PIFA’s Cristal Palace turns chandelier into carnival ride

Eight musicians play on the chandelier as it moves over the stage, crowd and the Schuylkill River. (Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY)

Eight musicians play on the chandelier as it moves over the stage, crowd and the Schuylkill River. (Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY)

The Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts headliner was canceled twice this week due to thunderstorms, but the show — featuring its flying chandelier and Philly trombonist Ernest Stuart — went on Wednesday night.

More than 100 people gathered along the banks of the Schuylkill River — and a few others paddled out in kayaks — to watch the world premiere of Cristal Palace, a collaboration of Transe Express, a French performance troupe, and 19 Philadelphia based performers.

The centerpiece of the show is a 30-foot chandelier resembling a carnival ride carrying eight musicians with an array of flashing lights. Suspended from a crane meant for skyscrapers, the chandelier soars above the audience and across the night sky.

“It turns, it flies, it swoops down,” said Jay Wahl, artistic director for the festival. “Sometimes the chandelier comes low enough that you make eye contact with the trombone player that’s flying above your head.”

Meanwhile, on stage and at ground level, performers mingle with the audience, dancing in a variety of styles: tango, waltz, the Charleston, and even a “soul train” into the show.

At times, acrobats dangle hundreds of feet in the air from a trapeze swing. They spin and twist on a circus hoop or silk ribbon.

An aerialist with the French company, Transe Express, dangles from a circus hoop as part of the Cristal Palace performance at the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts. (Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY)

Wahl, who has been planning the performance for several years, hopes Philadelphians have never experienced anything like it.

The French company of musicians, dancers and aerialists first charmed crowds in Philadelphia by playing bells over Broad Street at PIFA in 2011.

From that first performance in Philly, Wahl wanted to bring them back, but this time for a site-specific piece designed just for PIFA.

While scouting out locations, Wahl came across the Playing Angels sculpture, three creatures with horns about 30 feet above the ground, in Fairmount Park. He found his muse.

“It seemed to me as poetic a place that we could possibly do this,” said Wahl.

He encourages the audience to soak up the atmosphere.

“When you go, you feel the grass, you see the water,” said Wahl, “You should jump, you should dance, you should get a little silly, and you should kind of let go.”

Dancers from Transe Express and Philadelphia perform the cancan during Cristal Palace at the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts. (Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY)

The performance Angela Dorman of Chestnut Hill came to see Tuesday night was rained out. But she traveled back, all the way from a day trip to D.C., to see Wednesday’s show.

“If somebody told me, I would not have believed it,” said Dorman, dancing in the crowd. “It’s awesome, stimulating, energetic, multidimensional and multicolored.”

The show opens with Nobunta, an all-female a cappella quintet, from Zimbabwe.

Joyline Sibanda (center), one of the members of Nobuntu, dances as part of the opening act for Cristal Palace at the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts. (Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY)

Nightly performances of Cristal Palace on Kelly Drive near Fountain Green Drive are scheduled through Sunday, weather permitting.

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