Get out: Fire on the water

Email|Print| Text size + By Meredith Goldstein
Globe Staff / July 25, 2006

Rhode Island is worth a day trip for so many reasons during the summer. There are the mansions in Newport and the beaches around Bristol. And the Pawtucket Red Sox, whose McCoy Stadium is almost as homey as Fenway Park, play just north of Providence.

The capital city is also worth a night trip for WaterFire Providence, arguably the eeriest, most city-uniting event in New England.

WaterFire is best described as great balls of fire suspended over the three rivers that run through the heart of Providence. It's technically an art installation by local artist Barnaby Evans, who introduced the piece in 1994 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the city's First Night celebration. The fiery display runs about every other week through the summer and early fall, and it's free.

The path of nearly 100 separate fires has become a representation of the city's renaissance, a flaming centerpiece for a new mall, a pocket of gourmet restaurants, and a thriving artistic community around Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design.

The number of WaterFire spectators has risen through the years, and the amount of national and international attention the event receives has increased dramatically. This year there are new events -- dance and dance classes (there will be salsa lessons next month), live jazz music, and craft events for children.

But for the most part WaterFire hasn't really changed. Hundreds of volunteers dressed in black help Evans maintain the fire, rowing down the rivers alongside fancy gondolas rented by spectators. Spectators sip Del's Lemonade on walkways lined with street performers and vendors selling sausages.

And the central element of the night -- the fiery sculpture -- is the same. Which is precisely the point, says Evans. Providence keeps evolving, but the blazing braziers that snake through the city are unaffected.

``This is a piece that's about ritual, and you don't change ritual," Evans said. ``You change. That's what makes it interesting."

Evans has perpetuated the feel of the ritual with his soundtrack, a collection of sometimes rare international tunes pumped through speakers hidden along the WaterFire path. Everyone hears the same songs no matter where they are along the display.

``We actually make it a point that the music comes from all over the world," Evans said, noting that along the WaterFire walk, one can go from hearing a spiritual to Armenian jazz to Eddie Vedder.

What's most notable about the sculpture series, Evans says, is that despite the fact that millions have visited Providence to see WaterFire, and that each lighting draws tens of thousands, it maintains a personal feel.

``Viewers continue to note their sense of `shared intimacy,' " wrote Diana L. Johnson, former director of the RISD Museum, who was one of a number of Providence personalities invited to write an essay about WaterFire for its 100th lighting in 2001. ``What an extraordinary commentary this is on the power of the work -- that it is possible for an individual to be transported within a crowd of 35,000."

Ray Davey, former Providence poet laureate, offered up this description of the night:

``From smoke

eddies curl shadows

all along


lovers whisper.


coaxed away

the hips of this city sway

to the drums

the fires

to this moment

this purposeful light."

The next WaterFire is Saturday night. The lighting is scheduled for 8:08, and fires will burn until 1 a.m. There will also be a mask-making tent for kids in Market Square starting at 3:30, and live music from the Harry Allen Trio on the side stage on Steeple Street between North Main and Canal streets from 8:30 to 11:30. For more information, visit

Meredith Goldstein's column on going out runs every Tuesday. E-mail her at

Two more WaterFires of note:

On Aug. 12, WaterFire includes origami crane folding at College and South Main streets from 7 to 10 p.m., salsa lessons at 7, and a salsa band at 8 at the outdoor Sovereign Plaza Ballroom, which is about a block away from the fires at the intersection of Westminster and Weybosset streets.

Aug. 26 marks the 200th lighting of WaterFire. It kicks off at 7:40 p.m. with a 200-person procession starting at Waterplace Basin and moving downtown. There will also be live music and dancing later in the night at the outdoor ballroom and side stage.

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