It is late at night in Fishtown, and outside a former elevator factory, fire-eater Brother Alejandro DuBois hunches before a scant crowd and douses his torch. As a patrol car slows, he strikes a match, causing the officer to stop and peer from the window.
Serving as ringmaster for the circus sideshow brewing inside, he explains, "We're going to spit some fire real quick." Then he adds, "Want to see?"
The officer cruises off.
The fire-eater smirks, then, dressed simply in black and white, his dreadlocks tied back, he pours a clear liquid into his mouth. Striking a dramatic pose, like a wolf baying at the moon, he brings the torch to his lips, and blows a big ball of orange fire into the night sky.
He blows again, again to cheers. In a sort of finale, in a hissing sound, he puts both flames out on his tongue. Then he announces, smiling wildly: "Ladies and gentlemen, it's showtime!"
This mini-revival, billed as Phantasmagoria Circus Side Show, takes place first Fridays inside this cavernous warehouse on Frankford Avenue, near Girard.
The Philadelphia troupe of circus arts, aerial performances, and burlesque is one of a handful in the city, and part of a growing underground circus world.
The group formed about five years ago in the magic of Coney Island. It was there that Alejandro DuBois, now 27, met Joe Lunchbox, a daredevil who lies on a bed of barbed wire and swings a bowling ball from his ear gauges, and Mariana Mystique, a young trapezist nicknamed the "aerial assassin."
Alejandro DuBois, a native of Brooklyn, N.Y., whose real name is Alexander Vargas, would go to the boardwalk to watch his cousin Serpentina charm snakes. "She recently forked her tongue," he said of her reptilian splice. Drawn to the creativity and freedom, and the shock and love from the crowd, he started doing fire performances.
The trio joined up in Philadelphia, where they met fire-eater/hula performer/stilt walker/burlesque dancer MacKenzie Moltov. This spring, their sideshow secured a monthly venue at the shuttered elevator factory, now a warehouse of new and dried tomes called Bookspace, which in recent years has evolved into an arts and cultural center.
"2011 is the year for circus performances," said MacKenzie Moltov, sitting in the warehouse one afternoon with a few core members, resembling a glamorous rag doll with her fiery ringlets.
"Circus has come back with a bang."
There are a handful of organized troupes, such as the Give and Take Jugglers and Olde City Sideshow, creating what some call an official movement.
The Philadelphia School of Circus Arts (where Phantasmagoria's aerial assassin honed her craft), opened in 2008 with 75 students. Last year, 1,600 students were enrolled, said Kory Aversa, the school's marketing manager. It is one of few such schools in the country.
Adventurers range from babies on colored mats to retirees on aerial silks, from 9-to-5ers looking for a creative workout to aspiring performers.
Aversa sees such confluence in the city as "especially unique. Not only can you see performances. A person can take classes and become their own circus artist."
Those involved credit the bubbling of circus arts to social media, the popularity of Cirque du Soleil (with whom one of the school's founders is touring), and Pink's 2010 Grammy performance on aerial silks.
"We were inundated with phone calls after that," Aversa says.
Phantasmagoria, which can feature up to eight acts, finds inspiration in circus themes from centuries past, sometimes with a dark twist.
During its recent warehouse debut, a mustachioed Johnny Sticks turned his face into a pin cushion. Tommy Tune snapped a mousetrap on his tongue. Alejandro DuBois and Joe Lunchbox performed a skit involving circumcision and a sausage. Mariana Mystique, 19, a college sophomore who grew up Mariana Plick in Montgomery County, twirled fluidly in all black on a static trapeze.
"We just want to bring that love and inspire people the way we were inspired," said MacKenzie Moltov, who in her other life is closing in on a psychology degree at Montgomery County Community College. "It's about doing impossible things, and doing them beautifully."
For his part, Alejandro DuBois spits fire, eats fire, and makes it travel up his arm, all with charming confidence. He also does a straitjacket escape, and is working to add to his repertoire knife throwing, and dancing on broken glass while playing the accordion.
"All the classic acts," he said. "It's always interested me how far the human body could go, as far as we're willing to push ourselves." To pay the bills, he works as a security guard.
The Phantasmagoria troupe dreams of having its own full-time, traveling show.
"We all need a way to express ourselves," MacKenzie Moltov said. "And circus is mine. I don't know what I would be without it. I'd rather worry about getting my bills paid than worry about how I'm going to be happy."
On a mild Friday night, the warehouse transforms into a big tent. Admission is $7 - $5 for those in costume. A crowd of people mostly in their 20s mills about under the bright silks draped from the rafters, and the thump of redub music is spun by a DJ stationed on the second floor. Cheap BYOB wine flows into Styrofoam cups as a guy in a dragon-embroidered shirt crunk dances near the makeshift stage, circled by votive candles.
Joe Lunchbox, with his Mohawk-mullet hairstyle and belly bulging over his pants with red suspenders, picks up the elfish Tommy Tune and dances him around. The DJ plays an old-school classic, "Freaks Come Out at Night." The crowd has swelled to more than 100. The show is about to begin. The room soon falls silent.
Alejandro DuBois moves a wooden chest to the stage. A music-box tune plays. He dons a colorful mask with a long nose, reminiscent of those worn by doctors during the Black Plague, and juggles a crystal ball. He stares at it, dances with it, kisses it, and sets it down. He then taps his gold-handled cane on the box.
Out comes MacKenzie Moltov, a red-nosed clown in black lace and tan leather. She twirls and spins inside her fiery hula hoop, inside her own universe. Small flames dance around her skin as Alejandro DuBois stomps in time. The crowd hoots. Twirling and dancing, MacKenzie Moltov lowers the ring, and from atop the box Alejandro DuBois jumps through the fiery hoop and pops up.
"Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all races and shapes," he shouts, prancing with his cane. "Step right up, step right up. The show is about to begin. Don't go standing back there thinking what coulda, shoulda been if you would have just stepped forward and enjoyed the show."
Phantasmagoria Circus Side Show performs the first Friday of the month. For information: www.phillybookspace .blogspot.com/
David Swanson's video of Phantasmagoria's daring acts is at www.philly.com/circus