Signature Event Provides Spark to R.I. City`s Renaissance
By Karen Rubin
For all the years I had heard about WaterFire, Providence, Rhode Island`s signature event, I couldn`t get my head around the image: was it liquid that burst into flame on the Bay? And what was this about canals, a Venetian-style gondola, and a city that moved a river?
2005 marks the 10th year of these presentations that have so captivated imaginations and helped spark a renaissance in this historic city, that is quite literally rising as a phoenix. The WaterFire lightings draw as many as 70,000 on a night-who become part of this constantly changing tableau, an ebb and flow of people like the tides.
WaterFire takes full advantage of Providence`s setting. A city of three rivers that have been tamed and “civilized” to its purpose from colonial times, Providence is graced by canals, arched bridges and riverwalks, brick and stone buildings like canyon walls on either side, and rising into hills.
This urban landscape is brought back to its most basic, primal elements: water and fire, brought together in a kind of a dance.
WaterFire has been referred to as a “fire sculpture installation” and sometimes as “presentation art” which suggested to me something static and fixed. But from the first moment, I find myself in a totally captivating, mesmerizing, powerfully personal experience, transfixed on a scene that is constantly changing, a drama as ephemeral as the flickering flames.
On a night in mid-August, we watch from Memorial Bridge how the evening unfolds, with the changing colors and lights as dusk settled on the city, shadows begin to fall on the canals below. There is this quiet, slow flow to the movements of the people who begin to gather, transported in place and time as they gaze down at the Venetian-style gondola that has emerged from under an arch, propelled by the classically tall, thin gondolier, as it glides under the next arch and out of view.
I turn back to the head of the river, to see the first boat: a woman dressed all in black, like the boatman, standing with a ritual drum. Four more of these small, nimble black boats-they were used as water taxis in Thailand-follow. Each is named for the world`s sacred rivers: the Nile in Africa, the Amazon in Brazil, the Ganges in India, the Euphrates in the Middle East and the Yangtze in China. I become conscious of music playing-New Age, I think-but over the course of the night, the music would represent the cultures of the places where these great rivers flow.
Then the procession of the fire tender boats, loaded with wood, carrying the fire tenders, all in black also, standing straight and stiff for this part of what is clearly a ceremony. And then, I realize: the visual beauty of fire upon water is only the surface of a much deeper experience.
The boats, running so silently and smoothly, and when the darkness is complete, almost invisibly, create an air of mystery. They are named in honor of gods and heroes from classic Greek mythology, Athena, Prometheus, Daedalus, Icarus, Aphrodite, Eos, and Phoebus. They glide along the Woonasquatucket and Moshassuck Rivers, ferrying the black-clad fire tenders who bring flame to each of the braziers. The names are purposefully chosen, weaving in the philosophical underpinnings that make this so much more than a merely magnificent spectacle.
As WaterFire`s creator, Barnaby Evans, conceived it, the flame is like the sacred fire that comes from Athena`s pure light of wisdom and the lightning she hurls from the cloud tops; it suggests her wisdom and understanding. She presides over music, sculpture and architecture-all of which are woven into this “fire sculpture” event. Water and fire are key to Athena`s accomplishments which include the crafts of metal-smithing, ceramics and casting; she is even credited with the art of shipbuilding, all of which are incorporated. It was Prometheus who first brought fire to mankind, freeing mankind from the darkness of the night, and not coincidentally, kindling the spark of imagination and freedom.
With a quiet fanfare, the boats glide to each of the 68 braziers (like big open metal mesh flower pots filled with wood), lighting them aflame; throughout the night, they will silently emerge from the shadow to add more wood, sending crackling sparks and the scent of cedar and pine through the air.
Soon, a mysterious man-shaved head with a long braid and bare chest–comes through on his own small boat: this is Spogga, the fire spinner. An artist and musician, he performs at the confluence of the Moshassuck and Woonasquatucket Rivers; at the Waterplace Park basin, and on the wall of braziers near Memorial Park. During the course of the night, I see him “spinning fire” about three times.
Even as you watch, mesmerized, you realize there is an added benefit to walking to other locations, seeing a different view, and coming serendipitously on other “happenings.” You might come upon the Andean performer Inca Son who plays traditional and contemporary music from his native Peru, as well as popular songs, at Union Station Plaza; The Gargoyles, living statues based on the Greek Caryatid pillars who perform from the World War I monument in Memorial Park; Andrew Anselmo “The Origami Guy,” who crafts frogs, cranes, penguins and other characters to take home as souvenirs from a perch at the corner of Market Square next to the RISD Auditorium; and The Rhode Island Mermaid, an aquatically themed street performer who brings her seaweed hair and fish tail to the plaza in front of the Citizens Bank building.
You become aware again of the music, and the aromas, and then see the food vendors that all add to the festive atmosphere. Now you notice that there are enormous crowds on the riverwalks, the bridges, milling about. The affair has become like a festive block party, or on this night, because of the theme the sponsor has chosen, a Venetian Carnival, with masks for sale (the $3 purchase goes to charity).
The sponsors become part of the event more than by subsidizing with money. They provide extra “layers” to the event.
For the past two seasons, Sovereign Bank has sponsored the Sovereign Plaza Ballroom, providing five nights of outdoor ballroom dancing during the WaterFire season. A polished black dance floor, 61-feet wide, hovers just above the cobblestones at the intersection of Westminster and Weybosset Streets, in the heart of the financial district. From 8 p.m. to midnight, on the designated evenings, there is open dancing to music of a live band and free dance lessons, and during breaks, a professional dance team gives demonstrations.
Verizon has sponsored six nights of jazz at the Verizon Jazz Station, creating the atmosphere of a smokey Chicago-style jazz club outdoors, at Steeple Street, between North Main Street and Canal Street, from 8 p.m. to 11:30 p.m.
Individual WaterFire events are sponsored, as well, as the one this night, by Amica Mutual Insurance Company. But even though WaterFire is sponsored, it is remarkably uncommercial-there is no advertising; you would have had to search to see the sponsor, but the VIPs for the evening-the special guests of the sponsor- were treated to river rides.
I get the chance to get on one of the boats-this one was made in Thailand, where it was used as a water taxi, piloted by the man who had lead the procession with the drum lady. This provides a spectacular perspective from the water line of the water from which to experience the entire montage of fire, the river, the people, extending over two-thirds of a mile as a slowly moving scene. I realize I have become part of the experience for the people that I pass.
There were many who had already reserved a place on the gondola, and all night long, this magnificent boat flows in and out of the scene. There were a variety of other vessels–one that looks like an old-fashioned Chris Craft motorboat, another that was like a pontoon, still another that was handicap accessible (you need to reserve in advance).
Without being able to articulate it, the spirituality of what is unfolding takes hold, as all the elements weave together. Classical Greek philosophers divided the world into four elements-earth, air, fire and water. The Chinese tradition has five-earth, air, fire and water, plus wood. In the Indian Buddhist tradition, the world consists of five elements-earth, air, fire and water plus space and each of these is associated with one of our five senses-fire is associated with sight, water with taste, earth with smell, and air with touch, and the empty space with sound and hearing.
The true genius of WaterFire is how it incorporates all of these so that you are intuitively, but not necessarily consciously, aware. And that is the art.
The creator, Barnaby Evans, is a Brown University graduate and a multimedia artist who is interested in the revitalization of public space and the creation of new civic rituals. WaterFire has its roots in his 1994 creation of First Fire as a First Night event (New Year`s Eve) to celebrate the 10th anniversary of First Night Providence. First Fire was produced as an experiment. It went over so well that Evans created Second Fire in 1996 for the International Sculpture Conference and the Convergence Festival, where it became the gathering place for thousands of participants from all over the world. Fans convinced Evans to make WaterFire an ongoing art installation. He conceived it as presentation “art,” but it has evolved into something that is truly an art spectacle, attracting more than one million visitors during the season, for which he has won many awards and recognitions.
National Geographic Traveler Magazine rated WaterFire as one of the top 20 “Must See Events” in the U.S. Understandably, this has made Providence a national and international destination for visitors.
Typically, tens of thousands of people come out during the course of the event (40,000 on a mid-summer`s night), which is offered about twice a month between May and October (every weekend in August), but also on sponsored evenings, like when Brown University or the Rhode Island School of Design hold an alumni weekend.
About half of the people who come to see WaterFire are spectators who have come for the purpose to experience this art spectacle. Last year, an estimated 1.2 million visitors (57 percent from out-of-state), generating $33.2 million in direct spending for the city (just the state`s share of tax revenue alone, $2.3 million, meant an 800 percent return on Rhode Island`s $300,000 contribution).
WaterFire events are scheduled from May through October.
WaterFire is weather dependent-occasional showers or passing thunderstorms will usually not cancel the event; however, it is usually cancelled in the event of heavy sustained rain; weather updates and event status reports are available from 401-272-3111; further information is available at www.waterfire.org .
Providence is a superb hub to take in the attractions that are close by: it is one hour by commuter rail into Boston; 45 minutes by high-speed ferry to Newport (20 minutes by bus); about 45 minutes from Mystic, Connecticut. It is also near beaches (Rhode Island is, after all, the Ocean State, with 400 miles of coastline).
For information, contact Providence Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau, One West Exchange St., Providence RI 02903, 401-274-1636, www.GoProvidence.com .
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