Washington State Fair's glowing 'Luminasia' is a nighttime spectacle

Staff WriterSeptember 5, 2013 

First, get the word “lantern” out of your head. Yes, there are dozens of the classic 2-foot-high red globes at Luminasia. But calling it a lantern show is like describing the Narrows Bridge as planks.

Instead, picture a two-acre site filled with Washington state landmarks and Chinese icons, all glowing from within. It’s both familiar and foreign, modern and ancient. And it all comes alive when the sun goes down. For the past month, craftsmen from Zigong in China’s Sichuan Province have been designing, welding, wiring and stitching up hundreds of art-imitating-life luminaries for the Luminasia attraction at the Washington State Fair in Puyallup. The light show opens today with the fair; admission to the show is in addition to fair entry.

It’s difficult to compare Luminasia to any other attraction – the display is relatively new to America. Raw numbers speak for themselves: 500 luminaries, 23,000 light bulbs, 65,000 pounds of steel. Some of the luminaries are mechanized but most are static.

Visitors to Luminasia enter via an electric blue pavilion and promptly walk through a Washington state ferry. Though it’s smaller than life size, it’s still big enough that it could carry a couple of cars and dozens of passengers – if it wasn’t made out of satin.

To the right is an undersea garden featuring an orca, gigantic jellyfish, Pacific octopus and the sunken remains of the first Tacoma Narrows Bridge, Galloping Gertie. A field of gigantic tulips and daffodils then ushers visitors toward a pair of local icons. For the next month and a half (Luminasia runs past the conclusion of the fair to Oct. 13) Washington will have two Space Needles and two Mount Rainiers. In this case, the needle is 60 feet tall and the mountain is 35 feet high.

Tents hold merchandise and seating and a wine bar will be on the grounds.

On Tuesday night, art director Song Lin Yang and his crew were testing the lighting, troubleshooting problems and sewing up satin covers. Yang visited both Mount Rainier and the Space Needle before he began designing the replicas. On Tuesday, he wasn’t satisfied with some of the coloring on Rainier and made plans to touch it up the next day. Yang works for International Special Attractions, the creators of the show. The Beverly Hills, Calif.-based company also puts on a traveling cirque with Chinese acrobats and a winter ice show. Though it has other lantern-show competitors in the U.S., this is the first time such a show has come to Washington and it’s the first time the company has created one in an outdoor setting. The fabric is fire-resistant and waterproof; the creative crew also stays on to make any necessary repairs caused by use or weather. The show has a modern feel to it, but its beginnings are in Chinese festivals. But as an iPhone bares little resemblance to its rotary dialing predecessor, the luminaries of Luminasia bear little resemblance to centuries-old lanterns. “It truly has its origins in those lanterns,” said ISA associate producer Jonathan Sanford. “But as technology and lighting has advanced, it’s allowed them to take that simple lantern and make it into anything you can imagine. If I say ‘make me a helicopter,’ they will make me a helicopter. And it will move.”

There are no helicopters in Luminasia but there are totem poles, a life-size apple orchard and a rocky cliff topped by a wild cougar. After visitors leave the Washington state section, they walk around the fair’s water retention pond and enter the Chinese-themed portion of the show.

A menagerie of dragon flies, frogs, carp and water lillies light up the water and a huge moon bridge crosses the expanse. But all bow to the centerpiece of the display: a 70-foot-long dragon boat, its tail exploding with satin flames. A pagoda on the edge of the pond gives visitors a full view of the luminaries while allowing them to stand inside one.

Yang and the 35 craftspeople who came to Puyallup from China work closely with Sanford and other California-based producers and art directors to blend Chinese culture with American culture.

“We bring a western art direction into the fold to make the experience a little more palatable to the general American population,” Sanford said. The Americans help the Chinese interpret icons appropriately and assist with color schemes and other aesthetic concerns.

There’s no need to be a student of Chinese culture to appreciate the fiery colors and ornate motifs. It’s hard to say what makes a more impressive sight: a glowing Mount Rainier or a dragon boat reflected in water like a mythical apparition. Luminasia offers a reduced fare during daylight hours. While a daytime visit allows viewers a peaceful chance to appreciate the sculptural aspect and craftsmanship of the show, it doesn’t compare to the after-sundown spectacle. “It is a light show,” Sanford said. “It’s absolutely spectacular at night. It’s going to be an explosion for the senses.” Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541, craig.sailor@thenewstribune.com

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