By Michelle R. Smith
Associated Press Writer
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — A shirtless man spinning flaming chains stands on a long, narrow platform in the middle of the Providence River.
He reaches up to ignite a stack of wood in a brazier above his head, and as the flames catch, he walks along the platform. Then he swings himself deftly around a concrete pillar, somehow avoiding a plunge into the water below, and repeats the process until a line of braziers sends sparks into the air.
So begins WaterFire, the free public arts event held several times a month between May and October, drawing 40,000 to 60,000 people each time. Its marriage of fire, water, music and performance has become one of the most popular arts events in New England since the first fire was lit more than 10 years ago.
The fires are built in braziers, metal pans that hold the burning logs, and set up along three rivers in downtown Providence for two-thirds of a mile. The event starts at sunset with the lighting of the fires and runs until after midnight, giving this New England city a Venice-style feel.
As the fires burn, music plays from speakers mounted on walls along the river, giving the sense that, like the fire, it emanates from the water. The eclectic selection of songs sometimes sounds dreamlike, other times tribal. A song by Malian guitarist and singer Ali Farka Toure segues into Bach. Traditional Cuban and Norwegian folk songs mix with Leonard Cohen.
Maria Barnes, 70, and Ralph Sopkin, 80, of Palm Beach, Fla., happened upon WaterFire while they were in town to visit friends. They heard the music and were drawn to the river, Barnes said.
“We’re very much taken by the whole thing,” she said.
Volunteer fire stokers dressed in black feed the flames all night from boats bearing names like “Prometheus” — the mythological Greek god who gave fire to humans.
Josh Greenberg and Kim Walter, both 32, of Providence, sat watching the fires on a granite stoop next to the river.
“It’s an amazingly peaceful thing,” Greenberg said.
It was Walter’s first time at WaterFire, and both she and Greenberg were struck that in the middle of tens of thousands of people, an air of calm prevailed. The frenzied pace of commerce is also missing, they said.
“There’s a corporate sponsor, but it’s not in your face,” Greenberg said.
You will not see street vendors hawking their wares at WaterFire, and the handful of food and drink vendors are a bit different than what you might find at a typical summer festival. Many of the food stands feature regional specialties such as grilled pizza, littleneck clams on the half shell or Rhode Island-style clam chowder, which is made with a clear broth rather than cream like New England clam chowder.
WaterFire is family friendly, and there’s plenty to do for children, but that doesn’t mean the adults can’t enjoy a glass of wine or beer while strolling the cobblestone pathways along the river. The low-key nature of WaterFire means it never seems like there’s a danger of the crowd getting too rowdy.
The prices are also a bit lower than you’ll find at other summer events. A can of soda from one of the food vendors costs a reasonable $1. With free admission, it adds up to a relatively inexpensive night on the town.
“This is the cheapest way of getting all kinds of people together,” said Khalil Zadeh, 53, a microbiologist from Shelton, Conn., who came with his family and friends.
If you’re willing to spend a bit more, it’s possible to book a seat on a boat, or even a gondola, to glide past the fires at closer distance. Thirty-minute boat rides cost $10, while gondolas cost more.
WaterFire is often credited with being a part of a renaissance in Providence, a once down-and-out city that’s seen a resurgence in recent years. The rivers, once covered up by roadways, were opened up several years ago, and WaterFire has become a sign of the city’s full reclaiming of the waterways.
WaterFire was started as a single night in 1994 by artist Barnaby Evans, who says the event is a way to slow down and enjoy the details of life. It soon expanded to several times a year, mostly in summer. It was scheduled 17 times in the 2006 season, although some have been rained out.
Dotted along the banks of the rivers are performers and artists. One man silently folds origami and hands paper cranes out to children. People dressed as gargoyles and oracles stand watch over the proceedings. A sad, green mermaid looks out of sorts.
Watching the depressed mermaid are Faith and Steve Powers, and their son, Sean, 13, of Union, Conn. They have been to WaterFire three times and said they loved the music and the laid-back feeling of the crowd.
“It’s really relaxed. They’re enjoying themselves. We’re not spending a lot of money,” Steve Powers said.
Bands also perform live in stages set up near the rivers. The evening often features an outdoor jazz stage, and performances are also held in the auditorium of the Rhode Island School of Design, which sits in the middle of the WaterFire route. Some WaterFire nights feature dancing, and dance lessons if you want to brush up on your Tango or Swing dancing.
Lisa and Ohad Ziv walked to WaterFire from their home in a nearby neighborhood in Providence with their 4-month-old baby Taye. The couple, who is originally from New York, often come to WaterFire, and say it has a “big city feel with that small town flavor.”
“In New York City,” Lisa Ziv said, “You’d get lost in something like this.”
If you go...
• WaterFire: Providence, R.I.; http://www.waterfire.org. Held several times a month, May-October. Remaining scheduled events this year are: Aug. 12 and 26; Sept. 2, 9, 16, 23, 26; and Oct. 7 and 21. The event is free, although some splurge on a gondola ride, which costs $79 for two people and can be booked ahead at http://www.gondolari.com. Boat rides, which cost $10 per person, can also be booked ahead through the Providence River Boat Company, 401-580-2628.
• Getting there: Take I-95 to downtown Providence, exit 22A, Memorial Boulevard. WaterFire runs on the rivers to the left of Memorial Boulevard. Parking can be tricky on the street, but there are plenty of garages, including a large one at the Providence Place Mall. Providence is 40 miles south of Boston and 150 miles east of New York City.
• PROVIDENCE: http://www.pwcvb.com/ or 800-233-1636. A city of about 175,000, Providence is known throughout the region for fine restaurants, quaint neighborhoods and robust arts scene.
• RHODE ISLAND SCHOOL OF DESIGN MUSEUM: 224 Benefit St., Providence; http://www.risd.edu/museum.cfm or 401-454-6500. Open year-round. Tours available. Collection of nearly 80,000 works includes Greek sculpture, French paintings, Colonial decorative arts and modern works.
• FIRST BAPTIST CHURCH IN AMERICA: 75 North Main St., Providence; http://www.fbcia.org or 401-454-3418. The church was founded in 1638 by Roger Williams, also the founder of Rhode Island and the building dates to 1774-1775. Open for guided tours June through Columbus Day, Monday-Saturday. Open for self-guided tours October through May, Monday-Friday. Services are held every Sunday.
• PROVIDENCE ATHENAEUM: 251 Benefit St., Providence. http://www.providenceathenaeum.org or 401-421-6970. Founded in 1753, this private library is one of the oldest in the nation, and has an extensive collection, including first editions from authors including Walt Whitman and Herman Melville. Visitors are welcome. Summer hours, Monday-Thursday, 9 a.m.-7 p.m.; Fridays, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; Saturdays, 9 a.m.-1 p.m.; closed Sundays.