COURTESY RICHARD TERMINE / CIRQUE DU SOLEIL
Fire-knife dancing takes on a new theatricality in "O," the Cirque du Soleil show in Las Vegas.
These two scorching fire-knife dancers heat up the stage in Las Vegas, sharing their incendiary art with a wide audience
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LAS VEGAS » Fuaau "Junior" Faitau and Steve Silulu love playing with fire. That's obvious as they command the stage in Cirque du Soleil's award-winning show "O" at the Bellagio in Las Vegas.
Dressed in lavalavas, they fearlessly flirt with flames burning hot and bright at both ends of 3-foot-long knives. As muscular as linebackers yet as agile as ballerinas, they bend, twist and leap, tossing the burning knives and rapidly twirling them overhead, through their legs and behind their backs.
Surely the flames singe, but the dancers seem oblivious to the pain.
Even if you've seen Samoan fire-knife dances dozens of times, the drama factor is raised in "O" with the addition of giant silk "flames" at the back and sides of the stage, a large circular mirror that drops from the ceiling and pivots to reflect all the action. The haunting score is performed by a 10-piece orchestra that includes an erhu (Chinese violin), kora (African harp), tiple (Colombian guitar), bagpipes and African percussion.
Reminiscent of a 14th-century European opera house, the Bellagio's palatial theater seats 1,800 and was custom-built to meet the intricate requirements of each act. Faitau and Silulu are onstage just 2 1/2 minutes, but their mesmerizing antics stand out in a show that revolves around eau (pronounced "O"), the French word for water.
Other segments feature 80 world-class acrobats, aerialists, synchronized swimmers and divers from 21 countries performing in, on or above a 1.5 million-gallon pool.
"O" will celebrate its 10th anniversary in October. Faitau is an original cast member; Silulu, his good friend, has been with the show eight years.
"It's the ultimate job for a fire-knife dancer," Silulu says.
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Fuaau 'Junior' Faitau
COURTESY BRIAN BROWN / CIRQUE DU SOLEIL
"Talk about culture shock! Everything was too fast when I first came to Vegas. Everybody seemed to be in a rush. Now I'm used to it."
Fuaau "Junior" Faitau has spent a decade in Las Vegas, performing as a fire-knife dancer with Cirque du Soleil's show, "O."
"Cirque has blessed us tremendously," he said. "I don't have to live in housing and struggle. I have two daughters, Tehani, 7, and Anuhea, 5, and I can spend quality time with them."
The youngest of 11 children, Faitau was born in American Samoa. His family immigrated to Hawaii in 1978 when he was 3, and settled in low-income housing in Palolo Valley.
Faitau played football and basketball at Kaimuki High School, thinking sports would be his ticket to success. But when injuries sidelined him, he turned to entertainment. One of his cousins was dancing in Tihati's show at the Sheraton Princess Kaiulani hotel, so after he graduated from high school in 1993, he auditioned and was hired.
The fire-knife dancers immediately caught his attention. "I thought, 'That's awesome! I want to do that!' and I asked the guys to teach me. It wasn't that hard for me because my brother was in Junior ROTC, and I used to spin his rifle all the time."
For Faitau, the real adrenaline rush came when the knife was lit. "I was scared. It was a challenge for me to get past that fear of heat. I have to go into another mental state so I don't feel anything."
In 1997, he entered the annual World Fire Knife Championships at the Polynesian Cultural Center. A Cirque du Soleil scout was in attendance. "I was performing in 'The Magic of Polynesia' at the time, and he said he wanted to see the show. He watched it, and the next thing I knew he was offering me a contract."
Faitau loves performing in Vegas. "I'll keep doing the fire knife dance in 'O' for as long as I can -- with a walker if I have to!"
COURTESY BRIAN BROWN / CIRQUE DU SOLEIL
When Steve Silulu started learning the basics of fire-knife dancing from his brother and father at the age of 2, he was barely taller than the sticks he was using.
At 5, he'd sneak into his dad's shed, where the actual knives were stored. "I'd wake up really early in the morning and practice with those big, heavy knives. They'd make a lot of noise when I dropped them, and my mom would wake up and scold me, saying I shouldn't be playing with them because it was dangerous."
Silulu's brother and father were professionals who performed at Germaine's Luau and in several Waikiki shows.
"They didn't want me to be a fire-knife dancer because in Hawaii, you can't make a living at it," Silulu recalled. "But when I went to the shows and watched them, I wanted to do it. I felt it was meant to be."
Silulu first danced with flaming knives when he was 8. "It came natural to me. I was never afraid of the fire. I would put in five hours of practice a day. Some weekends, I would practice all day, from morning to night."
He got better and better, and the summer before his senior year at Waianae High School, he got an offer to perform in Japan. After graduating in 1993, Silulu took a daytime construction job, performing at Germaine's at night, then later with "The Magic of Polynesia."
When a slot opened with "O" in 2000, Silulu filled it. He and Faitau maintain a close relationship, both on and off stage. "We go to the gym and work out together," said Silulu. "We have lunch and dinner together. We hang out together, both with and without our families."
Silulu has two sons (Steven Afi, 11, and Seth Afa, 10) and two daughters (Jehanna, 13, and Autemumu, 2). His sons are learning the fire-knife dance, with the wholehearted support of Silulu and his wife, Kawai.
"If you work hard at it, you can make a living as a fire-knife dancer," Silulu said. "I'm proof of that."
is presented at Bellagio twice nightly, Wednesdays through Sundays. Tickets are $93.50 to $150, and are available up to 120 days in advance. Call (888) 488-7111 or visit www.cirquedusoleil.com