Around 10 p.m. on a side street in Avondale Estates, a crowd gathers. Amber light flickers on the faces assembled in the night, and the faint aroma of smoke hangs in the air. In the center of the loose ring of people there is fire. It is leaping and diving, twirling and flipping back and forth. Seemingly wild, yet contained, controlled by the hands of several masters who are demonstrating their craft to the eager onlookers.
One of them skilfully handles poi – long lengths of chain with flames on the ends – whirling and windmiling them about, making him look like the most daring club kid ever. Another, a young woman clad in an all-black, Xena-inspired outfit, undulates slowly around the circle. Her hands are held high, clutching a pair of ironwork fans tipped with fire. At the end of her dance, she shakes her hands to extinguish the fan flames, and utters a single word of satisfaction, “Smoky!”
These fire performers are known as pyro-jugglers, and tonight is probably the one night each year that they - and their fellow Atlanta juggling enthusiasts – anticipate more than any other. It’s the last night of the annual Groundhog DayJugglers Festival, and in a short while, the Late Night Cabaret will begin.
The Late Night Cabaret is 2 parts vaudeville, and 1 part carnival - a mishmash of performers of varying talents and skill. A standing-room only audience packs into the Academy Theater to witness the spectacle. And oh, what a spectacle it is. Included in the lineup are a contact juggler (that cool David Bowie thing from Labyrinth), a diaboloist , a sword-balancing bellydancer, several juggling acts, and a few musical numbers - one featuring members of the Deluxe Vaudeville Orchestra. The show is not without its glitches, however. The low ceiling of the theater proves to be a challenge for more than one performer (less overhead distance, less time to respond to objects falling toward head), and more than a few times an audience member has to lend a hand in retrieving an errant prop. But since the crowd is peppered with some of the highest-quality hecklers I’ve ever witnessed, even the missteps are comedic and entertaining. Guiding us all through the experience is funnyman Mike Garner. Between performers, Mike delivers his blend of conversational stand-up and musical comedy, including his folk music renditions of Baby Got Back and Ice, Ice Baby which kill with the crowd.
By the end of the show, the time reads well past 1 a.m. The performers pack up their props, the audience disperses, and the magic that is the Late Night Cabaret retires, until next year.