I was thrilled to catch one of the final shows of the dance troupe iLuminate in their Off-Broadway show Artist of Light. The modern fusion dance show is kind of a live-action Fantasia, and tells the story—like The Nutcracker Suite tells the story of a girl with a magic Nutcracker—about a boy with a magic lightbrush—a device that crosses a light saber and Harold’s Purple Crayon.
The boy paints amazing illusions of light with his brush that come to life. Like many storybook artists, he becomes obsessed with his art. He broods over it and even procrastinates during fits of frustrated artist’s-block by light-doodling awesome dancer-robots that help him express his inner turmoil. And like many brooding, obsessed storytime artists, romantic relationships are not his forte. The artist’s girlfriend is sick of his constant working on his art, and forces him to go to clubbing in modern New York City. There we learn that the girlfriend and all of her friends are professional-quality dancers, whereas the artist’s dancing is laughable.
To impress his girlfriend, the embarrassed artist whips out his brush and paints a dance troupe that wows everybody. One of the partiers is evil, however, and after he sees the incredible power of the brush, he steals it from the protagonist’s apartment while the boy is out with his girlfriend. Then, the wicked brush thief kidnaps the artist’s girlfriend and paints himself a wormhole through which he transports her and himself to his evil lair. The boy heroically follows through the wormhole and defeats the bad guy, gets his brush back, gets the girl back, and returns to NYC for a triumphant group dance number. Party!
OK, OK: you’re not wrong… the plot is not what drives viewer interest. But just remember that nobody ever went to The Nutcracker because they wanted to experience a piece of great fiction: it’s the music and the dancing. The real story here is how iLuminate mixes dance, light, and computerized timing to create a unique amalgam of illusory perception. Imagine that all the neon in Times Square got together and performed Stomp. iLuminate’s incredible light suits imbue the dancers with seemingly magical powers. They disappear and reappear instantly across the stage. They swap heads with each other. They levitate. It’s like watching real-life Jedis. Check out this video from their appearance on the Wendy Williams Show. Remember, this is all live-action, there are no camera tricks… it’s exactly how it would look if you were sitting there and watching the stage.
So how does it work? The technology behind the light suits and the software that controls the lighting are the mind child of the troupe’s leader, Miral Kotb, a Columbia-trained computer engineer who is also the Director, Producer, Choreographer and Playwright of the show. But more important are the visual tricks. The main perceptual phenomenon that the show trades on is called “Black Art”, a technique that magicians sometimes use to hide things in plain sight (see our book Sleights of Mind for more on Black Art).
Essentially, a black object is hard to see against a black background because the visual contrast is low. You can pull off some killer magic using this method and iLuminate uses it by performing in a dark room with black suits that are only visible due to their lighting. So when Kotb’s software turns off a dancer’s suit, that dancer disappears. Poof! Then they can reappear across the stage instantaneously by virtue of having a different dancer—who appears to be the same person because he or she is wearing an identical suit—turn on their suit. Black art also explains how they accomplish levitation: people in black suits lift the dancer, whose suit is lit up, and so that dancer appears to fly under her own power. Head swapping? Turn off the head-mounted lights and the head disappears, then sequentially activate a series of disembodied helmets to make it appear as if the head is flying from one body to the other! So cool!
Other secrets to visual perception play a role too. For example, the dancers’ body contours are not complete. Flexible lights line the dancers’ suits—as if they were drawn by Harold’s crayon—but there are significant gaps between the lines. Why do we see them as bodies and not as jumbles of lines? Well, for one, perceptual completion is at play: we see an object as connected across a gap when its edges appear collinear and it looks as though the gap is an occluding object. That’s how we can tell that a person who is hiding behind a tree, but sticking out on both sides of the tree (an occluder), is actually the same person.
iLuminate takes advantage of this perceptual shortcut to do things like make a dancer’s arms grow to 10 feet long (in reality each arm is made up of the lined-up arms from multiple dancers). Extremely cool!
I recommend you see it for yourself. But time is running out! There last show at the New World Stages is this Sunday January 18th. Prices run from between $39.99 and $69.99 (though I got a great deal on Groupon).