Artist of Light show is like nothing Hong Kong's ever seen
Miral Kotb had a wow moment when she merged her passions for software engineering and dance. The result is iLuminate, dance troupe who perform hip hop in the dark wearing costumes covered in wireless-controlled LEDs
"Lights, camera … lights," would be a good way to introduce dance company iLuminate's show Artist of Light. That's because this group, which leapt to fame in the US after coming third on the America's Got Talent television show in 2011, perform in the dark wearing costumes covered with wireless-controlled LEDs.
Lighting engineers, software programmers and choreographers work together to integrate the lighting and special effects to illuminate the characters. Inside their costumes, the dancers perform a mix of hip hop, breakdance, modern dance and even ballet moves. Powered by a software built by Miral Kotb, the dancer and software developer who founded the troupe, Artist of Light looks like a techno Blue Man Group or a futuristic, urban Cirque du Soleil. iLuminate performed for two years off-Broadway in New York, and it has now been transported in its entirety to Hong Kong.
"It's the first software of its kind," says Trevor Harrison, a choreographer and dancer with the show since 2012. "It's a portable wireless-controlled light programme which controls suits made of electroluminescent lights and LEDs."
The dancers must rehearse vigorously to keep in time with Kotb's programme, explains Harrison, who goes by the nickname "Cleva Trev".
"It takes hours and hours of working with Miral, who designs the lighting, and the choreographers. The suit weighs quite a lot, and you have to wear it for an hour, which makes dancing a challenge. It heats up like your computer does when you leave it on. If you're new to it, it's quite difficult to dance in, but after a while you get used to it."
iLuminate is the brainchild of Kotb, the company's founder, chief executive, and inspiration. She developed an interest in computer programming at the age of nine, and later graduated in the subject. Although her overriding ambition was always to become a dancer, she took a job as a software engineer with news agency Bloomberg in New York. A brief battle with cancer led to a decision to dance full-time. She hit on the idea of combining performance with technology in 2009 after attending an Apple designers conference in which panelists talked about placing wireless devices in children's toys.
"Miral's original passions were software engineering and dance, and she found a way to merge those two things together," says Harrison. "She had a 'wow' moment — an epiphany — about what would happen if you put lights on the human body, particularly a dancer's body. The idea grew from there and next thing you know we're on America's Got Talent, and now we're performing across the world."
Kotb is very hands-on, Harrison adds: "Miral is also a dancer, and she loves to direct and create dances. As a choreographer on the show, I take her direction and try to manifest her vision. She's an inspiration and we choreographers could not do our jobs without her."
But iLuminate is a collaborative effort in rehearsal, Harrison says: "The engineers, software designers and choreographers all need each other. Without one department, the other department can't be successful. It's a team environment."
Artist of Light is not just a dance exhibition — it has a Broadway-style narrative, written by Kotb and Athena Bienvenu. "It's about an introspective painter who's a bit removed from the world," says Harrison. "He's a talented artist, and he has a magical paintbrush which gives him power to bring characters from his imagination to life. The antagonist is a jealous person who steals the paintbrush to create horrifying monsters."
Harrison began his career dancing on the street as a B-Boy before going on to study modern dance. He's responsible for the breakdance elements of the show, which also features many other dance styles. "The beauty of this show is that every character embraces a different dance style. There's jazz, hip hop, breakdancing, popping and locking," says Harrison. "There's even some ballet, as we have some point-work."
Some of the choreography was inspired by famed street dance troupe The Electric Boogaloos and dance theatre troupe The Groovaloos.
"JRock was one of the original choreographers, and he built on his experience of the Electric Boogaloos and the Groovaloos," says Harrison. "The hip hop drives everything and gives it energy — it's that high-energy street element which brings the audience in, and gives the show that 'wow' factor."
Breakdancing in the dark isn't easy, obviously. "For this show, you need to do a lot of acrobatic moves in the dark," says Harrison. "That can be challenging, as we are used to doing it in the light. So when you are dancing and spinning in the dark, your spatial orientation can get confused. But you get used to it. I've been with the company for three years and my spatial awareness has kind of reoriented itself."
Though he joined the troupe after their break on America's Got Talent, Harrison understands the importance of that show. "It gave the company a platform," he says. "It introduced people to the idea of fusing software engineering and dance together. We didn't win first place, but we kind of won because we have maintained our success for five years. We've travelled all over the world. Egypt, Dubai and now Hong Kong."
Kwai Tsing Theatre, 12 Hing Ning Road, Kwai Tsing. August 21, 22, 8pm; August 23, 3pm. Tickets: HK$150, HK$250, HK$350. Inquiries: 2268 7323