Playing an instrument nonstop for more than an hour is a difficult task, but imagine doing it 100 feet in the air at night over the Schuylkill. I certainly couldn't, despite my eight years of experience with classical flute, but I found myself facing a small drum set, complete with multiple cowbells and miniature cymbals, danging 50 feet in the air on Tuesday afternoon.
That's what the musicians of Transe Express, a French performance group dubbed "the pioneers of street art," have to do during Cristal Palace, a gravity-defying performance commissioned for the Kimmel Center's Philadelphia International Festival of Arts. Acrobats and musicians seated on a metal "chandelier," which looks like a giant metal octopus adorned with crystals, strands of lights, and uncomfortable seats, are lifted into the sky by a crane. Other musicians, including 18 from Philadelphia, will accompany the French performers from the ground.
"I truly don't understand how the musicians can do this for multiple nights on end," I said to our amused staff photographer as a crew member strapped me into one of the seats.
As I triple-checked the harness that attached me to the chandelier, the real musicians practiced under a tree, smoking cigarettes and laughing. I could not believe how relaxed they were about this ordeal. Clearly none of them were acrophobic, which I guess would be a disqualifying factor to join Transe Express in the first place.
Transe Express first performed at PIFA in 2011, wowing spectators with a daring performance over Broad Street during the annual street fair that closes out the festival (this year, the fair, promising seven blocks of art, food, and entertainment, takes place June 9). In 2012, Jay Wahl, the Kimmel Center's producing artist director, began working with the group on what would eventually become Cristal Palace. PIFA attendees can see the performance every night at 8 p.m. from Friday to June 10. Tickets cost $25 and can be purchased online. (They do not include a ride in the chandelier.)
PIFA reappears every two years, this year from Thursday to June 10 with more than 50 performances at the Kimmel Center campus and other locations. Other performances include Doggie Hamlet, a dance piece at Belmont Plateau featuring five performers, three dogs, and a flock of sheep, and a two-part, 24-hour marathon of pop-music history from 1776 to today from MacArthur "genius grant" winner Taylor Mac.
"One of the things I hope PIFA does — and this sounds silly, but it's true — is unleash the artist in everyone," Wahl said. "Like the crane operators are artists, too! I tell them that they're doing 'whole crane choreography.' "
Rémi Allaigre, Transe Express' artistic director, said it took two years to build the chandelier for Cristal Palace.
"We decided to put musicians in the air with light because it's something new for our company," he said. "We're always adding new techniques and concepts."
It was finally time for liftoff. I gripped my phone tightly, praying I wouldn't drop it from 50 feet up — the French performers decided to take us up only halfway, thankfully. I had never been scared of heights, but as the ground fell away under us, it was hard to focus on anything but the chandelier's rapidly increasing elevation. The crane gently swung the chandelier over the riverbank, and I was surprised to see the city skyline towering over the trees that frame the Schuylkill. Every time there was a breeze, the chandelier swayed back and forth, causing some riders to grip their seats in fear. Cyclists riding past us stared at the strange chandelier curiously, and more than a few stopped to ask what was going on. I calmed my nerves by focusing on the rowers in their sculls gliding by.
"Does anyone want to come down yet?" A crew member shouted up at us, but everyone was too busy enjoying the view to pay him any attention.