Ring of Fire

I hate it when I get electrocuted," says Jasmine Betances. One of South Florida's commonplace summer thunderstorms is passing through, but it isn't lightning the petite brunette, standing half-naked next to a cart full of Red Bull, is complaining about. She has just received a jolt from the strings of colored lights tucked underneath her sheer black unitard, and as she dances off the pain like an athlete playing through a cramp, several bartenders and waitresses glance at her curiously, wondering if they've unknowingly fallen down the rabbit hole.

The theme tonight at Hollywood's Nikki Marina, however, isn't Alice in Wonderland. It's Heaven and Hell, and in this version of Hades, the demons wear black vinyl platform boots. Meanwhile the angels wear wings -- not the quaint, flimsy Party City deals (like the ones the girls serving bottles in the VIP room flaunt), but hulking masses of white feathers so big they're dangerous to bystanders. This is Diana Lozano's theater of the absurd. It's a world of fantastical creatures, acrobats, and wild eccentrics she calls Circ X.

Lozano never went through an experimental stage. At age eight the Miami native remembers creating shows in her head, and hasn't stopped experimenting since. The 29-year-old Cuban balked at the idea of a quince. "I had a Sweet Transvestite Sixteen party," she recalls. "I had my parents dress up like Magenta and Riff Raff [from The Rocky Horror Picture Show]. They were great sports. I remember I was playing stuff like Nine Inch Nails and the police showed up, and my mom answered the door in a French maid costume. Those are the moments that stay with you." Later Lozano enrolled in New World School of the Arts for high school and college, graduating with a degree in musical theater in 1997. There she met fellow Circ X member and independent dancer/choreographer Octavio Campos. "I followed my own dream because of this man," she says of her former New World teacher. "It's such a blessing to have him in my company because he taught me everything I know."

"Diana was an alien, a UFO," Campos says, letting out the robust laugh of a trained stage performer, of his first impression of Lozano. "She was very different, very charged; she had a lot to say but didn't know how to express it."

Instead it was at ultraliberal Cal Arts -- where Lozano earned her master's degree in performance art, design, and technology in 2000 -- that she was finally able to unleash her inner alien. "I was bored [at New World]. I wanted to be in weird makeup, hiding behind trees and scaring people. I love to fuck with people. You know, have one of my friends drive to an auto repair shop and have the guy open the hood and I'd be in there and just be like, 'What?'" She laughs as if she just played the joke in her head.

Although Cal Arts taught Lozano the art of shock and awe -- she once grew out her leg hair so classmates could shave it off and use it as material for an art piece -- performing in a classroom full of oddballs like herself wasn't giving her the audience reaction she craved. "It's not as much fun if everyone's crazy," she says. "No one gets really shocked if you pull a tampon out onstage." The crowd at Kendall's now-defunct Mars Bar was easier to entertain though. While she was off from school, Lozano worked at the nightclub as a lighting tech and also judged the cage girl competitions for fun. She recalls one practically naked and pole-happy contestant. "I get my gloves on and a hairnet, and I go in right after with a bottle of Windex, and everyone just starts laughing. That's where I got my first taste of being a clown."

Lozano had a chance to take her talent to the next level when she was given the opportunity to audition for the world-renowned acrobatic performance troupe Cirque du Soleil. She sent the Canada-based company her tape, and two months later, she was one of two out of fifty who were chosen to audition. After being interviewed for an hour, Lozano didn't make the cut. "They were like, 'You're very talented, you're still very young, we love that you're very raw, but we need you to be more focused, so keep working and audition again.'" At that point, she says, she knew she had something. "I wasn't just crazy like my parents sometimes thought."

If performing for Cirque du Soleil was Lozano's loftiest goal, choreographing for and performing with Marilyn Manson was a close second. "I love Marilyn Manson," she says with a wicked smile. "He plays that twist on the hypocrisy of what he's doing. He'll say it straight to you: 'I'm totally selling out but you're totally buying into it, so fuck you.'" So when a friend referred her to what she thought was a similar show by band/performance act the Impotent Sea Snakes, Lozano jumped at the chance. Then she flew to Atlanta to join them and saw a tape of their performance, which was more peepshow than "Dope Show." "They were basically having sex onstage," she says. "Sometimes the girls were nuns, sometimes nurses, sometimes it was a father and daughter. I wanted to cry and just shoot myself." She changed her mind and flew back to Miami.

Not that Lozano has an aversion to sex. She just thinks there's a more creative way to explore it. But she says it's a challenge to get local club owners to take a chance on anything other than go-go dancers. "We know that sex sells; we don't ignore that," she explains. "But we try to do something more than just shaking our ass. We'll do some titty girl -- but even when we do the titty girl, we do it over the top so it's still fun and unique." During one of crobar's recent Wet parties, for example, Lozano held an oversize syringe at her crotch and shot a twenty-foot stream of water into the air. "I was totally making fun of it," she recalls. "I was like, öYou want sex? Let's go!'"

"They're just totally different," says Pawn Shop Lounge marketing director Michelle Leshem. She employs Circ X for Pawn Shop's Saturday-night parties, during which performers have played everything from Married with Children-inspired trailer trash to I Love Lucy jokesters, giddily unraveling toilet paper rolls in Fifties polka-dot party frocks. "Looking at some girl in hot pants -- anyone can do that. Some don't know what to think about Circ X, but whether people like it or not, they get your attention. In that way, they do more for business than 20,000 ads. That's why companies like Bacardi hire them."

Leshem is referring to the year-long tour Circ X was hired to do for Bacardi Limón last year. Performing at nightclubs such as the Limelight in New York City, the troupe captivated the attention of crowds that often numbered in the thousands. "We weren't supposed to do any showstopping stuff. Bacardi didn't want to stop the drinking," says Campos. "But during this one number Diana and I did, where we were both inside this cocoonlike bag, everybody stopped."

The Bacardi-sponsored tour gave Lozano a preview of where she wants to go. Although she enjoys interacting with nightclub crowds, Lozano's ultimate goal is for Circ X to have its own show, one independent of DJs and two-for-one drink specials. It's a dream that isn't too far-fetched. Performance troupes such as Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas, and the Pussycat Dolls, who began in LA and now have their own performance space in Sin City, are cleaning up at the box office. With few other local entities (RKM and South Beach Divas come to mind) to compete against, Lozano sees no reason why Circ X can't have similar success in Miami. "Stomp, Blue Man Group, De La Guarda," she cites, "all started in night clubs."

Back at Nikki Marina the crowd has thickened. The dance floor is no longer a stage for angel theatrics but drunken, Tone-Loc-driven booty bumping.

Circ X artist Natasha Tsakos, looking Borg-like in a helmet sprouting black tubes, wanders among and toys with unassuming men who don't know whether to be scared or aroused. Campos, who is covered in feathers, dances playfully with a group of girls as they all sing out, "I ain't no hollaback girl!" while real-life ballerina Anna Courter, in a white tutu and ballet slippers, makes the bar her barre and casually kicks her leg up next to her ear. Situated on two low platforms, Nicole Lloyd and Jasmine Betances look every bit the Vegas showgirls: disco-ball bras, glittery silver hot pants, sequined headdresses, and white feathered fans. Although Circ X's core members -- Lozano, Tsakos, Campos, and Lloyd (Courter and Betances were hired specifically for the Nikki Marina party) -- claim that working in clubs is both mentally and physically draining, they all feed off the high that comes with putting on a good show.

Lozano recalls one particularly rough night when she decided to simply get on a platform, let loose, and dance. "I had fishnets on and I took them off and put them over my head and did all these weird contortions with my face, and I just went crazy," she says. Afterward a man in a wheelchair approached her. "He says to me, 'I just want to thank you. I've been here all night and I watched your entire performance and it was amazing.'

"That totally made my night, because there's always nights where I'm like, öWhat the hell am I doing with my master's degree in theater?'" she says. "Then something like that happens and I'm like, 'Okay, I get it.'"

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Jessica Sick