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First Friday channels Burning Man for one flaming hot night

How about a little radical self-expression?

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The original Lucky Lady Lucy went up in flames at last year’s Burning Man. Her sister effigy will burn March 2 Downtown.
Photo: Merritt Pelkey

There will be a spectacle, that’s for sure—flames, scads of flames, shooting from a 20-foot showgirl effigy. There will be lighted costumes, electronic music, mutant cars and “radical self-expression” unleashed on the streets of Downtown Las Vegas.

Yes, on March 2, Lucky Lady Lucy will burn while Dancetronaut DJs dressed in space suits blast music from a 100,000-watt sound system attached to a glowing spaceship built on a 30,000-pound hydraulic scissor lift. Add to that performances by a Burning Man-inspired opera company and an afterparty by LA’s Project Alma, and you have First Friday’s first official “burn”: Flames of Change.

“It’s going to be a spectacular collaboration of artists and entertainers,” says Joey Vanas, managing partner of First Friday. “All the Burning Man folks are coming. The founders (including Larry Harvey) are coming. We’re hoping that this is the first of many of these types of events to take place here.”

One could say this was inevitable, that the universe was somehow aligned to bring elements of Black Rock City’s annual Burning Man event to the Las Vegas Arts District. Burners have dotted the First Friday landscape with art cars and costumes the last five or six years. Fire spinners have found a home on the patio of Bar + Bistro. And Las Vegas artist Anthony Bondi—one of five Burning Man regional contacts—has trucked his art to Burning Man and has brought his Human Car Wash to First Friday. The Las Vegas Halloween Parade, launched in 2010 by event planner and Burning Man enthusiast Cory Mervis, incorporated art cars and clusters of burners marching down Fourth Street in costume.

The Details

Flames of Change
First Friday events take place March 2, 5-11 p.m.
First Vegas Burn! will take place at Third St. and Colorado Ave.
Lucky Lady Lucy is scheduled to burn at 8:15 p.m.

Burners in town started a weekly gathering at Bar + Bistro called Burning Mondays more than a year ago. And last May, Mervis and husband Leslie Bocskor worked with Nikki Doran and her husband, Merritt Pelkey, on the Circle of Regional Effigies (CORE) Project, for which the community built the first Lucky Lady Lucy that was torched at last year’s Burning Man.

The main spark, however, came when Vanas, an event planner, was invited by Zappos’ CEO Tony Hsieh to invest in First Friday and handed a ticket to Burning Man. It was there that Vanas had his epiphany and chose to commit to the First Friday LLC, a decision he says was based on the creativity and community experience he saw at Burning Man. Vanas and other locals in the Burning Man community want to see some of the event’s large-scale, interactive sculptures planted Downtown.

Cast members from the Burning Opera.

Cast members from the Burning Opera.

This month’s First Friday festival, held on the “Burnal Equinox” (halfway between annual Burning Man events), might be the gateway to more Burning Man-inspired activities, motivated by the community-building principals of Black Rock City, which pops up in Northern Nevada for a week each year with theme camps, the burning of The Man and 50,000 attendees.

“It’s just the beginning,” says Bocskor, who, along with Mervis, runs the Society for Experimental Arts and Learning, a creative group inspired by Burning Man. “That’s why the name Flames of Change is so wonderful. What’s happening here in Vegas is setting new examples of what we can do. ... With the first build of Lucky Lady Lucy, we had stagehands, accountants, bartenders, chefs, kids—all working together.

“It’s important for regional activities to go on that have the sense of Burning Man culture, because the attendance is capped. There are more people who want to go than there are tickets.”

First Friday, Bocskor says, is a great impetus. The event that draws thousands Downtown each month for arts, crafts, music and everything in between inspired Bocskor and Mervis to move to Las Vegas while here on a business trip.

Michael Childers takes a ride in his magic carpet car.

“We were absolutely nothing short of astounded,” he says. “There was a performance troupe in the street, an art car with flamethrowers, lights, music, art, culture and people interacting with each other in a social context. They were reclaiming public space to do something community-oriented. We saw that there was not only an opportunity to do things here, but also something already going on here. That was sort of a tipping point of why we moved to Las Vegas.”

That was two years ago. Around that same time, Doran and Pelkey also moved to Las Vegas (from San Francisco) and met Mervis and Bocskor. Doran is Burning Man’s Artist Advocate and on the Burning Man Art Council. She registers art projects headed to Black Rock City, discusses the works with the artists and helps map out where they’ll land on the playa. As a Burning Man Regional Contact, Doran also organizes Burning Mondays in the Arts District and partners in projects such as Lucky Lady Lucy.

“The dream is to have a warehouse space where people could work on projects throughout the year,” says Doran, a clothing designer whose Wild on the Inside makes Burning Man-inspired outfits.

Pelkey is the designer behind the Lucky Lady Lucy effigy and is overseeing the build of the version to be burned this Friday. He considers the community’s building of the first giant showgirl a galvanizing point for what’s happening in the region and for Burning Man’s influence, particularly when it comes to spreading the festival’s Ten Principles, ideas like radical self-reliance, gifting, leaving no trace and civic responsibility.

“I see more of these types of events happening here,” Pelkey says. “With the ticket issue, that’s going to be even more important to have this on a smaller scale.”

But, he adds, “This is a Las Vegas thing inspired by Burning Man. This event is all about Las Vegas. We’re hoping this is something Las Vegas can grab onto and make its own.”

Flames of change

A breakdown of the acts at this week’s first Friday

Burning Opera

It’s not so crazy that an opera about Burning Man was born in the line for the restrooms at the annual festival. Someone said, “This is so epic. Someone should write an opera about this.”

Anything can happen in Black Rock City, and it just so happened that someone else in line happened to have a boyfriend who writes opera.

Eventually came How to Survive the Apocalypse: A Burning Opera, directed by tenor Christopher Fuelling, a theater director and co-founder of the Art Monastery Project in Italy. Complete with lights, pyrotechnics, outlandish Burning Man-style costumes and a libretto by counterculture author Erik Davis, the highly theatrical performance is a take on the story of Burning Man. “Newbies” come across a “tribe of freaks,” and burners deal with maintaining the festival’s purity of vision, while keeping it accessible to the masses.

A 15-minute review of the multi-genre opera will be presented on a Third Street stage near Lucky Lady Lucy at 6, 7 and 8 p.m. About 16 out-of-town performers will take the stage with a live band, Las Vegas showgirls and burlesque troupe Cabernet Dance.

And Burning Opera might return to Las Vegas someday for a workshop residency: “Given the abundant expertise and experience of its creative community, I think Vegas would be an ideal place to develop the show,” Fuelling says.

Project Alma

This entertainment and arts project, fueled by the spirit of Burning Man, plans to bring “a serious taste of the SoCal Burner sound” to Las Vegas.

Founded by Travis Lea and Eva Vega, who made regular trips to Burning Man from their home in Argentina before moving to Los Angeles in 2003, Project Alma delivers themed parties with electronic music, most notably the monthly Plump parties that cater to Burners and other members of the underground scene. Lea has been to Burning Man 11 times and, in 2004, created a sound art theme camp with Vega.

Project Alma will team up with Dancetronauts under the dome at the Plaza, then move into the showroom for an afterparty scheduled to roll into the morning. Lea sees this weekend’s event as a way to share part of the Burning Man experience. “We’ve been helping to spread the culture of Burning Man here in LA,” he says. “Mainly, we provide a venue for people to be creative and participate. There are enough people that have been to Burning Man and they don’t want to wait a whole year to feel how they feel when they’re at Burning Man. And now the regionals are connecting.”

The Dancetronauts' mobile spaceship lights up the sky.

The Dancetronauts' mobile spaceship lights up the sky.

Dancetronauts

You might have seen a hydraulic scissor lift put a spaceship into the air last year for the Las Vegas Halloween Parade with a cast of costumed dancers.

The ship is mobile on the Burning Man playa, and this weekend it comes to town, pulling the 100,000-watt sound system, the Bass Station, which includes a DJ booth and room for four Dancetrohotties. Hand-built from scratch, the spectacular contraptions come with strobes, flame shooters and LED lights, and shoot smoke rings into the desert air. In short, it’s a portable dance party.

“I’ve dedicated my whole life to this,” says Captain Philthy Phil, a clean-cut DJ in an astronaut suit whose background in construction lends itself to the continuous revamping of the vehicles. “I want to take this whole show on the road, do a tour, do events in every city where people can bring their art cars and art.”

He and Captain TravNasty say they live by the Burning Man principles year-round and work on the Dancetronauts with a large crew. They’ll set up on Third Street next to Lucky Lady Lucy, then move to the Plaza for the afterparty.

Lucky Lady Lucy

When Burning Man announced the Circle of Regional Effigies project, local burners Cory Mervis, Leslie Bocskor, Nikki Danon and Merrit Pelkey stepped up to include Las Vegas. They teamed with the city of Las Vegas to create a community build in the Boulder Plaza Sculpture Park behind the Arts Factory, and the first 20-foot showgirl effigy named Lucy was burned at Burning Man last year. The second, if winds permit, will go up in flames as the centerpiece of this week’s First Friday.

Finally. This version has been assembled in backyards across town, with Pelkey working nonstop. “It’s sort of like the Manhattan Project, but completely different,” says Bocskor, referring to the distributive nature of its construction.

First Friday managing partner Joey Vanas says it will test out the possibility of urban burns.

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Kristen Peterson

Kristen Peterson joined the Las Vegas Sun in 1998 as a general assignment reporter. In 2003, she turned her focus ...

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