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Jabbawockeez's Vegas hip-hop dance show kicks up the tech

Using lasers, sensors and more, the dancers work fireballs and spaceships into their intense choreography.

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The Jabbawockeez show uses a lot of lights instead of physical props.

Jabbawockeez

For a high-profile Las Vegas show, Jabbawockeez has a pretty barren stage.

There's no 1.5 million-gallon tank as with Cirque du Soleil's show, no trapeze artists flying through the air. The stage, one of many show sites inside the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, measures only a little bigger than my 300-square-foot hotel room. Morgan Gould, the company manager, has an elegant word for it -- he calls the limited space "intimate."

It's the smallest stage for any of the three shows Jabbawockeez has had in Las Vegas since 2010. The troupe landed there after winning the America's Best Dance Crew competition on MTV in 2008, bringing along its trademark masks and innovative hip-hop choreography.

Technology has helped transform that restricted space into a point of distinction. While special effects may be a thing for live shows like Broadway's "Aladdin" and a Beyonce concert may bring holographic effects, dance shows are typically low-tech, with the focus on the moves themselves.

I'm in Vegas for CES, the annual celebration of the latest in electronics gear and high-tech wishful thinking. This year's show has brought us, among other things, Razer's concept for a laptop that a phone can snap into, the integration of Alexa into the bathroom so you can talk to your shower and toilet, and lots and lots of robots, including a humanoid named Sophia that's just learned to walk, and even dance a bit.

So let's see how real dancers break the mold and embrace technology. I stopped by the Jabbawockeez rehearsal one evening to see how they do it.

Now Playing: Watch this: Behind the scenes of the Jabbawockeez's high-tech choreography
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As I walk in, the entire wall that the audience faces, from the sides of the venue to the stage, has a massive projection on it, with dimensions for each segment, like you'd see when you're setting your desktop resolution. That's the group's 3D mapping tool, which lets the producers plan out where videos should go and how the dancers can align with the projections.

"You can use all these types of effects now with the choreography to make it look more stunning and appealing," says Kid Rainen, one of the original Jabbawockeez members. "The stage is not a huge stage, but because of the screens, we're able to utilize this space and make it work for a more intimate crowd."

Without much space for physical props, the Jabbawockeez team turned to digital constructs, using motion sensors and lots of lights and lasers in the show. In parts of their performance, the dancers appear to shoot fireballs or fly in spaceships, without needing to haul any props on stage. 

During the space scene, the Jabbawockeez dancers appear to be pressing buttons on the projection and timing their moves to slide it to different sections of the stage. Then one dancer presses the wrong button, the song turns to sirens, the ship in the projection explodes and the dancers are out in space again.

In another scene, the background projection is an animation from the video game Guitar Hero, and two dancers appear as if they're playing the game to their choreography.

The effects have become a major part of the crew's creative process, with technicians pulling double duty as choreographers too. Luckily for them, producer and programmer Mark Burke, better known as Biz, was a choreographer for '90s boy-band sensation NSYNC.

He sits in on the troupe's planning sessions, and throws in ideas about what tech's available, like an infrared tracking camera he's thinking of using again.

"It would track the guys on stage, and we're hoping to bring it back. We just weren't using it to its full capability then," Biz says.

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The Jabbawockeez masks hanging up backstage.

Alfred Ng/CNET

Don't sweat the tech-nique

From the audience's perspective, the show can look minimalist, but taking a peek backstage and upstairs, where Biz sits, it's as if you've walked into an IT control center.

Behind the stage, we walk past a curtain with "OUCH" sewn into it. Too many people have bumped into the support beam hiding behind it, Biz tells me. He leads me to a control tower, roughly the size of two bookshelves.

It holds four Mac Pros, two of which are backups, a laser machine and a device called a Time Code Distripulizer, which makes sure that all the songs, videos and lights go off when they're supposed to. Above it is a tangle of hundreds of wires leading into a control nest perched across from the stage.

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Biz controls the stage lights and doors through a QLab app on his iPad Pro. 

Alfred Ng/CNET

There, Biz has a bird's-eye view, but he's tapping away at an iPad Pro and four iMacs to control the lights, the music, the screens and the videos. It's all running through QLab, software designed to help the stage crew manage the lights and walls from an app.

During the show, Biz is watching for visual cues, since the Jabbawockeez dancers don't talk. A thumbing of the nose can mean "cue up the next song in 30 seconds."

Making sure everything runs smoothly can be a stressful gig. The slightest misstep -- a video playing at the wrong time, a projection fritzing out -- could throw the show out of whack. It's the risk you take when you rely so much on digital effects instead of something tangible. Timing has to be impeccable.

"When it's all working the way it's supposed to work, it's a press of a button and you just watch," Biz says. "But I don't get paid to press buttons, I get paid to protect the show."    

It's show time

During the rehearsal, nine Jabbawockeez members try out different ways to do a backflip routine. There are no videos or light show effects.

The only technology is a small boom box playing the music, and a phone that accidentally fell out of Rainen's pocket while he was doing head spins. Without all the visual effects, it looks like a dance show you could see for free near a subway station in New York.

When the Jabbawockeez first performed in Vegas, it took about two weeks to put together a one-minute idea with its visual effects. So they mostly stuck to real-life props. Seven years later, with all the tech advancements, it takes about three days, Rainen said.

About every six months, they revisit what technology is available and how they can change the show.

"A lot of our fans who have seen our first and second show, they know that we have a lot of props. When you come to this show, and you see the stage, there's nothing there," he says. "But you'll be surprised at what we can pull off on this stage with the technology we have now."

First published Jan. 12 at 5:00 a.m. PT.
Update at 9:00 a.m. PT: Added details from the Jabbawockeez show.

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