aga khan toronto

Toronto is getting a new light show with dancing molecules and it looks pretty trippy

The newest light show coming to Toronto is going to be one of the trippiest yet, and though it's years in the making you can get a glimpse of it now. 

IAM: Dance of the Molecules by Toronto artist and scientist Radha Chaddah will eventually become a live four-act 50-minute immersive multimedia outdoor experience, but for now the first act premiered Mar. 5 at the Aga Khan Museum as a digital exhibition.

"We created this piece in response to the fear that gripped humankind with the coming of the COVID pandemic in early 2020, and as an adaptive response to the limitations placed on artistic creation during a time of pandemic," Chaddah told blogTO.

"IAM is a collection of COVID-19 stories told through dance and light. Each of its four acts is set in a sequentially larger scale of material reality, starting with the molecular, then moving into the human, the global, and finally the universal," reads a press release.

"IAM, whose title is derived from the Latin word for 'now,' gathers the four material realms presented across the series — molecular, human, planetary, universal — into the same temporal space.

"By encouraging audiences to consider their connection to invisible material realities, this project shines light on how humanity has been co-evolving with viruses for millenia."

Chaddah has degrees in Film and Art History and has a Master of Science in cell and molecular Neurobiology, all of which have informed her creation of this piece.

"I started playing with projecting 3D molecular models of COVID-related molecules I found at a free online database called the RCSB PDB. I used models of the structure of the coronavirus spike protein, the human ACE2 receptor that brings the virus into our cells, and the human ribosome that replicates it," says Chaddah.

"I had been given a gorgeous high lumen laser projector by Epson for a show that had been cancelled by the pandemic. I played with animating the models with rotation and then began to project them outdoors onto a living green stage of trees and grass."

What resulted was a living landscape that feels organic yet surreal and can transport a viewer to the molecular level, the eventual backdrop for the dancers in IAM.

"The combination of all these elements created an incredible depth and sweep of motion, bringing to life an immersive stage environment about 50 feet high, 80 feet wide and 50 feet deep," says Chaddah.

"Layering the molecular realm onto a moving living projected canvas of trees and grass really drives home the symbolism of this piece, that all these scales of material reality are intimately connected, a living whole that we are a small part of."

From there, Chaddah worked with designers from Call and Response Cathy Robinson, Lori Marcuz and Annie Robinson to test the play of light on different fabrics at weekly rehearsals, trying to "capture an essence of the molecular characters," according to Chaddah.

"The voluminous and complex curved neoprene ribosome. The Coronavirus and ACE2 in diaphanous organza gleam in the projected light that casts all the way through the depth of the costume, creating added dimension. Their costumes have an asymmetrical but complementary shape, symbolizing their fate to bond," she says.

Production had to be distanced with all filming taking place outdoors, wearing masks and in groups of no more than five, with scoring and editing being managed remotely. You can currently experience IAM: Dance of the Molecules virtually online, but the ultimate plan is to be able to experience all four acts live in 2023.

"A live performance ups the level of engagement of the viewer because the scale of the projections is so large that it becomes immersive for the audience.  We staged a few viewings of the finished piece last fall before we finished production on the fim, and after the performance, invited the audience to step into explore the immersive green stage," says Chaddah.

"We would want future live audiences to be able to have that experience too. Also, Dan Bédard has done an incredible job of producing a sound sculpted score, and the sonic installation that accompanies the live performance will add an extra dimension to the sweeping feel of the piece as the sound will feel as though it is moving around the audience."

With development and film production happening this summer and fall in 2021 for Act 2, and summer/fall 2022 for Act 3 and 4, that live experience is a bit far off, but people who have been taking in the virtual version of the show have been responding well even without being fully "immersed."

"The piece is hitting a nerve," says Chaddah. "They are telling us that it's like a kind of COVID therapy, it's relaxing for people to watch, and to begin to frame their thinking around COVID in a different way."

Lead photo by

Radha Chaddah

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