probably ever met to make this dream their full-time job, and it’s paying off.
“Zen Arts has tripled this year from last year already, and it tripled the year before that,” Doug explains, “We’re growing so fast that it’s hard to keep up sometimes. I realized when I started fire dancing 7 years ago that there was a huge hole in this industry. Anyone can hire a belly dancer in this city from a hundred different agencies, but there isn’t one other company you can call that will custom build you a show for whatever it is that you’re doing. Something that fuses street art, performance art, and fashion the way we do.”
In fact, just this summer Zen Arts was called in by the California Science Center to create a custom show for the opening of their Cleopatra exhibit, the biggest in history. They specifically called on the group to create an entire Egyptian themed show with everything from costumes, which Susie designs and makes, to characters and performances, because there just isn’t anyone else who will put on the same caliber show.
“This was our dream; to bring together all of these elements with the best performers in the business to create a fantasy, an alternative universe, that will touch and change people’s perspectives. We started with just the people we knew in LA, and now we’re flooded with emails from performers from Africa to Lebanon submitting to work with our company every day. It’s exhilarating.”
You can feel that energy when you see these performers moving through their routines in front of you, and Miller explained that they’re like family; egoless, and happy to be doing what they love, as they travel all over the world to make Zen Arts come to life in front of celebrities and royal families alike, performing up to 30 times a month.
As Miller walked off to cater to the needs of his talent, I really got to see what he was talking about, as I watched aerialists flip elegantly above the pool where an angel in a giant bubble floated serenely by, and one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever laid eyes on spun balls of fire around her hips and head, as if they were harmless. It was no wonder she would go on to tell me that the most frequently asked question she encounters is, “So, that’s not real fire, right?” Heather Morales laughs light heartedly, going on to explain her 10 year long journey through dancing with, spinning, and even eating fire, the last 3 of which she’s spent with Zen Arts, wielding this powerful and dangerous element.
“It’s tuning in.” She tells me, “Fire dancing has been practiced by indigenous people for so long. The men practiced it in ceremonies for war, and the women practiced it while they were gone to keep their fingers nimble for sewing, and when I do this I feel connected to my mothers, and sisters, fathers, and brothers from the past. It’s a fantasy to pull that through, and inspire others, and feel the energy that fire creates coming back to you from the audience.”
I soon find that every performer that walks by me has an amazing story to tell of how they came to LA, or how they found their art, and how, through everything, they’ve continued to pursue it, and turn it into their full-time jobs. Most of them work on their crafts around the clock. The man behind the paint, airbrush artist Adam Tennenbaum, transitioned from designing jewelry to painting human skin over a decade ago. Now he works almost exclusively with this group and divulged that he hadn’t slept in 3 days, but was totally okay with it.
“I’ve painted on every continent except Australia/New Zealand. Pick a beach; pick a club, anywhere you can think of. I’ve traveled all over the world with this art that lives in the negatives and shadows. I spend most of my time staring at what’s not there.”
He said this with a sort of wry smile, but I could see what he meant. Each performer would walk up to him and undergo a certain amount of eyeballing before he would even begin. “It’s a collaboration,” He explained, “I just try and listen to each person. The first thing I ask a performer is what they’re going to be doing. It’s important to get their intentions, and it’s so important not to lock them into what you think you see in them. My canvases are never blank. It’s so different because I came from solitude in art, making these big pieces of jewelry and designing, and this… There’s always someone else’s energy there that you have to respect.”
I noticed right away the entire show is a collaboration of energy. From the fire dancers feeding off each other, to the aerialists feeding off the mermaid swimming beneath them in the pool, flipping her tail back and forth with perfect ease, as if it were a part of her body. Indeed, she would later explain she feels more comfortable in the water than out. This seems to translate to all of them. Not one of these performers isn’t putting in everything they’ve got to every second they’re out there, and anyone who’s watching knows that. The truth is you fall in love with this group’s veracity and the fire that reflects from the dancers to their crowd. Zen Arts is a completely unique experience, not a show, because they don’t just perform a canned routine for every audience they come across. They tailor everything from the choreography to the costumes and body art for each venue and the crowd that fills it. I can safely say I went from unsure journalist, to mouth-agape spectator, to full-blown fan, and when you go to check these guys out where ever they are next, don’t be surprised if you see me in the audience with my chin on the ground. It’s that good.