Aerial Rigging: Q&A With Jonathan Deull

Aerial Rigging: Q&A With Jonathan Deull

Jonathan Deull has been a student of aerial performer rigging since 1996 when his daughter began performing as a circus aerialist at the age of seven. He has designed and executed aerial circus and acrobatic rigging both in the U.S. and internationally, and is the author of the chapter on rigging in Aerial Dance, by Jayne Bernasconi and Nancy Smith.

A co-founder of AirBorne DC! and director of Zip Zap Circus USA, he currently works freelance on theatre and special event production and design projects and teaches seminars on aerial performer rigging. He is an ETCP Certified Theatrical Rigger and ETCP Recognized Rigging Trainer, and a member of the Safety Committee of the American Circus Educators Association (ACE) and American Youth Circus Organization (AYCO). At LDI2015, he will be teaching a two-day session: Rigging for Aerial Acrobatics, Circus and Dance: Advanced Topics on Wednesday and Thursday, October 21 and 22. Live Design chats with Deull about the core principles and practices of aerial rigging.

Live Design: What are the most important principles and practices of aerial rigging?

Jonathan Deull: While rigging for aerial performance builds on the same basic principles (and physics) as other entertainment rigging, it also adds levels of complexity, first and foremost due to the dynamic forces regularly applied to the rigging system by the movement of both the performers and the systems supporting them. As entertainment riggers, we are correctly taught to avoid “shock loading”—the rapid application of force to our system, usually resulting from a fast start or a fast stop. But in some forms of aerial performance, shock loading happens naturally as part of every performance. In addition, as soon as you put a human being in the air, you are creating a new set of risks to be assessed and managed. Complicating this further is the reality that every performance is different. Understanding and addressing the inherent risks involved, and including an appreciation of (and the ability to quantify) the complex dynamic forces, are key to aerial rigging. 

LD: What are the advantages of using computerized load-cell technology?

JD: The forces generated by performers as they move through the air can be very dramatic, and they can also be counterintuitive. It is possible, using mathematical formulas, to estimate the force generated by dynamic movements in a performance setting. However, these are textbook rather than real world numbers. We use load cells on a regular basis to demonstrate the actual forces generated by the performance. Load cells also allow us to break test our equipment and hardware. While useful for other applications, this is particularly helpful for aerial riggers since apparatus and equipment is frequently custom-fabricated or adapted from components designed for other uses.  

LD: What are the most important safety considerations?

JD: First, we make sure that we understand all of the forces and loads that the performance will actually or potentially generate. Next, we ensure that our system, including all of its components, have sufficient strength, used as we are going to use them, to support those loads, including an appropriate design factor. Beyond those basics, we need to ensure that we have thought through and addressed all of the risks and hazards inherent in our activity—what could possibly go wrong?—and that we have realistic and effective plans and strategies in place to mitigate or respond to them. Hope is not a strategy.

AirBorne! photo courtesy Jonathan Deull

LD: what makes a good aerial rigger?

JD: Our workshops focus on three areas, each of which is critically important if you want to be a good aerial rigger. The first is knowledge: being able to analyze and solve problems based on a real understanding of what is happening. This opens the door to making appropriate choices, which is key since there is always more than one way to “skin a cat.” The second is skill: being able to make the connections, tie the knots, climb the structure. The third, and to me the most important, is attitude. As in other rigging, attention to detail, neatness, perfectionism, and even a bit of OCD, are helpful. Since aerial rigging is seldom a “cookie cutter” operation, creativity and problem-solving skills are useful. And finally, the human dimension of aerial rigging is critical. As an aerial rigger, the performers are your “load,” but they are also your clients, your partners, your directors, and, yes, your bosses. While it is also true in life and in other areas of show business, a good aerial rigger really needs to be able to work collaboratively, to listen well and communicate clearly, to be open to learning new things, and to play nicely with others.

LD: Who should take your course at LDI?

JD: There was a time, not long ago, when rigging for aerial performance was a small and arcane subset of entertainment rigging, shrouded in lore and mystery, and performed only by a few masters. Even experienced and well-qualified theatre and arena riggers were not expected to be able to deal with it. Specialists debated whether it was even a good idea to share the know-how, since, to some, “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing." Today, many styles and modes of performance incorporate aerial elements, and it is a rare venue or production that does not have some aerial component involved. The skills and techniques of rigging for aerial performance are becoming more in demand, and more mainstream. My personal view is that in today’s world, in order to be a knowledgeable, well-rounded, qualified entertainment rigger, it helps to have aerial performance rigging skills in your toolbox. Even if you are not directly responsible for design or operation of aerial rigging systems, being able to interact effectively with those who are can be very helpful, both in making the magic happen and in promoting safer practices.

Having said that, this particular course is not intended to provide basic training in entertainment rigging. It assumes a level of knowledge of rigging principles that we will build on through hands-on practical activities. For those with that basic knowledge, whether they be riggers, designers, technical directors, carpenters, choreographers, or performers, this workshop will be valuable.

The course will be co-taught by Ray Pierce and Delbert Hall.

Register for Rigging for Aerial Acrobatics, Circus and Dance: Advanced Topics by midnight on Friday, September 18 to save $100. 

TAGS: Theatre
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