Quixotic Scores a Hit with Dazzling Digital Projections

Known for state of the art dance, the KC-based group is gaining reknown for multi-media spectaculars.

When is a far-out dance company far more than a far-out dance company? When it’s Kansas City’s Quixotic.

The outer reaches of artistic possibility were never more palpable for Quixotic’s co-founder and creative director Anthony Magliano than in February 2016, when he and his multi-talented group of mind-blowers projected a landmark mini-movie on two sides of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

[block pos=”right”] A landmark mini-movie (projected) on two sides of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. … inspirationally encapsulated the history of black America from slave ships to Black Lives Matter. [/block]

The alfresco evening attraction signaled completed construction of the museum’s monumental façade. Although visitors to the National Mall would have to wait until September for the museum’s doors to open, Quixotic’s dazzling tableau of interweaving photos, video, graphics, animation, music and sound effects in its seven-minute production, “Celebrate and Commemorate Freedom,” inspirationally encapsulated the history of black America from slave ships to Black Lives Matter.

And there wasn’t a single dancer in the mix.

That’s because the innovative Quixotic collaborative has grown to embrace such dancer-less “digital projection mappings” or mini-movies as works of art or valuable edutainment in their own right, whether exhibited on architecture and other outdoor surfaces or in theaters. In fact, they now account for roughly half of the group’s creative output for both public and corporate clients. And as anyone who’s seen Quixotic’s state-of-the-art dance shows knows, the company’s avant-garde gigs also rely on digital projections possessing strong narrative elements for dancers, aerialists, musicians and other performers to fascinatingly interact with.

“The potential is cool,” Magliano says of the digital projection process, which Quixotic didn’t invent but is keen on taking to the next level. “It’s not as common in the states as it seems to be in Europe and Asia. For the Midwest, especially, I think we’re rocking and rolling and representing Kansas City for sure.”

To say the least. In addition to the Smithsonian, Quixotic’s impressive list of digital-projection clients for whom it has supplied visual spectaculars at special events includes the United Nations, Qatar Airways, Cirque Du Soleil, Samsung, Qualcomm, Bulgari, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, Union Station Kansas City, Ted Talks and even a gala for businesswoman and TV personality Martha Stewart.

“Your vision for a show is related to what space you’re in,” says Quixotic’s executive producer Mica Thomas. “So if we’re inside a theater, that’s one kind of a vision and we think about how to do that. If we’re in front of a building, that’s a whole other kind of scenario.”

Wherever they might occur, the elements of a production can enticingly blur, says Quixotic visual producer Stephen Goldblatt. “We’ve done it where there’s a real performer accompanied by projection, and then all of a sudden pretty seamlessly it’s a prerecorded projected performer. So now the performer is able to float up into the air.”

“We don’t ever want to limit it,” Magliano says. “To be honest, the things that require no dancers and it’s just a building, those are more profitable for us, just because it’s fewer people and less rehearsals. If that’s all we did, we wouldn’t even need our own building like the one we have with lots of spaces. We’d just need a room to create and launch.

“But we love the variety and the diversity of what we’re able to do. It’s kind of our roots, you know, that’s where we come from. And we’re good at doing live performer interactivity, as well as architecture.”

Still, projecting on architecture presents its own unique challenges.

“We all panic until it’s projected on the building, because there are so many variables,” Magliano says. “The way the surfaces react to the light, it’s all hypothetical until you see it. Because you don’t know. Do we have enough projectors? Is the power stable? And the ambient light around is a huge factor. If it’s not turned off, it can ruin everything, because you can’t see the projection.”

Fortunately, all technical aspects were in order for Quixotic’s digital projection mapping extravaganza, “The Monument Comes Alive,” honoring the 100th anniversary of Union Station in September 2014. The massive front of the historic train depot in downtown Kansas City acted as a kinetic 3D canvas for Quixotic’s multimedia tribute and retrospective showcasing the myriad people and events summoned to mind by the century-old site. The event’s grand success led directly to Quixotic being asked to work at the Smithsonian.

“I met some producers in Kansas City who were going to produce the Smithsonian opening,” Thomas recalls. “Then they saw Union Station — and away we went.”

Months of intense research and preparation were necessary to be an effective part of the Smithsonian team, beginning with a get-together in D.C. that Thomas will never forget.

“The first meeting I went and sat in on was crazy,” he remembers. “Because you had all of these historians from the Smithsonian. Then you had all these people who were on digs and stuff for slave ships in Africa who were flying in for the meeting. Then you had these people who did the Black Panthers documentaries and stuff. Then you had all these other people who were experts in the field of African American history. And they were all sitting at the table to talk about how to tell the story that we would project on the new museum.”

But before 32 30K projectors resting on four 35-foot towers could emblazon that sweeping story on the museum, there also had to be music, which is always a dynamic ingredient in the world of Quixotic.

“Visuals evoke emotion,” says Quixotic music director Shane Borth. “But the emotion of the music really pushes it that extra step that sticks with people.”

Besides Borth writing the Smithsonian projection’s orchestral score with co-composer Julian Bickford — both of whom won Emmy Awards for their work, as they did for Union Station — Borth blended in several existing pieces of music, including an African American spiritual and a hip-hop song. But it was an audio clip of African American soprano Marian Anderson, who in 1939 was refused permission to perform at Constitution Hall before being allowed to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, that Borth feels elevated the project in a truly poignant way.

“She was singing a cappella, so we added this amazing symphonic orchestra underneath her,” Borth recalls. “To know that she had been turned away, and to know that this new building right next to the Lincoln Memorial was opening to celebrate African American culture in this country for the last 250 years, that was a magical moment.”

To be sure, other enchanting moments have happened and no doubt will again when it comes to Quixotic and its stated mission to “create fully immersive, multi-sensory experiences.”

“We’re starting to dabble in the virtual reality experience,” Magliano says. “And we’re getting calls now wanting full-on installations that are environments, whether it’s for parks or arboretums. Another type of project we want to get into — and this is out there and some people are doing it — is actually projecting on water, like mist and fountains.”

“We just did an event for the PGA Nationals where we projection-mapped a cliff,” Thomas says.

“We projected on trees at a music festival,” Goldblatt says.

So is there an ultimate moonshot for Quixotic, a dream object to project its dreams on? Maybe the Sphinx? Or the Statue of Liberty?

“The moon’s not bad,” Goldblatt says. “That’s a lot of projectors.”

CategoriesPerforming Visual
Brian McTavish

Brian McTavish is a freelance writer specializing in the arts and pop culture. He was an arts and entertainment writer for more than 20 years at The Kansas City Star. He regularly shared his “Weekend To-Do List” at KCUR-FM (89.3)/kcur.org.

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