iLuminate: Artist of Light is an Entrancing Collision of Music, Dance & Tech

By Dana Sedgwick

Tomorrow evening, a new off Broadway show will light up the theatre district with the official opening of iLuminate: Artist of Light. I had the chance to get a small preview at SoundCtrl’s 4th Annual FlashFWD Awards last May when we invited 3 of the 11 person cast to close out the ceremony… taking a dark stage and through the power of special suits, transforming each dancer into pieces of light that could move and morph in inhuman ways.

The show was just as awe inspiring.  Music, art, dance and tech all collide onstage to tell a short story that is simple but charming… and while the narrative may be suited for children, the technology used to tell it is nothing if not complex. We had a chance to sit down with show’s director & creator, Miral Kotb, a dancer turned software engineer who not only invented this technology, but has led this group since before their discovery on America’s Got Talent and continues to evolve the methods by which technology can enhance art.

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SoundCtrl: This has been a long journey for you… Would you share with us your story as a dancer turned software engineer?

Miral Kotb: Dance and technology have been a part of my life since I was young–I started dancing as soon as I could walk, and I designed my first computer program when I was 9.  Growing up, I performed Folkloric Dance, studied Jazz and was on the Drill Team, in high school.  In college, I studied both dance and computer science and after graduating, I went to work for Bloomberg as a software engineer.  Shortly thereafter, I was diagnosed with retroperitoneal sarcoma, a rare malignancy usually accompanied by a bleak prognosis.  I continued to work there through my recovery, and after months of physical therapy, found I could dance again though not at the same level I once had.  So, I danced and choreographed and continued to work as a software designer.  Now, with this invention, I have created a way to combine my two passions.  

SC: SoundCtrl is all about the convergence of music and tech, which sometimes seems contradictory. I think that most would consider dance and tech to be inherently at odds with each other as well – one being the expression of the natural, the other, the manifestation of the artificial. What inspired you to meld these opposites?

MK: With a father who danced professionally in Egypt and a mother who is brilliant at crunching numbers, it is not surprising [to me] that I am a dancer and a software engineer, though it has been pointed that this is a very unusual permutation.  One of my mentors was a dancer who was fascinated with technology and it was him that encouraged me to combine these two things.  Before that time, I worked with technology during the day and then attended dance rehearsals in the evening.  He helped me to think about how dance and technology could be combined.  Computer Science is a very creative activity in solving problems and designing software in new and efficient ways.  The arts and technology are not very different from each other–computer scientists are not nerds; they are artists in their own way.  For me, tech was something I was always curious about intellectually but the dance was from my heart and more of an emotional outlet.

SC: Let’s talk tech… what’s going on with those suits exactly? I’ve taken a look with a very untrained eye and to me, they just look like really awesome superhero costumes. How do the suits’ lights trigger at precisely the right moment?

MK: The lights are controlled wirelessly to match the music and choreography to create different illusions throughout the show.  Every light on the suits is programmed specifically for that dancer, in order to emphasize certain body parts and moves over others.  By controlling the lights ahead of time, certain characters are able to appear and disappear within milliseconds.  The light suits add a new and innovative edge to the performance and leave audiences in awe.  

SC: The team got its first spotlight on the 2011 season of America’s Got Talent. How has the technology grown up since the early days?

MK: We invent everyday – internally – to make our product better, our costumes stronger, our set pieces, dances and illusions better.  My team and I are constantly tweaking the technology.  We have created a new way of more accurately controlling the lights that moves us towards a video screen-type of technology.  We’ve also enhanced the light suits to be more durable and to weigh less, with new designs.  One of my goals is to merge technology even further into audience interactive elements.  Currently the audience just watches a performance; ultimately, I’d like them to participate through technology, but we’re not quite there yet. 

SC: At one point, before AGT, you quit your job and invested hundreds of thousands of dollars into this troupe… making you part dancer, part software engineer, part entrepreneur. There aren’t many out there who can claim those achievements and unfortunately, far fewer of those who can are women. What advice do you have for other young inventors and entrepreneurs?

MK: When I first began, I underestimated how much work would be involved outside of the artistic and engineering aspects of iLuminate.  Running a business is not easy and it is so important to have the right people in place to keep it moving so that I can continue to do what I do best and push the technology and creativity further.  Force yourself to delegate, if it is not your nature, and find out your strengths and weaknesses early on so you can hire people to fill in the voids. 

SC: SoundCtrl was lucky enough to get a short preview of Artist of Light when a few members of the team closed the 2013 FlashFWD Awards with a special performance. It honestly blew everyone away and I’m curious, what can we expect to see at the show?

MK: Artist of Light is about an artist who, with his magical paintbrush, can bring to life creatures from his imagination.  The story is told through a mash-up of illusions, technology, dance, foot-stomping music and of course our signature light suits.  

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