Lightwire Theater brings dance and storytelling to Schaeffer Auditorium

KU Presents! will finish this year’s Family Series with a truly imaginative rendition of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Ugly Duckling,” by New Orleans-based Lightwire Theater 2 p.m. Sunday, April 7, Schaeffer Auditorium at Kutztown University.

Using their signature combination of electroluminescent effects, puppetry, dance and music, the company will create unforgettable images that will thrill audience members of all ages. Founded in 2007 by four professional dancers, Lightwire Theater was a semi-finalist in “America’s Got Talent” in 2012 (Season 7) and has toured the United States and traveled all over the world to great acclaim.

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Ian Carney, one of the founders, and his wife and co-founder Eleanor, both born and currently living in New Orleans, run Lightwire Theater from their home, where they have a building that houses a workshop, storage and rehearsal space. In a recent interview, Ian Carney told the story of how the company came to be.

It all began when Carney and Corbin Popp were hired as dancers for “Movin’ Out,” the 2002 Broadway musical based on the music of Billy Joel, with choreography by Twyla Tharp. Carney started as a swing and replacement for various roles but wound up playing the role of Tony (Anthony in the ‘Movin’ Out’ song, also called ‘Anthony’s Song’) and dancing in the opening of the 2003 Tony Awards show.

He and Popp, Eleanor and Popp’s wife Whitney became close friends during the three years they were involved in the show.

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“Corbin found this stuff – electroluminescent wire (E.L. wire), that was meant for party hats for kids, or raver parties,” Carney said. “It’s a copper core, covered with phosphorous, and then a gel on the outside that gives it color. It has a natural feel to it because it’s a continuous line and we loved that line.”

They started experimenting to see how they could use the intriguing stuff. First, they made a little man-puppet that could hang from a person’s body. Then they made a dinosaur costume with a backward leg attached to the waist and a head that could be held in a hand. The features were outlined in E.L. wire. In the dark, only those could be seen; the dancers’ bodies disappeared.

“We were intrigued about erasing the person and being left with whatever is lit,” Carney said. “Usually, it’s all about you as a dancer, but this is making it all about the character, not the dancer.”

He explained that each costume/puppet has a single power source inside, with XLR connectors carrying the light out to all the limbs. Dimmers allow the dancer to control the lights to create certain effects. Carney uses all kinds of recycled/reused materials, like skateboard wheels, plumbing supplies, duct tape and fishing poles, to make the puppet heads and limbs and wings.

Their first piece was short, a little story about a professor who creates a dinosaur because he is lonely (a nod to “Coppelia”); when the dinosaur comes to life, he almost kills the professor, until the man builds the dinosaur a heart and they become best friends. When they saw the finished product, the Carneys and Popps realized they could tell a great story in this way, with startling visual impact.

In 2007, they launched their first full-length show, “Dino-Light.” By that time, they had left New York and returned to New Orleans just after Hurricane Katrina, which had devastated the city in 2005.

“We’re from New Orleans,” Carney said, “and we wanted to hire New Orleans people. And it’s such a weird thing we’re doing that we thought it’s an appropriate city to be attached to.” Meanwhile, the Popps, expecting twins, moved to Colorado after the first show, where Corbin became a dentist and opened his own dental practice. He is still the technical director of Lightwire Theater, returning every so often to design electrical systems.

Carney had grown up on the campus of Tulane University, where his father, Hal Carney (who passed away when Ian was 17), was a professor of art. The family lived in faculty housing and Ian was babysat by various professors in the art department. His mother, Diane Carney, taught dance at one of two studios in New Orleans that produced professional dancers; she is teaching there still.

He started learning ballet as a child and studied for several years. “I quit for a while,” he said. “I caved in to being made fun of.” But he went back to it and became a professional. He and Eleanor met in a dance class when they were 13. After they were married and already had established careers, they began appearing together in various “Nutcrackers” throughout the country as guest soloists, dancing the Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier.

Now they are committed fulltime to Lightwire, with Carney designing and building the characters and Eleanor handling the office duties. Both still perform in some of the shows. They now have six full-length productions; at the moment, “Dino-Light” is on tour on the West Coast for the entire year; “The Ugly Duckling” is being toured part-time, with the Carneys performing in the Kutztown show.

In the summers, the Carneys take Lightwire on tour abroad; this summer they will return to China, a favorite destination. They have also gone to Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and various countries in Europe.

“We travel to so many places, and we never have to translate anything,” Carney said. “With dance, you involve the participation of the audience to the maximum. It’s a great side product of coming from dance.

“It’s so great to see and hear the reactions of the crowds to the work. We do a small talkback afterwards and we reveal how we make the costumes and how we do the lights. Everyone loves it.”

All tickets for “The Ugly Duckling” by Lightwire Theater are $15 and can be purchased at or by calling the KU Presents! Box Office 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday at 610-683-4092. Established to be the center of cultural life at Kutztown University, KU Presents! serves the campus and community by bringing world-class live arts that entertain, educate and enrich.

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