Thursday, February 4, 2016

Telling the Storyteller's Story or How to Dance with Fire and Not Get Burned (Much)!

The first photo! Many, many more followed!
KRISTIN WARD IS a lot of things, chief among them being impossibly industrious. I know a lot of people who work incredibly hard at their respective jobs and professions – librarians and professors and artists and musicians and poets and art community champions and much more – but even among this elite company, Kristin stands out. From the moment I met her she was demonstrating her greatest talent, which is the ability to make an observer’s jaw drop in wonder.

Her list of trades almost single-handedly drives up the stock-market price on slashes: bellydancer/fire-eater/balloon-sculptor/stage-props designer/physical fitness trainer and even more. It is truly hard to keep track of what she is doing on any given day. But it’s probably safe to say that the one thing that strings all of the other things together is her love of storytelling. In one way or another, most of her talents are directed toward that end goal and she’s tireless in finding new ways to express herself. It’s fitting that she eats fire, because she’s definitely got a fire inside of her. Maybe it’s how she recharges.

So, indulge this moment of adulation as I tell you about the force of creativity that is Kristin Ward…or as I first came to know her, the mystical Morgiana.

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THE EXACT DATE on which I first encountered Morgiana was October 20th, 2007. She was performing at a medieval-themed wedding which I attended, and it says something about her stage presence that she stood out among the plethora of talented people providing entertainment that day. She doesn't remember meeting me that day because she was working. I, on the other hand, was smitten, and I wasn't the only one. With so much going on, there she was, eating fire and holding court. It was a sight to behold! As the festivities continued into the night, she continued to find new ways of enthralling the crowd.

She laid on a bed of nails at one point, still eating fire, and invited three grown men, each one easily twice her size, to sit on her while she did. I don't know about you, but I don’t want anyone sitting on me while I try to do the majority of things I do – least of all anyone bigger than me, and especially not while I’m handling fire. But there she was, and that’s what she did, and she did it with panache. And there was more.
I even turned her into a superhero
named Ember!

There’s this bit she does where she pushes a flexible rod of plastic all the way up her nose. It’s really gross. Personally, I hate it. (I hate most activities where one puts inanimate objects into parts of themselves which aren’t inviting it. Call me peculiar that way, but it makes me squirm.) But she’s good at it, and it’s a fascinating – albeit yucky – thing to watch. And typically she’ll withdraw said flexible rod, lick it, and wrap it around the wrist of some admiring soul. Usually they laugh and keep it. I’m more often than not too busy recoiling in *ick* to tell, as was probably the case that night. The crowd was with her though, and fortunately there was even more.

A bunch of us, young and old, gathered into a barn where there was a bellydance performance, and it was here where she truly dazzled the crowd. As she twirled and rippled across the floor, a group of young kids watched her and one boy in particular stared, transfixed. There is no way to know for sure what he was thinking as he watched, but I’m pretty sure he went home with a speaking voice a couple of octaves lower that evening.

To be clear, while Morgiana is an attractive woman – and I should know, because I’m still dazzled – her bellydancing is not in-and-of itself sexual. She’s a storyteller, and that’s what comes through first and foremost. Her ability to communicate narrative via dance is impressive. This turned out to be my introduction to the world of Pittsburgh’s bellydance community, which is thriving all around us, and she’s a wonderful practitioner. She gracefully spins tales of silk road folklore smoother than satin, and I was impressed enough to ask Morgiana for her contact information. I wanted to see more!

She gave it to me, but for various reasons it would be a while before I witnessed this whirling dervish again. Only chance allowed me to recognize her too, since she was in the guise of a not-so-secret identity… 

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She's the one on the left!
ALMOST TWO YEARS later, at the ToonSeum’s semi-annual fundraiser KA-BLAM! on the South Side, I was having a grand time with friends and comrades in ink. It was a bright and festive event replete with bright artwork, music by local DJ and musician Zombo, balloons, and cosplayers. The first thing you saw when you got there were the “security guards” dressed as Empirical Stormtroopers. It was that kind of gathering.

There were other costumed folks in attendance too, including two ladies dressed as Wonder Woman. Somehow I ended up on the dance floor with one of them, and she was a lot of fun! Wherever she went during the night, I tried to keep track of her in the least stalker-like way possible. There was something familiar about her, but I couldn’t quite place it. I may have even asked her if we’d met before, but she couldn’t think of where or when, so I just chalked it up to errant vibes and pending intoxication. 

Several dances and drinks later it finally hit me. In mid-sentence I blurted out, “Oh! You were the belly dancer at that wedding a couple of years ago!” She needed reminding of which wedding that was, because she did that a lot, but I was right – it was Morgiana. The Gods of Olympus had seen fit to allow our paths to cross once more. This time I managed to hang onto her magic lasso, and she hasn’t been able to get rid of me since.

In the years since, I’ve watched her perform at all kinds of venues across the city, from hookah bars to festivals, and she always gives it her all. Sometimes she uses props such as veils or scarves or fans to beautiful effect, and sometimes she dances on overturned goblets with a focus that will hush observers. But it always comes down to sheer determination and hours upon hours of disciplined practice.

I’ve also seen her display a range of talents that can only be described as exhaustive. For one, her balloon sculpture is quirky and inventive and charming. How many people do you know in your day-to-day life who literally conjure up fantasies out of thin air? Give her a tank of air and a bag of balloons and watch her make kids of all ages laugh for hours. 

Pittsburgh Fire Girl in Katz Plaza, Downtown
Photo by M.L.Walker
Morgiana, also known as Pittsburgh’s Fire Girl (@pghfiregirl) can be found regularly Downtown at Katz Plaza, as well as other areas of the city, lighting up the night for theater and art gallery patrons. Are you right now recalling seeing a young lady eating fire somewhere Downtown, maybe when you went to a show at the Benedum Theater, or during the Saint Patrick’s Day festivities (when everyone around is as flammable as can be)? Yup, that was probably her. It’s especially amusing to watch kids of all ages gather around and stand transfixed as she does what she does. That happens every time. And she has yet to singe a single hair on a viewer's head.

In her real-life as Kristin, she’s also a seasoned stage props designer who regularly creates delightful pieces for Carnegie Mellon University’s drama department. I’ve had the opportunity to go behind the scenes and witness the transformation of a roomful of the most disparate of items you can imagine into stunning works of art. One of my all time favorites was the full-size elephant gun she created. It was at least as tall as her and it looked marvelous both on stage and up close. There have been other examples of her ingenuity too, everything from purple bathtubs to oversized poppies, to lighted walking staffs, and they all display Morgiana’s penchant for transforming the mundane into the magical.

She’s pretty freaking talented. And where all of these talents get to shine best is her storytelling.

A couple of months ago, Morgiana/Kristin, as the founder and director of the performance troupe Moquette Volante, began an original series of events under the banner TEA, TALES and TAKSIM. At each gathering, she invites other talented folks from the region to join her as they each perform in unique styles and ways. Some use music and instruments, some use dance, some use spoken word, some use props and humor, and Kristin encourages them all to give their all. Being one to put her money where her spoken-words are, she also engages the audiences with her trademark spontaneity. Honestly, I never really know what she is going to do at TT&T, but I always know she’s going to give it everything plus some.

All these years later, and when she performs she still dazzles.

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The second all-new performance of TEA, TALES and TAKSIM is coming up this weekend, Saturday, February 6th at 2pm at Arnold’s Tea on East Ohio Street on the North Side. I heartily recommend you come check it out. It will be a fun, eclectic collection of offbeat characters plying their trades and bringing clever whimsy (and, at times, unexpected sentiment) to your day. If you’re like most folks, you could probably use it. I could. Also performing is local bellydance legend Amethyst, as well as the music of Langston Kelly Human DJ. Plus there’s good food and tea included in the price of your ticket. That’s a win all-around!

To tell the truth, Kristin doesn’t need a magic lasso to make you wonder how one woman can do it all. Even when she isn’t eating fire, she already has the fire of creativity burning inside of her. I may know how to draw, but Morgiana knows how to draw a crowd. As she says, it's all done "for your sick pleasure" and donations are appreciated. It's money well spent -- no one holds a candle to this lady. 

Come watch her pour it on!
Get your tickets and I'll see you at Arnold's Tea on Saturday, folks!

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