IDYLLWILD, CA - Last month, I headed out to the mountains near Palm Desert to attend a flow arts festival, an event surrounding the world of movement practices, from dancing to juggling to hula hooping. What I witnessed astounded me. But more on that later...
Taking place in a picture-esque setting with snow-capped mountains, towering trees and green meadows, MOPS Festival Presents Manipulation 2016 was a gorgeous retreat that brought hundreds of skilled flow artists from all over the world to Southern California. Workshops were held in the day to learn arts from international-famed teachers, while nights were filled with talent shows, a Gala, fire spinning, and "glow hour", where light up toys and tools emerged.
At first read, the name is a mouthful! But "MOPS" stands for "Master Ong's Prop Shop", with Master Ong being the host, and the props being anything and everything - hoops, hats, clubs, ropedarts, poi, nunchucks, dragon staffs, fans - as long as you can manipulate it. Master Ong is a character played by the event organizer, Marvin Ong, that represents the Grand Master within each one of us.
Though most came to perfect their craft, the workshops were not limited to conventional flow arts. You could learn sleight of hand magic from the professionals, or learn how to slackline (tightrope-walking, for those who are unaware). Renegade workshops were impromptu, off-the-schedule events that attendees hosted, like a class that taught "How to pose for photographers" while you are performing. At MOPS, I realized how endless the possibilites really are.
The event was held at Buckhorn Camp from April 14-17, 2016. It was the 5th MOPS Festival, held semi-annually.
To accomodate all types of crowds, MOPS provided lodging and meal plans for convenience. As I was coming from just a couple hours away, I camped outside, but still had access to kitchens and flush bathrooms which really made camping a breeze.
Before attending MOPS Festival, I expected to experience everything that was written: useful workshops, camping in nature, and some fun night activities. What I didn't expect was the cement that molds the event together: the community.
The festival runs entirely on volunteers to make it happen. Yes, the teachers, the performers, the staff, and everyone else working are all volunteers that put in their time to make this event happen. This keeps the ticket and lodging prices low and affordable for everyone.
In addition to putting in volunteer hours, there is an overall sense of camaraderie at MOPS. As fiercely dedicated as each individual is to their craft, almost all were willing to stop what they were doing at the drop of a hat (no pun intended) to help another person learn a move. It seemed as if the general idea was that we are all only as strong as the weakest member; we are all in this together. True flow artists want each other to improve just as much as they want to gain skill themselves. Besides, it's just as exciting to see someone else's eyes light up as they pull off a move you showed them, if not more, than your own.
Furthermore, everyone seems to know each other by name, although there were a few hundred attendees. How many festivals can claim that? No matter how far you came from or how new you were to the scene (like myself), MOPS had the welcoming quality of a summer camp, where you could come alone and leave with dozens of friends.
Yet this amiable setting was not just a way to increase your network of friends around the world, but to strengthen your craft with like-minded people. The real benefit from this strong community was the back- and-forth encouragement and motivation given by each flow artist.
When you're in a gym surrounded by hundreds of troupers and tricksters, all entranced by a tumbling club, a flying ball, or a spinning hula hoop, or whatever their eyes are set on, you feel the tangible power to push yourself harder to the next level of flow. Replacing mediocracy with passion, you force yourself to go beyond what you know, sparking creativity as you attempt new ways to twirl that fan or manipulate that poi. In the simplest terms, it was the definition of inspiration.
As floaty and sentimental as the inspirational talk can be, let's be real for a second. For many aspiring flow artists getting into the community, arriving to a festival that brings renowned artists from all over the world can be somewhat intimidating.
However, once you arrive at MOPS you will be thrust into a whole new world. You will see that that everyone has something to offer to the community, regardless of how long you have been practicing your craft or how "skilled" you may be.
I believe the focus at MOPS is less on skill level and more on how unique one's style is. It's similar to sports, where basketball players are known for wild three-point shots, or skaters who nailed a game-changing trick, rather than their overall score or stats. In other words, what special quality can you bring to the table?
Going off that point, this section is titled "A Whole New World" because it felt like just that - a flow arts world that I got to catch a glimpse into. There were teachers and attendees known for their impossible moves or unmatched style that made their mark on the community. All of Buckhorn Camp was buzzing about which teachers were there, making them very respected individuals. Although I watch my share of flow videos online, I had not witnessed first-hand the enormous impact that these masters had had on the arts and the people that practice them.
Although more and more people are entering the world of flow arts from the dance music festival community, full of light up LED props, the flow arts festivals seem to demonstrate a more zealous attitude towards the craft. You progress faster when you wake up and spin, watch others spin, and dream about spinning, all completely sober - rather than treating it like a light up party toy. Glow Hour at MOPS was fun, for sure, but the point is that immersing yourself in the arts more than the party turns you from a novice to a master.
Besides feeling deeply engaged while at MOPS, the world extends beyond the weekend as you realize you can find similar meetups year-round. From full- scale festivals to makeshift flow gatherings, from LED nights to fire functions, the world of flow is limitless. There is no ceiling; one can always do more, or even invent your own flow art, with whatever props you find.
As you fall in love with your flow and your newfound kinship, you tend to forget about the rest of the world outside flow arts... but that's not a problem. It's a blessing!
The crowd that attends MOPS is surely a quirky one, in the best way possible. They are also heartfelt, passionate, and open-minded.
Some of the most memorable moments of my weekend included:
- Taking Cyrille's Dance 1.0 class, which I thought would encompass learning dance moves. No, the sly Frenchman had something else in store for us (only at MOPS!). We ended up running up the mountain, traversing rocks, and parkour-ing with a group of 30 of us. The purpose? "Move with each other," Cyrille told us. The point was to interact and move stealthily as a group, like in dance, rather than only thinking individually.
- Learning new trades, like juggling or slacklining. Slacklining fits at the top of the category of "Things that are way harder than they look". Not only was it cool to do something I've never had the opportunity to learn, but it was a random passerby who showed me the way, not through a class or teacher. Maybe next time I'll be able to take a couple more steps... And as for the juggling? I stuck to ball juggling, and was the worst in my class! Yet, I left knowing more skills than I did before. Success.
- Witnessing the ingenuity at the talent shows. Friday night was an Open Stage event, where anyone could show off a special routine or act they had been working on, while Saturday night was the Gala, a more formal collection of performances. Both shows were not competitions, but rather, mirrored theatrical plays, dramas or comedies. They are called flow arts for a reason, rather than sport, because delivery, stage presence, and interaction with the crowd are just as much a part of the practice as skill. Let's just say, I felt humbled to be in the same room as all of these visionary individuals.
Photo by Robert Stone Nadel
- Listening to John Halycon talk. In addition to flow arts madness, there were speakers at the event, a memorable one being John Halcyon Styn, an 18-year Burning Man veteran who founded HugNation and outreach programs in San Diego, among other ventures. John's talk on giving, gifting, finding purpose, and facing our deepest emotions truly resonated with the MOPS community. His powerful words gave meaning to our fun-filled weekend, drawing the focus in this tight-knit circle towards how we can extend this positivity to the world around us. I was impressed by his ability to connect his stories and wisdom with the experiences of the crowd, and thankful that festival organizers had spiced up the program with an interesting speaker as the sun set Friday evening.
- Admiring the beauty and complexity of fire. The fire spinners every night pushed the boundaries by melding fire with performance; incorporating the elements of the earth into art. The intriguing quality of the fire performers was not so much the dangerous nature of the fire but the way they play with it: the added touches of the performance, like a fan twirler sitting down into a circle of fire, or a hooper swallowing the flame whole. With the fire, the performer brings the art to life - literally, as that hot flame is very much a living being if you've ever seen a fiery whip flying at your skull.
These are only a few memorable moments, from my personal experiences. If you were at MOPS, share your own stories in the comments!
Whether you're an experienced professional or a hopeful beginner, here are some pieces of advice that we took from MOPS Festival.
Sound effects help a lot! Making weird noises while you flow apparently helps. I believe there was an entire renegade workshop on this...
Have fun with your craft. It may sound cliche, but you make mistakes when you're not having fun, and tense up.
Have fun when you mess up! The crowd won't notice if you're confident.
Interact with each other, whether in partner flow or with the crowd. A back-and-forth playful atmosphere thrives better than an individual one.
There is a master within all of us.
Sincerely written by...