As New Orleans' Lightwire Theater advanced on the NBC competition show America's Got Talent in the summer and fall of 2012, judges Howard Stern and Sharon Osbourne repeatedly called the group a "million-dollar act."
The live audience at the group's audition performance in St. Louis gave Lightwire a standing ovation. During the 90-second piece, the theater was completely dark as Lightwire's glowing T-Rex-like dinosaurs romped and roared at the crowd amid colorful dancing flowers.
The dance-based performance group creates its costumes using electroluminescent wire to render just the significant features — such as the T-Rex's fearsome head and jaws, powerful legs and long tail. In the dark, the illusions of the creature's loping gait, startling lunges and whip-like tail are almost magical.
When the judges critiqued the performance, Stern gushed his approval.
"I know this is going to sound sappy, but we are the greatest country in the world. ... We have the most creative people in the world," Stern said and then told Lightwire, "You're everything that makes America great."
Stern, Osbourne and Howie Mandel all voted for Lightwire to advance in the competition. As the group traveled to Las Vegas and New Jersey for successive rounds, company founders and directors Ian and Eleanor Carney and cast members often quoted Stern as both comic relief and assurance. "I'm what makes America great," they'd say, as they worked on routines or waited to perform or appear in front of the judges.
Lightwire just missed the finals, edged out by a live painting/musical performance group. But it gained exposure to national and international audiences, and now it's in New Orleans getting ready to launch two new shows, which will double the company's size and put it in front of general audiences everywhere. The first one, Lightwire: A Very Electric Christmas, debuts Thursday at the Joy Theater.
"It's the first time in 27 years we won't be doing the Nutcracker," Eleanor says as the group finishes a rehearsal just before Thanksgiving.
Eleanor and Ian met in a dance class when they were 13. Both have enjoyed successful careers as professional dancers, and for years, December meant they starred as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier in a dozen to 20 performances of the holiday classic, a bread-and-butter show for most ballet companies.
Lightwire is booking its shows around the world, but New Orleans is still the Carneys' home, and this is an opportunity made possible by a commission by the Joy's owners.
"The Joy wanted to start the tradition of a Christmas show," Ian says. "With all the theaters downtown, the Joy wanted to offer something special, something different."
A Very Electric Christmas is the group's third show, and it's an original work that builds on past characters and includes a few familiar but altered characters from Nutcracker, including the namesake Nutcracker and toy soldiers. There's no Clara, and the main characters are a family of birds who are about to celebrate Christmas in New Orleans when a sudden snowstorm disrupts their plans.
The Carneys retained some elements of the holiday classic, such as the signature "Russian Dance," a brief triumphant movement that is one the most recognizable snippets of Tchaikovsky's score.
"Thank God Tchaikovsky is a genius," Ian says. "That score is one of the most brilliant scores ever written. We wanted to give nods to that score without doing Nutcracker. It's a great thing for the dancers."
The show also features more recent holiday classics, such as "Jingle Bell Rock," and references to contemporary popular culture, some of which only adult audiences will appreciate.
While the company spent late November finishing the choreography and music for the show, it also built pieces for the next production, Lightwire: The Show, which will debut in Dallas Feb. 21. In January, the company will begin choreographing that piece, which will build on many characters used on America's Got Talent and in its past shows, Darwin the Dinosaur and The Ugly Duckling. It's meant to take advantage of the TV exposure, and it's a two-act show aimed at all ages, incorporating more contemporary cultural elements and electronic music. (Darwin and Ugly Duckling are each one hour long and play mostly to young audiences.)
Since early summer, Lightwire has been developing its new shows three blocks from the Joy Theater in the massive second-floor ballroom of a hotel that's being renovated. The gutted space has exposed steel beams, an uncovered cement floor and no heating or air conditioning. But at more than 70,000 square feet, it allows the company to create two full-scale theater spaces backed by draped black plastic. Several billboard-size banners in Russian and Chinese advertise performances of Darwin the Dinosaur in Russia and Taipei.
The stage area where the cast is working on the holiday show is flanked by the green lightwire-outline of a French Quarter streetlight with a Royal Street sign and a more than 20-foot backdrop featuring a colored-wire rendering of a Christmas tree topped by a fleur-de-lis. Black costume pieces covered in electroluminescent wire surround the stage area. The batteries, wires and hodgepodge of joints and plates that make up the odd exoskeletons are apparent in normal lighting.
"Everything is built from Home Depot and Sports Authority," Ian says while adjusting a costume piece. "This is a motocross vest."
The Lightwire team creates all its own costumes. Besides sports equipment such as soccer shin guards and bike helmets, they use fishing gear and plumbing supplies and whatever else they can repurpose.
"You have to look at the world sideways," Ian says. "There's always something that's made to be a dinosaur hip; it's already made, you're just not looking at it right."
The big innovation for Lightwire is its use of electroluminescent wire. Development of the idea for a dance-based show performed in the dark with light-up costumes was hatched in New York, where the Carneys worked with fellow professional dancers Corbin and Whitney Popp, who performed in the Broadway show Movin' Out, a rock ballet choreographed by Twyla Tharp and based on the music of Billy Joel. Ian performed in the Movin' Out from its opening in 2002 to its December 2005 close. There, he and Corbin began discussing dance pieces with lightwire costumes.
"When we found this medium, we found that it was all so exciting," Ian says. "Confusing the uniform was much more interesting."
"It's erasing the dancer," Eleanor says. "Bringing life to an inanimate object, putting your movement on it and your personality in it. It's a challenge in a totally different way. You can do things that you can't do in a traditional sense with dance."
Ian saw it as a way to emphasize movement while telling new kinds of stories.
"I think that you boil a dancer down to their essence when you say that the only thing you have here is your movement," he says. "You don't have the benefit of your pretty smile. How are you going to bring this character to life? In all of our pieces, if you don't feel for these characters, you're not going to sit there for a show."
They started creating costumes with the electroluminescent wire, but living in New York presented some obstacles.
"You couldn't build a show in New York," Eleanor says. Moving cumbersome costumes and finding rehearsal space was prohibitive. "We'd have to take two taxis to go to a studio."
Nevertheless, New York offered them limited opportunities to test their creations. The Carneys lived near City Park in Manhattan, and once they took a couple of ostrich costumes to the park at 4 a.m. to shoot videotape of the costumes in darkness. The park closes at 1 a.m., and police officers soon arrived.
"They were like, 'What are you doing?,'" Ian says. But the officers were more amused than concerned when the Carneys lit up the white ostrich costumes.
"Those cops were like, 'That is the coolest thing I have ever seen,'" Ian says. "Both cops melted like children. Then they found out we were in Billy Joel's show. We asked, 'Do you need us to leave?' They said, 'No, you just do what you wanna do.'"
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Carneys wanted to move home. Ian attended Metairie Park Country Day and Tulane University and was the son of artists. His father was painter Hal Carney and his mother is choreographer Diane Carney, whose Ballet Hysell will present The Nutcracker at Jefferson Performing Arts Society while A Very Electric Christmas runs at the Joy. Eleanor attended Louise S. McGehee School and her mother was a writer for the Dixie Roto magazine in The Times-Picayune. Ian and Eleanor danced professionally with several ballet companies before moving to New York.
The Carneys convinced the Popps to move to New Orleans with them, and together they founded CORBiAN Visual Arts and Dance. They debuted their first show, Darwin the Dinosaur, in 2007. It featured battling dinosaurs, a scientist, fish and birds.
As they began to develop their second show, The Ugly Duckling, the company changed. The Popps left New Orleans when Corbin entered dental school, and they now have three children and live in Denver, and they consult with the Carneys on choreography and technical aspects. The Carneys created Lightwire Theater but Darwin still tours under both companies' names. While the group was on America's Got Talent, Corbin developed technological improvements, including using rechargeable batteries to get brighter light and creating a switching system that allowed characters to transform on stage. He still builds pieces for their shows.
The Carneys committed to making Lightwire Theater a full-time focus in January 2012. After teaching dance at Tulane University for four years, they decided to stop teaching and dancing for other companies. They completed the semester in May, and then scouts for America's Got Talent found video of Lightwire Theater on YouTube. The timing was perfect, but it wasn't an easy choice for the Carneys.
"We hemmed and hawed about it," Ian says. "We had two touring shows out. Our work was good. Did we want to put it in front of these three guys — Howard Stern — who could push an 'X' and say, 'You're terrible,' and people will believe them?"
But there were possibilities too.
"What if this is our opportunity?" Eleanor asked. "It's not easy to make people understand what we do. It's light; it's not dance exactly."
Ultimately, the exposure was hard to pass up, especially since they had so much professional experience. Even if their act was less conventional than the singers, dancers and comedians competing on the show, they knew they'd be polished and prepared. But being on TV still added pressure.
"It's an incredible level of pressure," Ian says. "With Movin' Out, I performed at the Tony Awards. So we were at Radio City (Music Hall). We opened the Tony Awards with Billy Joel singing from Times Square. I remember that feeling: Millions of people right now are going to watch."
"We're not nervous performers, but you know that 10 million people are going to see you," Eleanor adds. "At the end of the day, it's going to be Ian and me standing in the middle."
In response to challenges from the judges, they worked hard to create new pieces and new effects with their third and fourth appearances. Their final performance featured three creatures battling with light sabers.
"It was great because it pushed us artistically like we had not been pushed before," Eleanor says.
"We're storytellers," Ian explains. "Give us an hour and a half, and it's no problem. But when you get 90 seconds, it's hard. What are you going to say? You have to boil it down to two sentences. It taught us to focus on what the essence is."
America's Got Talent also offers its audiences personal offstage drama, but "Our biggest fault is that we're not interesting enough," Eleanor says with a laugh.
"We have just loved each other and been married," Ian says. "We work really hard. I don't have a drinking problem. We're not heroin addicts. They were like, OK, you're going to be the couple that loves each other and dances ballet. They didn't push us. We felt they represented us fairly on the show."
Entertainment producers liked what Lightwire brought to the stage. The company was invited to perform for three months in a live stage version of the show in Las Vegas. Following that engagement, Lightwire competed on the French TV station TF1's talent show The Best: Le Meilleur Artiste and reached the final round. That was followed by 25 days performing in a Sony promotional campaign in France. Then they returned to Las Vegas for another run of America's Got Talent Live.
Finishing Lightwire: The Show will give the company four shows, and there will be three companies touring at once. It's a challenging period of growth and the Carneys are hands-on with everything. In mid-November, Eleanor returned from a tour in Belarus and immediately had to fly to British Columbia to replace a dancer who left the touring company. She spent 10 days with the group while Ian worked on the choreography of A Very Electric Christmas. Eleanor plays the baby bird in the bird family, but for a few rehearsals, someone else had to fill her scenes in The Ugly Duckling's duck costume.
Because the company creates its own lightwire outfits, each touring group has to include a manager who understands all the technological aspects of the equipment to maintain and repair it after energetic performances.
Lightwire has grown from a touring theatrical show to an entertainment company with shows booked everywhere from Hong Kong to Abu Dubai, Paris to Belarus and Estonia. As their small business grows into a large one with 19 performers split between three companies, they handle the little details, like taking their own publicity photos, while directing and starring in their own shows. The Carneys believe they're just scratching the surface of the medium's potential. They would like to do more TV programming, and they're thinking about creating their own resident live stage show.
"We want a full-scale installation show," Carney says. "Like Cirque du Soleil does. We want to create a world you just can't believe."
It's a lot to undertake, and sometimes their outfits are a source of relief.
"You know what we need to do right now?'" Ian sometimes tells Eleanor when the stresses of the business pile up. "To run around as a dinosaur."
But that's not always easy. Just like they were stopped in Central Park, the police were called one night when they were running around in Audubon Park.
"The cop said, 'I stopped you because cars are stopping in the middle of the road because you're a dinosaur — and that's not normal,'" Ian says. "Seriously, I asked him, 'You got called out to find a glowing red dinosaur?'"
But the minor traffic stop is worth it to them.
"Every time you get so bogged down with building and everything else, you just put a costume on and go run around the park," Ian says. "It just lights people's faces up and you remember why you do it."