Story and photos by Brittany Harlow
The Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts, (PIFA), just kicked off its little over two week long celebration on April 6th with the PIFA Gala, hosted at the Kimmel Center. The event boasted a red carpet cocktail hour, formal dinner, and a night of innovative and exceptional art performances. The performances included Academy Award winning songstress and American grassroots artist, Rhiannon Giddens and band, large scale and choreographed puppeteering by the French art performance company Compagnie des Quidams’, and live dancing music by upbeat, African-inspired but Brooklyn-native, 12-piece ensemble band, Antibalas.
The evening began to an unfortunately dull start. Although the red carpet, cocktail hour and dinner seemed to be bustling to some, it felt more formal and forced more over. The tables appeared to be decorated in a variety of sweet artistic concepts, but unfortunately I was not allowed to or take any photos or even engage with any of the guests, as I was escorted through the dinner. I can’t report a very accurate analysis on this portion of the evening because the media sources were actually excluded from dinner altogether. We were tucked away in a corner classroom on the third floor and served cold hoagie sandwiches, at an event of which we were about to spend 5 hours at in formal attire. It was awkward to say the least, and many of the media sources were so offended and embarrassed that they actually left. However, my date and I were highly motivated to stay for the performances and promised dessert, so we made an okay time of it.
Being seated so high up, I was hoping to see a great view of the “Kinetic Tree” installation and show designed into the Kimmel Center itself. The performance was essentially a group of people “working” to “build” a tree in the middle of the Kimmel Center’s grand atrium. Unfortunately, having such a close up view of the installation was no benefit and the show itself was kinda strange and awkward. I don’t think the general audience cared much for it. After this portion of the night though is when things took an incredible turn for the better.
Rhiannon Giddens’ musical performance was enlightening, exciting and jaw dropping delicious. The sweet and oozingly charismatic, classically trained, grassroots inspired musician, amazed the audience with her vast musical capabilities. She sang off of her most recent album, performed covers of Bob Dylan, Patsy Cline, and Dolly Parton with additions of a quick paced southern sound, and with great expertise stomped around the stage tearing up the strings of her fiddle and banjo. I honestly cannot say enough good things about her performance, style, demeanor … everything. I think the general mindset prior to this point in the evening was communally hesitant of great expectations, especially after facing the unsolid act of the unpopular Kinetic Tree show. I know I was also hesitant once I recognized that the stage was seemingly set for an unidentifiable sort of folk band at first. But just a few songs into the performance and I along with everybody else, was soaked in American grassroots glory and fully enthralled in the wild and sweet sounds of Rhiannon Giddens.
At the closing of Rhiannon’s performance, she was met on stage by the massive glowing inflatable horse puppets of the Compagnie des Quidams. The Compagnie Quidams’ performance of Fiers a Cheval, or “Proud Horse” is something difficult to describe in its sheer magic, fantastical nature. We were not actually allowed to take photos in the theater itself, but I was afraid my words could not describe the experience enough.
FierS a Cheval is an interactive puppet performance of massive 15-foot inflatable horses. Hearing about this act just prior to the show, I imagined the most ludicrous and awkward performance to come of this concept. However I am incredibly pleased to report that the performance was actually breathtaking and borderline surreal. FierS a Cheval portrays an out-of-this-world whimsical experience, and I would strongly recommend any and every one to seek this performance out. The company performed their entire live interactive show-dance routine in the plaza following Rhiannon’s performance in the fashion of a classic circus horse show-dance routine.
Once the crowd had finished posing for photos with, and being generally, and overwhelmingly swept off their feet, the horses paraded down to Rittenhouse square for an extended performance. I can only imagine this experience to be the extraordinary vision of dreams, but unfortunately I did miss this opportunity. PIFA organizers did a poor job of explaining the expected but, indubitably massive wonder of the parade to Rittenhouse and when the parade was beginning. I only address this fault in desperate hopes that no one would ever miss such an exceptional experience again.
After the “Proud Horse” show, music and dancing commenced the crossover genre Afrobeat 12 piece ensemble band Antibalas preformed. Their presence and sound proved them to be as lively and engaging as are they are fun and creative.
Although, their front man did an admirable job of exciting the crowd, it was very poorly planned by PIFA organizers that the parade of the Compagnie des Quidams and the wonderful musical performances by the Antibalas band should overlap. It is unfortunate that guests had to choose between these two great performances, but still we can feel fortunate to have been able to see either or both at all.
Desserts and more drinks were served as the Antibalas performed and a second Kinetic Tree performance was enacted. The desserts were incredible and the party was lively. I’ve featured below a picture of the most obscure but incredible desserts the Kimmel Center had to offer. This is a sort of parfait of a mousse cream with powdered pumpkin cinnamon cake mix and pineapple chunks mixed in. They were weirdly enough to die for.
All in all with their great concept and thick line up of unusual, stunning and innovative performances the PIFA Gala was a real treat as well.