Flying To New Heights With Quixotic

Aerial leaps, live animation, portable “reeds of light” moving through the air—Quixotic is reinventing how Kansas City, and even more of the country, perceives performance. By integrating technology, dance, and music, the troupe is breaking the barriers between the worlds of performance art, music festivals, and corporate events, and was even invited to TED this year because of its innovative style.

Founded by Anthony Magliano, Quixotic began on the fringes of Kansas City, MO, in old abandoned warehouses. Magliano and associate artistic director Mica Thomas paired together artists from a variety of disciplines—dance, lighting design, film, fashion, graphic design, animation—to create performance pieces that were presented over a single evening. They started by seeking to create “rogue and underground experiential productions that don’t have as many rules,” Magliano says. Rear projection screens, scrims, and handheld props create the environments around the performers. Projections layered on the dancers flying through complicated aerial routines and complex lighting effects complete the vision.

Although the performances are larger and more polished now, Magliano continues to oversee the quality and content of the large-scale performances. His background in graphic design and motion graphics, combined with his talents as a percussionist and music producer, help him to direct his collaborators. He brings his rock ‘n’ roll background into performance, curating pieces as if they are musical sets rather than cohesive story-driven narratives. He sees his arrival in live performance as a logical end. “I hung around dancers for so long that something was bound to happen,” he says.

But Magliano also has interests in visual dramaturgy. He studied architecture, so he naturally wants to explode his graphic designs into 3D, while his lifelong love of film led him toward integrating live-action and animated film with the live performance. Ultimately, his storytelling evolves from both visuals and movement.

Thomas comes from a theatre background, with an MFA in lighting design from Penn State, where he studied with Heather Carson, known not only for her performance designs but for her installation work. He brings his training in performance design, collaboration, and technology to the group where he says he has found a real artistic home.

Quixotic aims to create huge-scale performances that give the audience a new experience. “In the beginning, it was about creating pairs of things; now it is about consistently having multiple elements working together,” says Thomas. According to Magliano, there are more technical collaborators than dancers, though obviously both elements are crucial to making things look big on stage. The company’s process calls upon all resources: dancers, designers, animators, filmmakers come together in the studio with a loose agenda. “We just play, and that’s when the cool stuff happens,” says Magliano. “Our dancers are very special because they know it’s not just about movement; it’s also about figuring out how to choreograph to animation and lights.”

With such a variety of backgrounds, the core group of collaborators really brings together different ideas. “We often start with a look and a feel—sometimes with a photo or an idea,” Thomas says. “It depends on where we are that day or who and where the idea stems from.” Thomas adds that the group wants to merge the audiences of the performing arts world with those of the music festival world.

The company has a repertoire of approximately 25 pieces, half of which are heavy on projections and visuals, and half of which depend on the performers. Through these brainstorming sessions, the members of the company help create a kind of set list that determines the energy and flow of a specific performance. Over the course of developing materials, the company depends on online collaboration tools like Google Docs to share material, from inspiration to music and imagery. They create in modules, often developing an achievable version while still moving toward a “dream version” as time and budget permit.

Of course, Quixotic isn’t simply creating dance, movement, and video. The company also uses original music, composed by Magliano and Noel Selders, with Shane Borth, Laura Scarborough, and Rick Willoughby. The performances integrate recorded electronic music (synced to lighting and animation) with a live band creating a style Magliano calls “acoustic-electro.”

The technology becomes a character, too. According to Thomas, “Sometimes you think of a piece, and it starts with a dancer or a musician, but also about this look in animation or this type of technology. It can start from anywhere.” The dancers work directly with the animators to create a 3D experience with the audience, creating animation material and then coordinating the live movement with it. Then, the team creates projection mapping for the live performances.

For Magliano, projection is an added dimension that transforms the audience experience. In the studio and onstage, Quixotic animators use Adobe After Effects, Red Giant Trapcode Suite, Autodesk 3ds Max, Cinder, Adobe Elements, and VidVox VDMX on a 21" iMac. For video mapping, it’s GarageCube MadMapper. Sound Keys in the Trapcode Suite links animation to music, and MIDI links the lighting, synching the entire show into a seamless experience. A 22K projector is preferable for large-scale work, ideally, Thomas notes, a Barco FLM-R22+.

Quixotic also develops new technology when work calls for it. For Wakarusa Music and Camping Festival at Mulberry Mountain, the team developed custom LED “reeds,” pixel-mapped to use as a low-res 3D LED wall that the performers could enter—“scenic elements that could have their own character, provide illumination, create motion with light,” says Thomas. The reeds are portable and, perhaps most importantly for the touring company, ground-based. Despite the amount of flying in Quixotic’s shows, the venues aren’t always conducive to the full production, so the company is always looking for ground-based elements to support the aerial work.

Now, Quixotic adapts its work to a number of venues, creating and touring performances for the performance art festivals and large indoor and outdoor music festivals like Wakarusa. The shows for performance art environments are often more theme-based, whereas the music festivals warrant more vignette-based “enhanced concert” experiences. Quixotic has also worked with symphonies to create a more rock concert-like experience to appeal to new, younger audiences. Magliano sees the company’s place as “the rogue underground group in town, making the symphony cool for the art institute kids.”

Magliano adds that the team loves site-specific installations, but Quixotic also functions as an events entertainment company for brands to which Quixotic feels an affinity, creating complete branding experiences, even designing collateral material for hotel openings, car reveals, and more. Some call Quixotic “a custom solutions group.”

Natalie Robin is a NYC-based lighting designer. She is the associate producer and production manager of American Realness, a founding company member of Polybe + Seats, and an adjunct faculty member at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts.

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