BANGOR, Maine — Ao Harker is used to people staring at her as she walks down the street in downtown Bangor. The vibrant, multicolored hair. The elegantly painted-on eye makeup. The elaborate headdresses crafted from feathers, metal, silk and bone. It’s hard not to study the artistry with which she presents herself.
Harker, 36, is the den mother and artistic leader of the Haus of Paradigm, a collective of belly dancers, costume designers, circus performers and visual artists that has been based in Bangor for the last six years.
The troupe — which includes Harker, Erin Switzer, April O’Grady, Terri MacDonald, Sara Moreshead and Jenny Sennyo, as well as several collaborators and long-distance members — perform everywhere from art openings to the Eastport Pirate Festival.
A few times a year they host their own performances, such as Paraween, a dance, music and performance art event inspired by Halloween and the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead, set for 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 26 at Nocturnem Drafthaus in Bangor. Dancers from Paradigm, as well as guest dancers from Blue Hill and Dover-Foxcroft, will perform, along with musicians A Severe Joy and Remaria Live.
“Paraween is deathly, and it’s campy, and it’s dark and sexy. It’s our chance to do a belly dance show with our own unique spin on it,” said Harker. “It’s got our own Paradigm flair to it.”
Harker grew up in New Orleans, La. Her family is of Central American descent, so it was natural that Latin dance, music and fashion were a part of her life from a very early age. By the time she was 13, she was already doing hair and makeup for those attending proms and weddings. But while updos and bridal parties were all well and good, the young Harker hungered for more — more dark, more elaborate, more strange.
“I had no one to play with most of the time, though, so I just started working on myself. I’d experiment with makeup and costumes and photograph myself, always at night, sometimes all night long,” she said. “It wasn’t until I started to meet people who had similar interests and were willing to be my victims that I started to really turn it into my art.”
Ten years ago, Harker moved to Bangor because she wanted to live in New England and see snow, she said. She set up shop as a makeup artist and hair designer for hire — and, at the time, said she was the only person north of Portland who did eyebrow threading, which she still does.
Shortly thereafter, she began learning how to belly dance with longtime Bangor instructor Lorien Wood. That’s where she met her first artistic collaborator, Zanjibal Zen, with whom she founded Paradigm in 2006 (Zen moved to Missouri last year). The two became belly dancing instructors within a few years, and quickly started to break away from the art’s customary form, using contemporary music instead of traditional Arabic music to choreograph their dances.
“Of course, with all these beautiful belly dancers around, they all needed costumes. And if they needed costumes, they needed makeup,” said Harker. “And once they looked gorgeous, they needed pictures taken of them. So I learned photography.”
Eventually, Paradigm grew to include many other dancers, all of whom have their own distinct skill and vision. For instance, dancer Sara Moreshead has learned the art of poi, or fire dancing. Erin Switzer came out of the goth and punk rock scene in Providence, R.I., and also helped cement the relationship between Paradigm and Portland-based singer-songwriter A Severe Joy, with whom Paradigm regularly performs.
Jenny Sennyo started her own troupe in addition to Paradigm, Casual Arcane, with partner Riel Green, in which they perform with hoops, juggling balls and Buugeng blades, which are essentially large S-shaped knives. Senn also grew up in New Orleans, and has known Harker since she was a teenager.
“We both ended up here, and from her I learned belly dance, which really sparked my own interest in hooping,” said Sennyo, who performs under the name Sennyo. “The group definitely encourages all the members to do their own thing and stay on your own path. There’s a lot of freedom there. Ao has this kind of dream of making it into this variety show, this kind of spectacular circus where people can showcase what they do, and she’s continually working on that.”
The look of Paradigm combines a multitude of influences, from all six members, whether it’s Switzer’s background in punk and goth or Sennyo’s love of circus and carnival arts. Harker loves the intricate, over-the-top look of classical opera and baroque design; she also loves the electrified pop of Mexican folk art, and artists such as Sylvia Ji and Tim Burton. In addition, she draws freely from the artistic culture of different civilizations, from Maori tattoos to Egyptian iconography to Japanese anime.
She found a kindred spirit in Bex Hickman, a local visual artist whose intricate pencil and marker drawings have been displayed at Studio 36 and Nocturnem Drafthaus. Since they met two years ago, Harker and Hickman have created costumes, designed makeup and collaborated on performance pieces, such as the one they did at the West Market Festival in July 2012.
“I studied art at [the University of Maine] before I went into therapy, and I found that it was really easy to translate painting and illustration onto your face and body. I started doing the same thing as Ao; making myself up and taking pictures of myself looking crazy,” said Hickman, an area substance abuse counselor, who is not a member of Paradigm but who is a regular collaborator with the group. “Into one of my art shows walked this voluptuous, fire-haired goddess that was Ao. And that was pretty much that. We collaborate all the time now.”
As Harker says, the spirit of Paradigm is about taking the beautiful and strange things she sees in her head and making them real — and encouraging others to do the same.
“It’s my job to take what I want or what someone else wants and manifest it in physical form,” she said. “If I want to be a zombie, I’ll be a zombie. If I want to wear a crazy headdress, I’ll make it. It lets me be the things I dream about.”
Day jobs and everyday concerns aside, Paradigm offers an outlet for the creative souls attracted to Harker’s bold, eccentric vision.
“We create these little worlds to live in,” said Sennyo. “It’s a good vacation from daily life.”
Paraween starts at 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 26 at Nocturnem Drafthaus in Bangor. Suggested donation is $5; the show is for ages 21 and up.