Design Considerations For The Performance Installation "Love, A State Of Grace"

Joanna Haigood of Zaccho Dance Theater was intrigued by the idea of a site-specific dance performance in collaboration with Grace Cathedral at the pinnacle of Nob Hill in San Francisco since 2018. The result is Love, a state of grace, an aerial performance installation seen for two weeks in February 2022.

At Grace Cathedral, the set pieces included three towering apparatuses hosting aerial dancers, and each representing different phases of being in love. They were spread through the soaring cathedral:

     • The Surrender: 87’-tall aerial pendulum swing which is flown through the nave

     • The Striving: 100’-tall asymmetrical steel ladder which is ascended by a dancer

      • The Quieting: 20’-tall visually delicate yet physically formidable hourglass sculpture; a flown cantilevered pedestal  

Lighting Design

“We were introduced to the project in the height the pandemic in 2021 and saw the profound opportunity to support the work of a dear friend and artist as a gift of love and art for our community,” says Krissy Kenny, lighting designer at Lightswitch

“With limited available power, condensed installation time, and long throw distances as our primary challenges we were able to overcome each obstacle with simple, yet robust LED fixtures,” adds Kenny, who notes that six Elation Proteus Maximus fixtures provided powerful top light and back light for the Striving, top light for the Quieting, and long throw front light for the Surrender. “These lights are also able to double as architectural toning to showcase the structure of the Cathedral itself.”

Elation EWDMX transceivers provided a reliable connection over long distances which helped reduce the amount of time spent running cable to distant positions in the clearstory and transept. “No cable running along the floor helps maintain accessibility, since the audience is encouraged to explore the open floor plan.

An ETC Eos Family Ion XE20 was the heart of our control, giving us flexibility to use multiple cue lists and timecode to precisely execute the three distinct pieces as a complete show,” explains Kenny.

Additional fixtures, including 33 ETC SourceFour Series 2 Lustr ellipsoidals and 12 GLP Impression X4 S comprised the majority of the main lighting system as top and side light for the long pendulum of the Surrender. “The GLP’s in full-spot were able to run multiple positions and execute live tracking as the performers move through their floor work and the entire height of the ladder for the Striving,” Kenny notes. “Astera AX3’s rounded out the equipment, highlighting the edges of the Quieting, running on battery and wireless control they enhance the meditative isolation of the tower.”

As Kenny explains: “The concepts of love and light are often entwined throughout history and spiritual works. The core theme of the show is ‘the experience of love’, which draws parallels with the theme of ‘light’. Both can focus our attention, both can illuminate and reveal, both have properties that relate to energy and can be translated through movement, waves, and vibrations. The lighting design in the show had to subtly embed itself with the space, the performers, and the scenic elements in a way that would reveal and support but not overwhelm the piece,”

Much like the sound design, Grace Cathedral itself had a say in the most effective design choices. “We found that the natural daylight was a powerful ally in creating our color palette, and the vast stone background provided a welcoming canvas that revealed nuances in color and shadow in extraordinary ways.

Shadows played with the bare stone walls over long distances adding movement and texture from the performers and the apparatuses,” says Kenny.

“Mimicking the way natural light combined through the stained glass led us to a color palette of ambers, lavenders, daylight white, and cobalt blues,” the LD concludes. “Haze enhances the beams through the air, lending softness and creating to a transcendent atmosphere. The biggest key was finding the balance of the expansive space within the venue while enhancing the audience’s intimacy and closeness with the dancers.”

Love, A State Of Grace


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Lighting gear list:

•               6 Elation Proteus Maximus

•              33 ETC Source Four Lustr Series 2 Ellipsoidals

•              12 GLP X4 S

•              12 Astera AX3

•               1 ETC Ion XE20

•               1 Response MIDI Gateway

•               8 Elation EWDMX Transceivers

•               2 Radiance Base Hazers

Sound Design

“I approached the Cathedral with a growing understanding of its storied history, and I imaged everything those walls had heard and reflected over the past six-plus decades,” notes sound designer Walter Kitundu. “The behavior of sound within those walls suggests that your actions have implications that you can't immediately understand. Anything close to you sounds clear while any distant voices arrive colored by the building itself, shaped and blended in unexpected ways.”

For Kitundu, “Developing the score for the work was challenging because not only are you dealing with a 10-second decay, you are faced with a large expanse of space, one that reveals that sound itself has to travel to meet the listeners in the room. Organists are quite familiar with the latency that brings the sound from the back of the church to their ears moments after they depress the corresponding key.”

As a result, he designed the work to absorb the timing differences and created three pools of sound that could merge when and how the building wanted. “The three stereo pairs would provide the necessary cues to the dancers working on the scenic elements where they were located, but blended with the other pools without relying on a synchronous arrival of sound to the audience's ears. When the organ was playing all of the sections would receive that sound equally. It felt as though the walls were speaking. The organ really is the voice of the building and it helped connect all the arenas of sound together when it was resounding.’

The show runs off an Ableton Live file with Live MTC generating MIDI Timecode. Three stereo tracks are output to the six speakers (db Technologies ingenia IG4T, with Yamaha DSX15 Subs) via a Behringer XR18. “One additional track holds the click for the organist, Christopher Keady, to follow in the sections he plays live,” Kitundu explains.

Rigging Design

“Bringing this site-specific aerial performance piece to life has been a two-year long process of research and collaboration between rigging and choreography to successfully execute a clean design,” says rigging designer David Freitag. “In January of 2021, during the height of the pandemic, Grace Cathedral granted us a one-month residency to build, test, and rehearse the main scenic elements of the show. The gothic architecture of the cathedral informed the primary framework for the rigging design. Lessons learned during this crucial creation period allowed us to return in January 2022 with the knowledge needed to execute the revised design for performance within a very compressed production timeline. Without it, this performance would not have been possible.

For Freitag, each of the large set pieces presented its own rigging design challenges, the most complex of which was the execution of the "big swing" element which occurs at the top of the show. “The dancer mounts the swing at floor level, clips into a Petzl ‘Rig’ self-belay device, then is lifted via chain hoist (hidden in the gallery level) to 13' up off the floor of the nave,” he explains. “The simultaneous lift of swing and dancer is achieved by resolving both swing and dancer lines to a single clew, fixed to the lifting hook. The swing is then manually pulled back 60' high by two riggers in the grid via a 300’ bridled rope. This hauling line is deaded off on one side of the cathedral at the clearstory level, runs through a floating idler sheave secured to the center back of the swing using a small modified 3-ring parachute release mechanism, then redirected up into the catwalk. 

Once the performer reaches maximum altitude, a fourth rigger pulls on a long paracord "trigger" line which trips the release, sending the swing and performer into a massive pendulum arch over 120' down over the nave and altar, then soaring high above the choir and back again. Because the swing is so tall, it dissipates energy rapidly, losing momentum far too quickly to maintain motion for a 20-minute piece. To sustain the swing energy, we designed a manual pullback system of dyneema ropes fixed 10' below the upper fulcrum point of the swing, which a rigger pulls back on evenly to add kinetic energy into the swing. This process of "bellringing" on each backswing evolved into a dance within a dance between rigger and dancer. Each sequence is carefully choreographed to sustain momentum via manual pullback over the 20-minute performance piece cycle. During a three-hour show, the rigger pulls back on the swing lines repeatedly for 60+ minutes. It may look like magic, but to pull off this effect in its entirety takes a team of four riggers working in unison to lift, pullback, release, and maintain the swing for the duration of the piece.  During creation, we experimented with using automation and capstan winches, but given our budget and time-restraints, we ultimately discovered that the human-powered mechanical solutions gave us the most elegant results,” continues Freitag.

“The rigging design for the show uses a myriad of traditional tools and rope tricks borrowed from arena, theatrical, rock climbing, and rope access rigging disciplines, which all effectively combine with choreography to maintain the illusion of simplicity in our suspended dance with gravity,” he concludes “The opportunity to design a show whose central message is 'love', in collaboration with a team of tremendously talented artists, and share it with the community via rigging a massive swing in the middle of a large gothic cathedral has been one of the most uniquely creative and rewarding experiences of my life, not only as a rigger, but as a human being.”

Take a peek:


Specialty rigging gear list:

•     2 - 1/2 ton chain motor, wrapped in packing blankets for sound baffling (to lift the swing and podium dancers)

•     1 - 1 ton chain motor (to lift the 1200lb steel ladder in 7 sections)

•     28 Rock Exotica 1.5 and 2.0 Omni-Block Sheaves (for lifting and a myriad of redirects around architectural features)

•     10 10' sticks of 12" Tomcat Truss

•     40 2" ratchet straps

•     8 80' 1/4" guywires equipped with 1/4" strand vises

•     1500' of Sterling, and Bluewater 11mm static ropes used for dancer, swing, ladder belay, hauling, access, and rescue lines

•     1 AMSPEC small 3-ring parachute release mechanism

•     2 Petzl Rig belay devices

•     50 Steel Carabiners (various mfg)

•     100 Shackles (various sizes)

•     4 2-ton beam clamps

•     100+ of 2" 1.5" sch 40 steel pipe (for lighting positions, anchor points, etc.