Restaurant workers by day, fire jugglers at night

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December 8, 2003 // UPDATED 11:09 am - April 30, 2007
By: Robyn Repya
Robyn Repya

Argentinean duo put on light show on city's streets

Walking down West 35th Street in Southwest Minneapolis, people at the bus stop and bicyclists pedaling by witnessed a bizarre spectacle: two men in the front yard of an apartment building, back-to-back, juggling clubs of fire.

After watching for a few minutes, it was clear the duo is not an amateur act. Their skill is mesmerizing: they flawlessly toss the clubs in the air, doing tricks such as tossing the torches behind their backs and catching them without even looking -- with occasional shouts to keep their routine in sync.

The jugglers routinely grab an on-looker to participate in their act. Despite initial protest, I caved and found myself in their yard at 6:30 p.m. one October night, stooped between the two, tightly gripping a cigarette they'd placed in my mouth as they tossed the flaming clubs mere centimeters from my face.

As I crouched amidst the fiery yet calculated act, questions raced through my mind, such as: "Where did they learn to do this?" and -- since they were too skilled for me to worry about dying -- "Will my hair catch on fire?"

Here is the tale of how professional fire jugglers -- who moonlight at Downtown's Marshall Field's Marketplace -- landed in a Minneapolis front yard.

Where'd you learn to do that? Fire juggler Maximiliano (Max) Penalva, 30, started entertaining his family in Argentina with a clown act when he was a kid. "There were many people in my family, and I was entertainment for everyone," he said.

When he was 20, Penalva enrolled in a Buenos Aires circus school, complete with a cultural center.

He said the week was reserved for training, and the weekends were reserved for performing in parks, at parties and at "discotecs" (dance clubs).

It was at the cultural center that Penalva linked up with fire juggler Mario Garcia, now 27. Garcia said he was playing the contra bass in a Reggae-Ska group when Penalva's act caught his eye.

A few days later, he said he found himself training with Penalva in Venezuela, where he was introduced to Christian, who would become the third member of the performance troupe.

"We trained a couple of months for 10 hours a day," Penalva said.

After that, he said, they were pretty good, so the trio decided to form a show in 1997, named "The 200 Percent" (based on a French cartoon about a crazy wizard) and began performing regularly in Buenos Aires.

"In our city, everybody came to see us," Penalva said, flipping through a scrapbook with photos of the group before thousands of awed spectators. The group's talents exceed fire-juggling and include fire-eating, unicycle-riding, stilt-walking and contact ball-rolling (the controlled rolling of juggling balls over the body).

Penalva said "The 200 Percent" was good enough to make a living in Argentina. But after gaining acclaim at home, they decided to take their show on the road.

From Argentina to Minneapolis In 1999, Garcia finished school in Buenos Aires and traveled to Playa del Carmen, Mexico (near Cancun) to meet up with Christian and Penalva. "Like this, we found a job," Penalva said, snapping his fingers.

He said they traveled all over Mexico, performing at techno parties, raves and even in an MTV video. Penalva, who's already a tall man, looks gigantic wearing stilts in pictures from their performances. He said he and Garcia can even play soccer with them on.

Penalva said their act is most impressive when they're in full costume and incorporate the wizardry theme, taken from their namesake cartoon.

In addition to the duo's vibrant costumes, they alter their appearance in other ways for the performances. There are many pictures of Garcia, who has short black hair, with different colored hair and sometimes-blond dreadlocks, plus a few pictures of them with painted faces.

While working in Mexico three years ago, Penalva met his future wife, Minneapolis native Shayne Penalva.

Shayne said she had moved to Mexico to learn more about another country, and she got a job waitressing. Shayne said her e-mails back home to family must have sounded crazy. In one, she recalls writing, "I think I fell in love with a fire eater."

She and Max have been together ever since.

After performing around Cancun for a while, Max Penalva said Christian grew tired of it and went home, disbanding the group. The Penalvas traveled to Thailand where Max performed solo, then they moved to Shayne's native Minneapolis to make their home in southwest Minneapolis, with Shayne landing a job in social work in St. Paul.

Garcia also traveled on his own, working in Italy. Apart, Max Penalva and Garcia each scaled back their performing, but neither stopped. Garcia said while in Milan he would do small performances, including shows for psychiatric hospitals.

After being separated from Max Penalva for nearly three years, Garcia decided to come to Minneapolis to live, arriving in October, so he could reunited with his friend and they could start up their act again.

In talking to Max Penalva and Garcia, you can tell they've been friends for a long time in the way they laugh at the same things.

Watching them juggle, it's apparent they have fun performing together, as they smile while trying different tricks. Shayne said after being separated for so long, her husband and their friend have been relishing time to perform together.

Starting up in a new place Yes, Garcia and Max Penalva say, Minnesota is cold and totally different from their previous homes, but they like living here. "It's cold, but interesting," Garcia said. "I want to explore."

Max Penalva called the snow "romantic," as his wife chuckled skeptically.

Max Penalva said performing here presents new challenges. He said he's needed permission to perform at places such as the State Fair.

Shayne Penalva said street performers are subject to panhandling laws if they put out a hat to ask for money from their audience. She said he was kicked out of the Uptown Art Fair one year for doing just that.

But bureaucracy aside, Max Penalva said he has enjoyed Minnesota crowds. He said his performance last spring at the Stone Arch Festival was a great success. "The people are very hyper here," he said of the crowd. "They want more."

Max Penalva said the duo's goal is to be able to make a living performing in the United States. "I want to work at Lollapalooza and see Jane's Addiction," he said.

But until they're able to successfully launch their U.S. performing career, both men work at Marshall Field's Marketplace, 11th Street and Nicollet Mall, when they're not training.

The jugglers practiced in their front yard when the weather was still accommodating, but since it has grown colder, they lacks a practice space. They said it's been tough to find a training space that allows the allowing controlled use of fire.

For more information about fire juggling group, "The 200 percent," call them at 825-0568 or e-mail minneapolisSS @yahoo.com.