Harnessing the power of nature can be a difficult and dangerous task. Each of the four elements can prove unwieldy and unmanageable in extreme circumstances, and civilizations throughout history have felt the awe-inspiring force and consequences of nature’s dominance. Michael Ravenwood and SkyFire Arts are using dance, storytelling, and all-natural electricity—yes, ten-foot crackling arcs of real electricity—to unite audiences in transformational performances.
Using Tesla coils, fire, and LED dancers, Los Angeles based SkyFire Arts pairs ancient and futuristic technologies to project their heroic theme of personal and cultural stability. The danger is apparent—one million volts of electricity pulsing at 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit—and the attractive hypnosis is palpable. Just last month, SkyFire Arts and founder Michael Ravenwood performed an electrifying Tesla coil show at the Hollywood red carpet premiere of the DC Comics movie, Shazam!. In addition to creating one-of-a-kind shows on a grand scale, SkyFire Arts work includes outreach and education to spark interest in sustainable energy and ecological lifestyle practices. SkyFire Arts Academy’s program focuses on helping people become aware of and intentional about their use of energy in all its forms.
As they continue to travel the world bringing their unique performances to global audiences, Michael Ravenwood sat down with FtC to chat about his story, the origins of their Faraday protective suit, and his personal philosophies on our oneness and harmony with nature, dance meditation, and the need to shift our mindsets to live with intention.
Sasha Frate: Can you share what sparked the idea to create the fire and lightning performance? How did it all originate?
Michael Ravenwood: That’s pretty much my favorite story in my whole life. It all started about twelve years ago. I was a fire dancer for a couple years and I thought to myself one day, “God, how I love to spin fire. The roar of the flame, the light and the shadows—such a beautiful art form with a primal energy.” Fire used to be so important to us as humans. We used to see it and use it every day, and now we hardly see it even though it powers much of our society. I was just conceiving of how wonderful fire is for me and then all of a sudden it just came to me: what would it be like to spin electricity or dance with electricity? It’s another primal energy—it’s thrilling, a little bit dangerous, and a little bit edgy. Just like extreme sports, there’s nothing like something that’s a little bit dangerous. It puts you in a flow state or in a really high state of concentration and focus. “What would it be like to dance with electricity?” I thought.
Two weeks later, I’m standing in line and a man standing next to me (Jeff Parisse) starts talking to the woman over the counter about his lightning project. I think to myself, “That is too weird.” I turned to the guy and said, “I don’t mean to eavesdrop on your conversation, but I totally did; I can’t help myself.” I told him the story of my electricity inspiration and explained why it’s so important to me that he would be talking about that right now. He says, “That is really weird that you would think those thoughts and then run into me, because I build some of the largest Tesla coils in the world… In fact, I’m teslacoil.com!” He went on to explain that he had also designed a high-voltage protective “Faraday suit” in which I could effectively dance with electricity.
SF: Oh, wow!
MR: This was very different from my original idea. My big idea was to strap stun guns to the end of a stick, tape their buttons down, and get a pair of goggles and a groin cup to do something that’s probably going to hurt a lot. (At least in the experimenting phase.) I would’ve been working with two inches of electricity and here was this guy with devices that could throw fifteen-feet-long arcs of electricity.
SF: That’s amazing!
MR: It actually took years and another set of coincidences to put me back into a room with this man to actually start a project together. We happened to be in the same meeting (unbeknownst to us) and I was sharing the story of how I met him. He leans forward from the table and says, “I knew you looked familiar. You’re telling the story of how we met. I’m that guy!” It was so meant to be. When we decided to work together on the project,
I realized, “Hey, if we do this, if we create this performance installation, we’re going to attract a lot of attention. Let’s be really intentional about what we’re drawing people’s attention to.” What better thing than to take Nikola Tesla as an inspiration and say, “Alright, he was into making technologies that bettered the lot of every human on the planet. He wanted to see energy in everyone’s hands. He wanted to see what our lives could be like if all of us had opportunities afforded to us by the gift of technology.” We decided to use this opportunity to draw people’s attention to being in harmony with nature in two distinct ways: One, through the four elements and the energy they provide outside of us.
The sun is constantly radiating energy down to the planet, for example. We just have to open an aperture to receive that energy and be able utilize it. This energy of the elements includes solar energy, wind power, tidal power, and geothermal energy. It truly is the four elements: earth, air, fire, water. Being able to tap into those, we can bring our culture closer in harmony with nature where we have no need to pollute it or use sources of energy that are not renewable. Secondly, there’s the energy that comes from within us as we connect to the things that we love. You might feel exhausted one day and then somebody tells you your favorite band is playing that night. All of a sudden, you’re throwing on your clothes, you’re racing out the door, and you’re dancing all night long. Where did that energy come from? It’s like free energy that nature provides us from within when we connect to that which we are passionate about—what we really love to do. It’s this infinite energy that’s within us. If we can connect to what it is we love to do—and even take it one step further and do that for a living—then we complete what I call the “human energy circuit”. We get free energy from nature that just arises from within us and we devote ourselves to something that we love. If we can produce something of value, something that’s of service to our society, then people naturally want to pay us or contribute to us for providing that service. We can use what we love to do to feed ourselves. Our lives become an endless sort of play—doing what we love and living on that. So that’s what we want to do with the project. We want to help people to improve their performance and enhance their life-experience through educational programs, and use these entertaining shows to draw attention to that education. The implicit purpose behind the project is my belief that the cultural paradigm shift that’s necessary for us to survive this next phase in human cultural evolution is for people to recognize we are one and we are all connected. We need to start actually living like that.
You can say, “We’re all one,” but what does that mean for our everyday lives? What does that mean for our behaviors? What it really means to me, and what I’m trying to express through the project, is being intentional about your use of energy in every way, because the metaphor of our project is power; it’s energy. So, I want to invite people to recognize how powerful they are—how powerful we all are, and that we actually create our own destiny with each and every choice that we make. We’re using our power with every choice.
MR: If we take a step back and reflect on our choices every once in a while, we’ll recognize that even financial energy is a type of energy. Every time I spend money and I choose to buy, I’m feeding a certain entity. I’m feeding a corporation, I’m feeding an individual, I’m helping something flourish with my energy. It’s the same with how I treat the people that are physically around me. I’m seeking to use my energy intentionally and encourage others to do the same.
SF: That creates a really incredible metaphor. It’s something that people can visually and physically wrap their minds around by seeing the energy of throwing and projecting electricity. The energy that we’re projecting out to other people around us and in our lives, however, is not something that we can necessarily physically see or understand as easily. We all have different ways that we are putting energy out and we need to be mindful of where that energy is going. We have to have and live with intention.
MR: Thank you. Yes, and what you’ve touched upon is something particularly important to me, which is the relationship between the tangible and the intangible, because most people separate the two. On a certain level, they’re obviously separate. You wake up from dreams and the things you experienced in your dreams didn’t actually happen; they’re not going to affect your physical reality. But when you’re living your life and you have an experience, and then you reflect on that dream that you had, you approach the situation differently because of the effects of the dream. Then the intangible actually does have tangible effects.
As I sit here, I can imagine the things that make me really happy, and the people that really excite me and that I love to be around. Just by thinking about these things, I am actually dumping certain kinds of neurological chemicals into my system by directing my mind somewhere (even though my mind is an “intangible” thing). It’s my mind’s eye—my imagination—but it has physiological effects and cascades down into my immune system. If I take enough time to visualize or do breath work and some meditation, then I have physical, tangible effects in my life from this intangible space. That’s something that I’m basically using as a fulcrum for the educational program: the mind-body connection. I want to help people to determine how this mind-body connection could be used in their lives to enhance their life experience and improve their performance, because everybody wants to achieve excellence, just not at the cost of fun.
SF: So, you were born in Japan and you trained in martial arts. You became an international performing artist and a dance meditation instructor. Can you explain the role of a dance meditation instructor? And how have these different elements of your personal background influenced the creation of this show?
MR: A lot of people are familiar with sitting meditation but not as many people are familiar with lying meditation or walking meditation. In yoga, they call lying meditation position Shavasana. You just lay on the floor and there are different kinds of things you can do: you can do meditations or visualizations, or you can just completely relax and allow yourself to witness an experience without trying to direct or consciously contrive what it is you’re thinking about or doing.
Some people are also familiar with standing or walking meditations. It’s essentially like being in a very present, focused, yet relaxed state as you’re walking. There’s another way to enter into a very relaxed yet focused state, and that is by dancing and allowing a musical piece to find yoga, or “union”, with your movement. It’s about allowing the music—which is actually simultaneously touching everybody in the room—to find its own unique expression through your own movement. Each person will represent that song in a different way because they have different ways that they naturally move their bodies and express themselves when they hear things. Dance meditation is about developing a state of focused relaxation but through movement and dance. What are the universal things that every human body can do? Maybe you’ve never flapped your arms like you’re doing the chicken. Just try! Try all of the various ways that your body can move. Figure out what feels really comfortable to you as you’re expressing yourself through the movement of the dance.
I also teach how to wield instruments during dance meditation. That instrument could be a staff, a sword, or what are called poi—chains or cords with a weighted end. I use these instruments for performance, but they can be used for meditation, too. There’s nothing that can put you on point quite like doing something where you might whack yourself. So, I find that training people in flow arts, or dancing with instruments, is basically like partner-dancing but with an instrument instead of another human.
Through learning this skill, people learn about themselves, too. What do you do when you make a mistake in developing a certain move? Do you feel the desire to put down the staff and walk away? Do feel the desire to try it faster or harder because you think it will make it easier or make it better for you? Or, do you slow down and feel how it changes your sensations as you’re moving the instrument in different ways. You learn how you deal with problems, and you develop another way of dealing with issues or problems through the training of the craft. The point is that any artistic pursuit or any pursuit of expression can inherently be a path to personal realization and fulfillment, because any expression, any way of trying to express yourself or create something, is going to put you up against yourself. You’re going to not be able to do certain things right away, or maybe you’ll find that you’re naturally talented at certain things. Even then, there’s still a persistence that needs to take place to really get to the highest levels of expression. Do you just rest on your laurels and not go that extra distance?
From my background in Kung Fu, any artistic path can be a road to personal realization and fulfillment. In the Chinese language, the word Kung Fu can be used in a much more general way. Kung Fu mastery could be in any craft or any art. So Kung Fu mastery could be achieved by a cobbler or a seamstress. First and foremost, Kung Fu mastery involves being able to perform a difficult or complex task with ease and joy. It’s about being able to bring joy, enjoyment, or pleasure to the process of doing a task that would normally be a chore. Once you can do difficult tasks with ease and joy, then the rest of your life becomes a cakewalk. I personally separate difficulty from things that require effort or are complex, because difficulty is only in the mind. Things can be physically painful; things can require effort, but we create difficulty in our mind.
SF: Maybe it’s also the fear of being the first? Would you say that could factor into why we might identify something as being difficult? Maybe we fear that we’re going to be unable to complete the task?
MR: Yes and, to some degree, we all want to commiserate over things. We want to say, “Oh yeah, that was difficult!” and have someone agree. Of course, once we’ve assigned difficulty to a task & then accomplished it, it does give you a feeling of satisfaction.
SF: That’s true!
As you’re doing something complex, think to yourself, “This doesn’t have to be difficult. This could totally be graceful.” It is most likely going to require effort. If you’re going to do a complex task or achieve something really great—become a great painter, a great martial artist, or a great dancer—it’s going to require effort. It’s probably going to involve some physical pain or physical discomfort of some kind or another. Your body and mind are naturally geared and programmed to avoid pain, because pain usually leads to injury.
MR: But in some circumstances, physical exercise for example, if you really want to improve, you’re going to need to strain your muscles a little bit; not pull them, or cause injury, but push them. You can reinterpret that in your mind and use it to give you energy. That’s a valuable tool.
Martial arts training feeds the intention of my project. It influences the way I choreograph and communicate to dancers how to move during the show. Of course, I want them to call on their own training, but I give them a foundation of certain stances and transitions that we use in martial arts. There are many postures that come out of martial arts. To some degree, the artistic expression of the show is through my background. I also write pieces that we include as storytelling pieces in the show. They’re intended to take people through a certain journey in their mind. I like to phrase things with “we” instead of “you”; “What if we were in this situation? What if we thought about things like that?” It creates a different frame of reference in the mind.
I bring a lot of my training and upbringing into my performances. I grew up in Japan for only six months, left to the Philippines for four years, then went to Singapore for five years, and then moved to the United States. I’ve lived in California ever since. I got my degree in psychology while studying quantum physics and environmental science and ethics.
SF: That’s quite the combo!
MR: I was taking environmental ethics at the time with a great man named Bill Harger. (Shout out to Bill Harger!) So, he and that class really gave me a perspective to look at everything as being worthy of ethical consideration. Not just that you don’t want to hurt another person, but you don’t want to unnecessarily hurt another animal or plant. You have to also say, “I’m worthy of ethical consideration, too. So, if I need to breathe and eat, I need to be in that consideration.” That gave me a perspective of the earth as an organism. We are organs or cells of the body of the earth. In fact, we are the earth. We are what the earth has done to itself over billions of years of evolution. There’s nothing here that is not of the earth.
It’s a whole other story, but after I studied that perspective I had a spontaneous awakening experience in which I fully realized our connection with all things. And I don’t just mean an intellectual realization, I mean a direct experience of our oneness. It was then that my studies really began.
I wanted to know, “What is the nature of reality? How is it that we can share this experience of unity with one another?” It really became my life’s mission to try and communicate this experience to others. So, that’s really what motivated me to take quantum physics courses.
I’ve always been interested in things like psychic phenomena and the meaning behind the relationship between mind and matter. I took a course called “Conscious Universe” which was really pivotal for me and my understanding of how science has absolutely established this unity that exists in all of reality, and how mind—or this intangible thing we call spirit—links to all that. I also took a class called “Self, Health, and Culture” which was a really amazing look into how people’s belief systems interact with their health. It all has a profound effect on whether people actually get well under certain circumstances, and the profound influence that our minds have on our health.
SF: What type of music, or what genre, do you prefer to perform with?
MR: We have done shows to a variety of different kinds of music, but it’s primarily electronic dance music. The way that I became a performer and established in a community was through electronic music events. I went to Moontribe and ended up going to a number of different kinds of electronic dance music events, ending up at Burning Man. That is really what gave me a huge boost of inspiration and confidence in my life. I felt like I had come home, because there were so many people who, under normal circumstances, would be considered as “fringe.” These gatherings were the place where all the fringe people got together, so the fringe was the norm. I felt: “Wow, this is where I’ve belonged my entire life.” Through Burning Man, I ended up getting connected to a lot of communities and different performers and musicians.
I have to acknowledge that I am not that savvy about the types of EDM. I don’t know the difference between techy glitch bass and deep house. I know what I like when I hear it, which is relatable. We have used the music of amazing Djs like Phutureprimitive. I actually just saw him and performed with him at Lucidity Festival a little while back. I also performed with David Starfire just this last weekend at a fundraiser for two Burning Man camps. We sometimes receive music from our clients, so we’ve performed to a number of different genres, but we primarily work with electronic dance music.
Almost every culture has some sort of musical tradition that they use for their rituals, especially in certain Shamanic traditions. They use a specific drum beat to create certain states of consciousness. Electronic dance music and the beats that are used can often encourage people to experience a state of consciousness where they are in unison with everyone around them. The electronic dance music culture has a very strong emphasis on the ethos of peace, love, unity, and respect.
I actually wrote a storytelling piece using that as the theme. I’ve also worked with a classical composer named Jeremy Weinglass. I do want to ultimately incorporate more classical and what might be considered more exotic musical instruments. When I say classical, I mean the cello and the flute or wind instruments. That also includes different kinds of drums like the kettle drum. When I say exotic, I mean the sitar or the hang drum. I love to incorporate those. While we haven’t used them for the music in our Tesla shows yet, we have done performances with those kinds of acoustic instruments during fire performances. While Tesla coil performances are the most unique thing we do, we also do fire and LED shows as well. For LED, we use pixel instruments that can create any image you want. You can upload whatever picture you want to display, and then you basically spin this stick that flashes at a certain rate. The persistence of vision that takes place with the way your eye naturally functions puts the image together.
MR: Depending on the kind of show, we’ve used different kinds of musical accompaniment. For an intimate fire show, what has been really amazing is drummers; African drummers, for example. Or a single hang drum. I’ve also been lucky enough to have two sitars playing at the same time while I was doing a show. For our larger shows—our Tesla coil shows—it’s typically electronic dance music. I should also mention that the Tesla coil itself can play music. We don’t always do that, but we have used our Tesla coils to play music in the past.
MR: Yeah, solid state Tesla coils can be programmed to play music. We’re hoping to incorporate that into our upcoming gig for Electric Daisy Carnival (EDC) in Las Vegas. It’s North America’s largest electronic music festival.
SF: Yeah, that’s a big one!
MR: Yes, and I’m excited to say that we’re doing EDC Vegas for the third time this year.
SF: You guys have actually also been touted as the most electrifying performance in the music festival scene. What are some examples of other festivals that you’ve played at?
MR: We have done 5tardium in Korea, and EDC in Brazil. I have also performed nearly every year that Lucidity has been around. There’s also a festival called IgNight where I’ve performed & we had a Tesla coil at one year. It’s technically a fire & flow arts conference, but they do have great electronic dance music there every night. Everybody who takes their classes during the day goes out to the fire circle in the evening and jams out. So, I would call that a music festival for sure. I’ve also performed at Moontribe events years ago and YouTopia Festival more recently. That’s a Burning Man regional event, and we have also performed at Los Angeles’ Burning Man Decompression Party a couple of years.
SF: Burning Man isn’t really considered a music festival, per se, right?
MR: I’m not really sure. Music goes on there all the time. You could call it a music and arts festival, because it’s kind of hard to determine if music should be defined as an art form or something onto itself. I think it’s an art form, and just a sonic rather than a visual art.
SF: What would you say or what do you believe are the most mesmerizing aspects of the show?
MR: Wow! Well, I think the fact that we create a very primal, visceral experience. There’s the sound of the coil and the experience of seeing electrical arcs flying through the air. If you see an arc out in the world, it’s usually a tiny spark from a lighter or a huge lightning bolts. The latter’s uncontrollable and usually (hopefully ; ) far away. Our show allows you to witness lightning close as you dare; see electricity laid bare and controlled. You know how you hold a flame and you look at it and it’s beautiful and mesmerizing? We’re holding lightning. We’re holding electricity and it’s just right there. It peels off in all directions and is capricious and random in its movements but held there… And it’s truly mesmerizing.
Also, to some degree, people are fascinated by death. They’re fascinated by the extremes of life and our coils are like raw power—if you got too close to it, it can kill you. It’s like, “There’s death right there, and it’s just hanging out. It’s beautiful and gorgeous and it’s death.” It also makes a sound that makes part of you want to run away, but another part of you can’t move.
MR: There’s a hypnotizing quality to it. I’ve also been told that the storytelling is a really powerful component of it. People are even surprised: “Oh wow, this character on stage that’s throwing lightning and fire, dancing around, jumping in the air, and doing crazy things, is talking to me!” I’m very happy to say that we are conveying something profound and meaningful about compassion, about courage, and about what it really takes to be happy in your life. What does that look like for you? I’d like to share a piece right now that has gotten some really amazing feedback:
We dance to summon courage. Not only the courage it takes to face physical dangers, but the courage we need to say difficult things to people… in the moment of truth. When we learn to see… even the most irritating people… as merely reflections of ourselves in our own moments of confusion… we can overcome any temptation to judgment or sarcasm… and afford them the sincerity that… we might hope to receive. In this way, we can transform situations of conflict, into opportunities for growth and communion, transcending fear and inspiring love.
People have told me that, after hearing that piece, that they never forgot it. That, even years later, they still think about it sometimes & react to situations in their lives differently because of it. That just makes me feel like my life is worthwhile; like I’ve done something meaningful. I’ve also had people tell me they know exactly how they need to communicate with someone they’re fighting with after hearing my storytelling. I really feel good about my life having had people say that to me. I think it’s really the story in relation to the primal energies we’re performing with. It will just wake you up.
Some studies have shown that memory is improved when information is paired with a fearful situation. If you have someone on a suspension bridge five-hundred feet over a cliff and then you give them information, they’re more likely to remember what you’re saying than if you were, say, in a boardroom. We tend to keep our storytelling pieces short and we sprinkle them throughout the performance.
SF: That almost sounds like a type of meditation that hits into the subconscious for people when you’re combining it with that whole environment and experience. And you’re creating a ripple effect, because they walk away with inspiration to take into their lives.
MR: Yeah, I feel like a ceremony is happening. We actually do meditations before the show, too. We talk about what energy we’re going to be holding with our bodies as we move certain ways. There are neurons in our brains that activate when we witness somebody else doing a physical activity or witness somebody else in a different posture. We want to activate people’s mirror neurons in a way that they subconsciously recognize we’re moving with passion, grace, and dignity. Our ceremony is an open invitation to experience shifts in states of consciousness that are commensurate with our message. For example, in the storytelling piece I just shared, I invite people to realize that everyone makes mistakes and we should treat others with sincerity if we want to receive it in turn. This helps us move from conflict into opportunities for grace. It transcends fear and inspires love. We give people that doorway to another state of mind. I think that’s what all religious ceremonies try to do. Our ceremonies are not a religion but it’s a practice in the same way. You can be “religious” about lots of things. I’m helping people practice mindsets of compassion, humility, and courage. Ours is a ceremony in which everyone is invited to participate in different mindsets and it’s amazing to see the ripple effect as they carry their new perspectives out into the world. And, hopefully, they use their energy more intentionally to create harmony in their lives.
SF: Yes, yes; love it. Well, thank you, Michael!