IOWA CITY — The lights remain dark inside Hancher Auditorium, but for a few hours Thursday night, a visual spectacular exploded around the perimeter, drenching performers and viewers in a psychedelic swirl of light, sound, fog and dance.
University of Iowa music and dance students, who have been using Hancher’s two stages for physically distanced classes, were immersed with dancers, musicians and technicians from Kansas City’s Quixotic performance art collective to create an evening of splendor in the grass, on the sidewalks and inside the lobby, visible from the sidewalks. Even the back loading docks became windows to music and dance, with the doors flung open, and around the corner, the back side of the building morphed into a giant movie screen, projecting images as a violinist filled the night air with haunting beauty during “Hancher Illuminated.”
A Quixotic solo dancer dressed in a billowing gold gown beckoned audiences, ushered in groups of 10, past a tree dripping in cascading meteor lights and into a magical realm where the shattered light from a mirror ball danced around the front entrance plaza, casting diamond starlight on every surface above and below.
The route led viewers past the soaring lobby windows, where UI dance students performed in white, then on through a series of lighted hoops, past solo musicians and dancers, small ensembles, laser lights, more UI dancers in the back hallway, and finally to a violin and cello duo that drew applause and shouts of bravo for their blend of blues and pop, including a fiery, percussive version of Toto’s “Africa.”
“It’s a fairyland — exquisitely beautiful,” Kathryn Wallace of Iowa City said. The longtime Hancher patron declared it “one of the best” performances she’s seen at the University of Iowa’s performing arts jewel. “It’s so original. What an antidote to what’s going on right now.”
“It’s an amazing use of an arts facility,” Sarah Kruse of Iowa City added. “It gives such a sense of inspiration and optimism. The energy you get from Hancher renews your faith in the future.”
Those are the reactions Hancher Executive Director Chuck Swanson and Quixotic Executive Producer Mica Thomas were hoping for when they dreamed up this event. The wheels began turning when the two were commiserating over the pandemic shutdown of life in general, and the arts in particular, last spring.
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Quixotic’s contemporary merging of technology and chic circus added the “wow” factor to Hancher’s 2016 opening ceremony, complete with cirque performers rappelling down the side of the building.
Swanson and Thomas began brainstorming the kinds of things they could plan during the pandemic. One recommendation that grew out of the Major University Presenters group to which Hancher belongs, was to consider staging outdoor performances. Once the UI reopened and Swanson could get a pulse on what the university was comfortable with for performers and audiences, the idea that had been ruminating for six months suddenly needed to take shape.
They needed to set a date, “because this is Iowa, and you can only have outdoor events for so long,” Swanson noted.
The result is their work, Swanson said of the Quixotic light and sound show, as well as the hard work of the Hancher staff and the UI students and teachers.
Thomas values that level of collaboration, and hoped the event would “inspire people, give them a little creativity and a little happiness that they can take away from it.”
He brought more than 20 people to Iowa City, including technicians, five musicians and three dancers. His entourage also brought two trucks with “at least” a couple of hundred lights, and ran about 800 feet of feeder cable and another 1,000 feet of Edison cable to make it all glow, along with sound equipment and computers to bring it to fruition.
“One of the cool things about our relationship is the trust,” Thomas said of working with Swanson and company. “You can come with the idea, but then it flows into something grander than when you started.”
Swanson agreed, knowing that Quixotic would bring something special to Hancher.
“Performance artists make magic, but there’s a little bit of romanticism to it. There’s beauty. It just takes you to another place,” Swanson said, adding that the event not only celebrates the students and performers, but the building itself.
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“I’ll be honest with you. I’m tired of the darkness,” he said. “There’s a famous saying that ‘lighting is everything,’ and lighting is a big part of theater. So tonight it’ll be illuminated to the hilt, to the most that we’ve ever had. It’s not going to last long, but to me, it confirms and reassures everybody that Hancher still is here. ...
“It’s a statement that the arts will survive. The arts will come through again.”
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