One of New York's hottest shows is also a small business. Here's how iLuminate came to wow audiences during the holidays.
Miral Kotb may be the only software engineer with dreams of putting on a Broadway show.
She's the founder of the New York City-based start-up iLuminate Productions and, most recently, director of the off-Broadway show Artist of Light, which has been selling out almost every performance since opening in November.
The show is also equal parts dance and light show thanks to the use of iLuminate's trademark lightup costumes. The suits, made of neon lights that are remote controlled to correspond with the dancers' movements, have been used on tour by some of the hottest acts in music, including Chris Brown, Christina Aguilera, and the Black Eyed Peas. The company's dance troupe even came in third place on last season's America's Got Talent. But none of these successes would likely have happened if Kotb hadn't suffered a personal tragedy at an early age.
Kotb grew up with two passions: technology and dance. She wrote her first software program at age 9 and began taking dance lessons from her father, also a dancer, as soon as she could walk. "For me, the tech was something I was always curious about intellectually," Kotb says, "but the dance was from my heart, more of an emotional outlet."
For years, Kotb juggled both, getting her computer science degree from Columbia and taking a job as a software engineer at Bloomberg, while simultaneously pursuing a career as a professional dancer. When she was 21, however, just a week before she planned on leaving Bloomberg to dance full time, Kotb was diagnosed with cancer, ending her dream of becoming a dancer. Instead, she stayed on at Bloomberg and honed her skills as a developer.
"It's funny how one thing can happen and lead to a whole different life for you," says Kotb. "At Bloomberg, I learned the skills for iLuminate that I never would have learned had I gone with my original path of being a professional dancer."
The inspiration for iLuminate came in 2009 when Kotb was attending an Apple developer conference. The focus, she says, was on the possibility of putting wireless devices in and on anything. Her thoughts immediately turned back to dance. "As a choreographer, there's so much you want to communicate, but you can't," she says. "I thought, what if you could put lights on a dancer and used wireless controls to really make the lights work with the choreography and the music?"
Kotb recruited a software engineer from Bloomberg and a family friend to design the hardware, and had a working prototype within a few months. Then she convinced her dancer friends in New York City to try the product out, set to her own choreography. "I knew before I could get anyone behind me, I had to get it on dancers, because it's not something you can easily talk about. It's a very visual thing," Kotb says.
At first "the dancers got shocked a lot, and the costumes were archaic, but the idea was there," she says.
Today, iLuminate's suits are being used in at least one show a day around the world. Though Artist of Light, which features iLuminate's own dancers, costumes, and choreography, is a standalone production, iLuminate also has a robust rental business. If a pop star is going on tour, for instance, iLuminate might rent out its costumes, hardware, technology, and in some cases, even its own dancers and choreographers. Until now, rentals have been the fastest growing part of the business, and while that's forced Kotb to spend more time in the office than on the stage, she says that work is worth it if it will help get iLuminate known in the entertainment industry.
"I always tell people I'm more of an artist than a businesswoman, but my passion for the idea pushed me to make sure the business side was taken care of in a way that we could have growth," she says. "I really want to see this technology succeed and get into the right hands, and you have to get to a certain level as a company to work with such reputable performers."
Now that Artist of Light, which closes on January 5, has been such a resounding hit, Kotb hopes to bring the show on tour both nationally and internationally. iLuminate will also be returning to Six Flags Atlanta this summer, and Kotb says the company has some cruise ship deals in the works. In time, Kotb believes iLuminate will become analogous to the next Blue Man Group, with productions happening all around the world. "I think it's going to be the independent productions that take us to the next level," she says. "The more people see the product, the more they're going to want to try it themselves."