Providence’s FirstWorks Festival is a mix of entertainment

The Sumatran group Nan Jombang will show its mix of drumming, dance, and martial arts in Minangkabau performing arts traditions along with spirituality and contemporary movement.
The Sumatran group Nan Jombang will show its mix of drumming, dance, and martial arts in Minangkabau performing arts traditions along with spirituality and contemporary movement. – 

Come downtown on Sept. 29 and you may have a hard time deciding where to look.

Performance artists will dangle from ropes on the side of a towering office building. A rock-art band will play spinning instruments and launch a blimp with a face like a human’s and a working mouth. Sumatran dancers, rhythmically whirling artists practicing an ancient art, will mix martial arts, folk theater, and body percussion. Pots of burning wood will frame City Hall’s steps, and a chamber music group will play inside.

Mix in more national and international acts and a range of powerhouse local cultural entities such as Trinity Repertory Company and the Rhode Island Philharmonic — over 200 performers in all — and you have one packed night of mostly outdoor entertainment taking over downtown’s Kennedy Plaza from 4-11 p.m.  

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It is the FirstWorks Festival, and it is all free.

“This event is really going to showcase the best of Providence’s art and cultural scene alongside national and international artists,’’ said Lynne McCormack, director of the city’s art, culture, and tourism department. “We have Trinity Rep, the ballet, AS220, WaterFire, City Arts for youths, and other groups, all coming together to reinvent the plaza as they play a major role in that reinvention.’’

FirstWorks, a nonprofit arts group created in 2004, runs a variety of arts and cultural programs year round. It has held festivals before, usually weeks long, in various venues, and with ticket fees. This is the group’s first free outdoor festival, combining a number of acts in one place. The roughly two-acre plaza is a long, rectangular space that is the hub of the city’s bus transportation and home to a skating rink and Burnside Park, itself part of the festival. (Buses will be rerouted during the event.)

The most spectacular visual performance may be San Francisco-based Bandaloop, an aerial dance troupe that performs twisting and turning routines on ropes, playing in places such as Yosemite National Park and in urban centers. In Providence, the dancers will perform high against the side of an office building, directly over the heads of spectators, said Kathleen Pletcher, founder and artistic executive director of FirstWorks.

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“While there will be an audience in that area to watch, you’ll be able to see them from all over the plaza, they’re that high up and visible,’’ Pletcher said.

Other visual performances include Nan Jombang from Sumatra, dancers who practice the ancient Indonesia martial arts discipline of Silat, in which their bodies become expressive musical instruments, she said.

“It’s a really visceral performance,’’ Pletcher said of the group, which is increasingly in demand internationally, appearing in South Korea, the Philippines, Germany’s Theater der Welt, and four Australian festivals. “I love things that reach out and grab you, and this is an amazing art that really grabs you.’’

According to a Jakarta Post review, the group’s oral music conversations are “interrupted by kicking and slashing movements of the pencak silat martial arts, aided with hand claps, and the beating of pants fabric to punctuate changes of scene. The frequency of these changes gives the impression of a frenetic world.’’

And that could describe the overall FirstWorks Festival, Pletcher said, an event “someone called a ‘kinetic extravaganza.’ There’s an overall sense of movement to the whole thing.’’

Another popular event should be the appearance of Squonk Opera, she said, a Pittsburgh-based, six-piece, art-rock band that performs on a 13-ton, 38-foot flatbed truck outfitted as a two-story stage. This carnival on wheels is billed as “Debussy meets Godzilla,’’ with that chewing-mouth blimp floating overhead.

While the festival will feature a range of out-of-state performers, the Spanish Harlem Orchestra and Papermoon Puppet Theatre among them, not to be overlooked is the depth of local talent, McCormack and Pletcher said.

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“For example, the students in the Brown-Trinity MFA program are doing Shakespeare on a mobile stage designed by award-winning designer Eugene Lee of Trinity Rep,’’ Pletcher said. “And the Rhode Island Philharmonic will have a chamber group performing in City Hall, with WaterFire braziers burning alongside the steps, and there will be a full WaterFire installation on the rivers that night.’’

Kennedy Plaza has seen a resurgence in recent years as a performing arts space.

“It’s an opportunity to demonstrate what that space can be, a great public space,’’ McCormack said. “The Downtown Providence Parks Conservancy formed in 2006 to oversee the plaza, and there has been quite a bit of cultural activity there, at the lighter, quicker level. This festival ups the ante quite a bit.’’

Funding for the festival comes from a $200,000 National Endowment for the Arts Our Town grant, she said, which is also being used to hone long-term design plans for the plaza.

The city will be super busy that night, McCormack said, and advises anyone coming to use public transportation, including taking the train from Boston. The Providence train station is a short walk from the plaza. For more information on transportation, parking, and listing of festival events, visit first-works.org.  

The festival is also a showcase of what FirstWorks does year round, Pletcher said. The nonprofit’s upcoming calendar includes a show by artist Miwa Matreyek in October, a concert by Wynton Marsalis with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in January, and a performance by the Joffrey Ballet in March, in addition to a variety of local shows throughout the year.

“This will be a very different experience, with stages in the park, streets closed off, dancers hanging off buildings,’’ Pletcher said. “You can plot out exactly what you want to see or just be spontaneous, stroll, and look around to see as much as you can.’’

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June 22, 2017 | 7:46 AM