How Kansas City’s Quixotic has navigated the pandemic through multimodal performances

Quixotic, a performing arts group in Kansas City/Shawn Brackbill

Quixotic is nothing in particular. That’s the beauty of it.

Generally, when attending a live performance, you know what you’re going to get. Go see a band, you’ll get dudes with guitars. Go to the ballet, you’ll see women in tights. Quixotic doesn’t work like that. They live outside of the box. Or more accurately, the rectangle.

We live, you see, in an age of rectangles. All day, we play with the tiny, glowing rectangles in our hands. At work, we stare at medium-sized rectangles on a desktop. For fun, we stare at big rectangles in the living room and dream of a time, post-pandemic, when we can return to staring at huge rectangles in a theater. Even live bands and ballet exist inside a proscenium, the rectangular arch separating an audience from the stage.

Photography by Shawn Brackbill

Quixotic is different. There is no box. If you need people dancing on the brick walls of Tom’s Town distillery on a hot summer night, they can do that. If you want to see someone twirl in a flaming dress on a dock at Lake Lotawana, they can do that, too. If you need to transform a botanical garden into a surreal fantasy world with the help of two hundred wash lights, lasers, a string quartet and fairies suspended in aerial hammocks, they’ve got you covered. They did all that stuff last year alone.

They can because they are, in the best way, nothing in particular. They aren’t a dance troupe, though dance often forms a centerpiece of their stage shows. They aren’t a band, though live music plays an integral role. They certainly aren’t a circus, though any given performance might include circus arts, from aerial acrobatics to contortionists. It’s a mix by definition—a mercurial blend of sound, movement, light and color that’s explicitly designed to shapeshift into whatever the venue or circumstance requires.

Quixotic’s unofficial credo has long been “no theater, no problem,” says co-founder and creative director Anthony Magliano. For most of the troupe’s seventeen-year history, that’s meant pushing to work outside traditional performance venues, often creating site-specific performances from a toolbox of assorted spectacles. In a weird way, that experience made the group unusually adaptable to life in a pandemic-stricken world. After hunkering down through the initial shock, Magliano realized that his group was uniquely suited to this odd, new existence.

Photography by Shawn Brackbill

“We’ve always been the group that doesn’t really fit into the performing arts circuit,” he says. “We prefer to go and perform somewhere that people have never been before.

Maybe it’s the woods, maybe it’s a rooftop, maybe it’s a warehouse.”

All of which, conveniently enough, have been available for socially-distanced shows. It’s just the latest evolution in a run that started in 2004. Magliano was working in the art department at Bernstein-Rein, an advertising agency on the Plaza.

Magliano and Noel Selders, a composer and multi-instrumentalist, started the troupe as an experimental collaboration. The idea was simply to join with friends in dance, music and fashion to make the arts a little more accessible. Some of their first shows were staged in a vacant office building downtown where they spent more time cleaning out junk left behind than they did rehearsing. Soon, though, the performances became more polished, the venues got nicer, the audiences bigger. The creative team started to grow, most notably in 2006, when executive producer Mica Thomas joined.

In 2009, the group staged “Surface,” a one-night-only, site-specific installation using the facade of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art for a canvas. In 2011, they created a mix of projected imagery and aerobatics for the grand opening of the Kauffman Center. The show particularly impressed the center’s architect, Moshe Safdie, which led to a gig for the opening of another Safdie-designed project, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville.

Photography by Shawn Brackbill

That was a watershed. The next year, 2012, Quixotic was invited to perform at the main TED event in Long Beach, California. Shows followed, not just across the country but in places as far-flung as India, China and Qatar. In 2016, the group performed at the grand opening of the Smithsonian’s newest addition, the National Museum of African American History and Culture. In just twelve years, Quixotic had gone from a lark for art’s sake to a spot on the National Mall.

2019 was another big year for the collective. They traveled all over the country and took over their own theater space in Crown Center, using the newly-named Quixotic Theater to stage Sensatia, the group’s interpretation of a cabaret’s burlesque. 2020 was set to be an even bigger year, but then everything came to a halt amid the pan-demic. After “taking some time to reimagine,” they ended up putting together a small run of one-off shows at places like Lake Lotawana and Weatherby Lake, where the audience floated up in boats. They also staged a show on the rooftop of the Westin Hotel called Twilight Soiree, in which Magliano leaned into “very feel-good vibes.”

Photography by Shawn Brackbill

“Most people who came, it was the first entertainment they’d seen outside of their home since the lockdown,” he says. “So it was all about, ‘Let’s celebrate being together, let’s celebrate the arts in Kansas City.’”

As light has appeared at the end of the tunnel, Quixotic has slowed down its live shows and started streaming from their headquarters in the Crossroads. Their newest performances, ironically enough, are set in a box, echoing the sense of confinement so many of us feel in these difficult days. The group’s future, though, like Quixotic itself, is utterly unbound.

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