Everywhere the Dragon Knight Stilt Theatre performers went Thursday during the opening day of the Utah Arts Festival, they were greeted with gasps, smiles, an unbroken line of camera phones, and people using words like "amazing," "cool" and "trippy."
On Thursday afternoon, Baraka, an 11-foot-tall dragon, leads the parade from Library Square to the City-County Building and the oohs and ahhs follow every step of the way.
A playful griffin named Griffin cranes her long feathery neck, sticking her beak into the faces of children, who react with a mix of shock and delight.
Meanwhile, a skittish 12-foot dragonfly tries to keep her wings from catching on the tree limbs, while their guide, a shaman, keeps the entourage moving smoothly.
These characters are part of the show at the 2012 Utah Arts Festival members of the Dragon Knight Stilt Theatre, a San Diego-based troupe providing street-theater surprises in the summer heat. (The group will perform on the Library Square grounds several times between now and Sunday.)
The dragon, griffin and dragonfly are elegantly constructed puppets, created by troupe founder Valerie Noden. They are made from wood, metal, fabric and feathers and controlled by levers, cords and pulleys.
As for their emotional makeup, the stilt-walking performers say the puppets have minds of their own. "Naturally, I'm not like that," Susan Kim, who performs Griffin, said after a performance Thursday afternoon. "I just ride Griffin, and that's how Griffin is."
The four performers start treating the puppets like real people, said Benjamin Gadbois, who plays the regal Baraka. "You get an attachment to an inanimate object that you bring to life," he said.
All four trained in various performing arts, Kim said. For example, the Brazilian-born Mindinho, who plays the shaman, is a master of the Brazilian martial art capoeira, while Avarra Ponto, who plays the dragonfly, trained as a dancer.
During a walk through the Utah Arts Festival grounds, Griffin was the most playful. Near the City-County Building, she poked her beak over the shoulder of Vancouver, B.C., digital artist Tanya Doskova as she tried to snap a photo of Baraka on her iPad.
"It goes well with my art," Doskova said of Baraka, a red-and-black creature constructed from bent strips of wood.
Everywhere the Dragon Knight stilt-walkers went at the festival Thursday, they were greeted with gasps, smiles and an unbroken line of camera phones. People along the route used words like "amazing," "cool" and "trippy." Another thing festivalgoers said was "they must be hot."
After all, the performers wear three to five layers of clothing, plus their harnesses. "We're shedding pounds this summer," Gadbois said.
But the view is terrific. "I'm 5-2," Kim said. "When I'm on stilts, I can see everything."
As evening fell on the festival's opening day, the crowd settled in for music, including a set by singer-songwriter James McMurtry, who played to a crowd of some 400 people on the Amphitheater Stage.
McMurtry expanded his audience Thursday to a new generation of fans, the children in attendance.
Strollers sprinkled the green as many concertgoers attempted to share McMurtry's rhythms with their sons and daughters.
John McCool of Salt Lake City helped his 3-year-old son Conley climb a pillar at the back of the amphitheater.
"He's pretty down home," McCool said of McMurtry. McCool has followed the musician for over five years.
McCool grabbed his son's hands and swayed to the music, "Salt Lake City doesn't get much better than this."
Three-month-old Presley Smith and her uncle Vaughn Smith also moved with the beat that McMurtry was putting down.
"We've been to a couple concerts and she's already grooving," Smith said.
As McMurtry fans enjoyed the music Thursday, they showed their little ones to do the same.
The Utah Arts Festival continues through Sunday.
Where • Library Square, 200 East and 400 South.
When • Noon to 11 p.m. daily.
Tickets • $10 for adults, $5 for seniors, free for kids 12 and under. (A lunch-hour special, Friday from noon to 3 p.m., will get you in for $5.)
More • Read Sean P. Means' blog posts from opening day at http://www.sltrib.com/Blogs/moviecricket.
Also • For an overview of the festival's music lineup, visit http://www.sltrib.com/lifestyle.