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Taylor Mac performs as part of the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts.
Photograph: Courtesy of the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts

Here’s what you need to see at PIFA 2018

Get the most out of your PIFA 2018 experience with our guide to the essential theater shows, musicals and trippy exhibitions

By Cameron Kelsall

Every other year, the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts (PIFA) brings some of the world’s most dynamic artists, dance and theater companies, installations and interactive exhibits to the City of Brotherly Love.

What is the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts?

Produced by the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, PIFA transforms this city into a living tribute to the power of creativity coming from some of the most acclaimed avant-garde performers on the planet—folks like gender-bending performance artist Taylor Mac and whimsical French dance troupe Transe Express. As such, the 11-day schedule of shows run the gamut from trippy to serene, featuring everything from a 24-hour musical about the history of popular music in America and a production of Hamlet performed with sheep to an aerial dance party that takes place on a “human chandelier” hanging over Broad Street. The whole thing closes out with the massive and quirky PIFA Street Fair on the Avenue of the Arts, one of the season’s most-anticipated festivals in Philadelphia.

When is PIFA 2018?

The festival runs May 31 to June 10 at various times throughout each day.

Where is the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts?

Shows take place all over the city, including the Kimmel Center, Belmont Plateau and the Merriam Theater. If that seems overwhelming, check out our curated guide to PIFA 2018 below to discover the coolest-sounding experimental shows that we think are absolutely worth seeing.

The best shows to see at PIFA 2018

Transe Express perform Cristal Palace on the banks of the Schuylkill River during PIFA.
Photograph: Courtesy Transe Express

1. Cristal Palace

Dance Modern

Described as an “aerial dance party,” Cristal Palace marks the return of French street artists Transe Express, who caused a sensation during PIFA in 2011, when they suspended themselves high above Broad Street in a so-called “human chandelier.” This year, they’ll take their act to the banks of the Schuylkill River, where they’ll combine their signature gravity-defying stunts with an immersive, bacchanalian environment. Spectators are encouraged to dance, drink and make merriment as the performers do their thing. Zimbabwean a cappella group Nobuntu will be on hand at each show, performing live as an opening act.

Taylor Mac performs at the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts (PIFA) 2018.
Photograph: Sarah Walker

2. Taylor Mac: A 24-Decade History of Popular Music

Theater Musicals

One of the most buzzed-about theatrical events in recent years makes its hotly anticipated Philly debut when Taylor Mac—artist, flaneur, cultural historian and gender-bender—takes up residence at the Merriam Theater with A 24-Decade History of Popular Music. Mac charts the construction of American identity from 1776 to the present through song, storytelling and audience immersion, building a community over the course of the epic, intermission-free performance. Mac will present the piece, originally envisioned as a single 24-hour event, in 12-hour chunks on successive Saturdays. June 2 will cover the music of 1776-1896, and June 9 will pick up the thread and lead the audience to the present. Theater lovers, history buffs and everyone in between won’t want to miss this singular experience.

600 HIGHWAYMEN perform The Fever at PIFA 2018.
Photograph: Wahleed Shah

3. The Fever

Theater Experimental

The performance art collective 600 HIGHWAYMEN have garnered international attention since their 2009 founding, picking up an Obie Award and a fellowship with the prestigious New York Foundation for the Arts along the way. They make their first local appearance with The Fever, which the New York Times calls “a lovely, haunting meditation on human connection and disconnection.” Devisors Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone use guerrilla performance tactics to explode the distance between artists and audiences by having spectators participate in the telling of the story, which revolves around a seemingly ordinary dinner party and its aftermath. By the end of the performance, all involved will have considered “the limits of individual and collective responsibility and our willingness to be there for one another.” Due to the intimate nature of the piece, seating is extremely limited; be sure to get your tickets ahead of time.

Catch juggling feats at Water on Mars during PIFA 2018.
Photograph: Patrik Rio Monka

4. Water on Mars

Theater Circuses & magic

Performing under the moniker Plastic Boom, renowned jugglers Patrik Elmnert, Tony Pezzo and Wes Peden bring their smash-hit extravaganza Water on Mars to the U.S. for the first time after successful runs in Stockholm and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Described by The Circus Diaries as “a pure display of extraordinary skill,” Water on Mars delights audiences of all ages while testing the physical limits of its dexterous and adventurous performers. Anyone who questions the skill required to juggle will leave with a newfound appreciation for the art form.

My Organ My Seoul is a world premiere during PIFA 2018.
Photograph: Sang Hoon Ok

5. My Organ My Seoul

Dance Contemporary and experimental

Music and movement come together in this offering from the highly regarded South Korean Ambiguous Dance Company for one performance only. Utilizing Verizon Hall’s Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ, this world premiere effort from choreographer Boram Kim and dancer Jang Kyeong-min explores “individual rhythm and the freedom of expression” through “the universal language of dance.” The company blends dance, theater, storytelling and cultural customs in unique and surprising ways, creating a one-of-a-kind performance that’s not to be missed. Organist Ahreum Han will be on hand to supply live music.

Studio Dan perform Inventive Mothers, a tribute to Frank Zappa, at PIFA 2018.
Photograph: Julia Wesely

6. Inventive Mothers

Music Jazz

More than two decades after his death, Frank Zappa remains one of the most revered experimental musicians of all time. The Austrian musical collective Studio Dan—their name is a play on Zappa’s 1978 album Studio Tan—pay tribute to the alternative music maestro with a concert performance that puts Zappa’s works in conversation with other influential composers, including Karlheinz Stockhausen, Edgar Varèse and Fred Frith. The result is an unmissable experience for Zappa devotees, music lovers and everyone in between.

Catch Doggie Hamlet at Belmont Plateau during PIFA 2018.
Photograph: Kelly Fletcher

7. Doggie Hamlet

Theater Shakespeare

First things first: Choreographer Ann Carlson’s latest work has nothing to do with Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy. It does feature a chorus of humans and canines—not to mention a herd of sheep!—frolicking in the open green expanse of West Fairmount Park known as Belmont Plateau. Described as a “3-D pastoral poem,” the show challenges audience expectations of live performance and plays with the unpredictability of working with animals. It also explores the bonds we humans feel with our four-legged and hoofed companions.

Catch The Planets an HD Odyssey at PIFA 2018
Photograph: Courtesy Kimmel Center

8. The Planets: An HD Odyssey

Music Jazz

Jazz, classical music, performance art and film come together in this unique multimedia experience from the Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia (JOP). A live performance of Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite The Planets, newly arranged by JOP and conducted by Terell Stafford, is performed over the premiere of director Duncan Copp’s film The Planets: An HD Odyssey, which he created in conjunction with NASA and Jet Propulsion Laboratories. Holst’s 100-year-old musical journey through the solar system will be realized as never before. The Jazztet of the United States Military Band serves as opening act.

Swiss company Asphalt Piloten performs Tape Riot at PIFA 2018
Photograph: Anna Anderegg

9. Tape Riot

Dance Contemporary and experimental

Billed as an “urban dance journey,” Tape Riot, from the Swiss company Asphalt Piloten, takes place at an undisclosed location somewhere in Center City. Ticket buyers will be informed of the specifics in the days leading up to the performance, but all else remains shrouded in mystery. What we can be sure of is that the experience will be one to remember, building on the traditions of flash mobs and guerrilla performances. A word of advice: Wear comfortable shoes.

Catch SEA Singular Extreme Actions at PIFA 2018
Photograph: Teresa Wood

10. SEA (Singular Extreme Actions)

Theater Circuses & magic

MacArthur “Genius” Grant winner Elizabeth Streb is no stranger to death-defying stunts: She’s set herself on fire and boldly walked down the facade of London’s City Hall. She brings that daredevil spirit to SEA — Singular Extreme Actions, which melds gymnastics, acrobatics and calisthenics into a single gravity-flouting spectacle. You never know what to expect with Streb, but you definitely won’t be bored. The work has a superhero theme, and guests of all ages are encouraged to attend.

Bassem Youssef performs as part of PIFA.
Photograph: Yehia Elzeiny

11. Bassem Youssef

Comedy Solo shows

Once known as the “Jon Stewart of Egypt,” comedian (and heart surgeon) Bassem Youssef is now exiled to L.A., but he’s still using wit and satire to take swipes at the powers that be. He’ll perform his show The Joke is Mightier Than the Sword as part of the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts (PIFA).

The PIFA Street Fair closes the International Festival of the Arts.
Photograph: Lauren Woodard

12. PIFA Street Fair

Things to do Festivals

This over-the-top spectacle smack in the middle of Broad Street closes out the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts (PIFA), but you don’t have to be a theater and arts snob to have a blast here. The event closes down six blocks along the Avenue of the Arts for eight full hours so attendees can ride carnival rides, grab lunch from a variety of food vendors and catch dozens of performances—from live music to circus arts and more.

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