Zaccho Dance Theater's Picture Red Hook

The weekend of August 22-24, Dancing in the Streets, New York's site-specific dance organization, produced Picture Red Hook in Red Hook, Brooklyn, at the Port Authority Grain Terminal, a grain processing plant that was used in the first half of the 20th century. Zaccho Dance Theater, which specializes in such things, came all the way from San Francisco to perform at this site, which is a conglomeration of several buildings with lots of interesting architectural features to play with. Choreography, by Joanna Haigood, featured aerial dancing, in which performers in harnesses rappelled, ran, lept, and spun along the 12-story rippled facade of the main building. There was also large-scale video projection, by Mary Ellen Strom, of interviews with residents, rooftop panoramas and streetscapes of the neighborhood, interior tours of abandoned factories in the area, and a field of ripe wheat waving in the wind. Rigging and set elements were by Wayne Campbell and sound score was by Lauren Weinger. Jack Carpenter was the lighting designer.

Carpenter has designed lighting and scenery for dance, music, theatre, and opera. He has worked with San Francisco Ballet, San Francisco Symphony, Berkeley Rep, Joe Goode Performance Group, the Kronos Quartet, Detroit Symphony, and many others, in addition to Zaccho. He has received four Bay Area Critics Circle Awards and four Isadora Duncan Awards.

©2002 Teddy Maki

AS: How much other site-specific work had you done before this? I see you've done one or two others with Zaccho.

JC: On the larger scale, that's most of it. I did a piece with a local director here in the Bay Area, Ellen Sebastian Chang, where it was a multi-followspot setup and it was based around an architect's convention. That was about 20 years ago. One of the first pieces I ever did was a site-specific piece in a house. And then with Nina Weiss and Lauren Elder we did a piece in the Oakland Museum garage. There was a time in the late 70s/early 80s when there was a fair amount of off-site productions, but most of those were really low-tech.

AS: And smaller in scale, so you could use smaller fixtures?

JC: Smaller fixtures, and be closer to the performers, a lot of batteries, car batteries, that kind of thing, nothing of this scale. We had two generators for this.

AS: How much did you know about the site before you actually got there?

JC: We knew a fair amount about it, not as much as you would know going into a theatre. I did a site visit in March. I was out with Chanticleer [Carpenter is resident LD for the men's vocal group] doing a piece in New York and I took one day, went out to the site, and videotaped it, and did a kind of walking commentary. I knew we needed eight followspots, some front positions, some side positions, some uplights between the reveals in the elevators. So I basically walked the perimeter of the site and commented as we were going, that we can put the generator behind the office, if we have a second one we can put it behind the audience, just running notes like that. Then we had a site map of it.

©2002 Ellen Crane

AS: Did that give you distances?

JC: It gave some distances, and at that site visit I got some distances as well, but there were major holes, and the distances are enormous, hundreds of feet, so your typical 20-80' throw is just... We didn't have [any distances] that short. Then I came home and did some preliminary drawings with Wayne Campbell, the rigger. He had the initial site plan which he translated into a drawing. He sent that to me and I revised it based on new information. The production manager and technical director were local to New York, so we e-mailed back and forth to get more specific dimensions. Then pretty much cobbled together a drawing out of that and used that as our primary drawing for all departments--sound, layout, power distribution, scenic rigging, and lighting.

AS: When it came to making aesthetic decisions, did you start with what was technically possible and make choices based on that?

JC: That definitely played very heavily, moreso than usual, because there was just so much that was not possible. Multiple washes was just not an option. Instead what we did, since we had a huge crew, between cues we had people do color changes and plug and unplug. But a lot of the aesthetic decisions came from the architecture to start with. It had a number of architectural elements that confused it visually. I would have liked to have done uplights across the whole building but just the amount of installation, equipment, etc. would have eaten up way too much resources, time, equipment, budget. In this case, there were so many faces to deal with, the basic system had to grow in order to cover, even in a functionary way, all those different faces, to give it some character and to frame each scene a little bit differently. So, in that way, it's not much different than you would approach a dance concert or a play.

©2002 Teddy Maki

AS: How did you arrive at the different color choices?

JC: Some of it was by the architecture, some of it was by transmission, as I kept finding I had to back off on color. The one front wash we did on the elevator, I kept clear and went in for a Lee 141 to basically color the shadows from the sidelight. There wasn't a lot of color options. Mostly I felt like I needed something to color shadows, something to provide a contrast to the warmer tones.

AS: Tell me some of the specific equipment you used. You said you had eight followspots.

JC: We had eight Altman Explorer long-throws, and, boy, they were at the edge of their use. We were pretty much fully doused open most of the time. I ended up pulling almost all the color out of those because it was just too far a throw. We had followspots and eight operators. We had 33 PAR-64s. They were pretty much our base units. Then I had about 17 Source Fours; I needed something shutterable. We had a manual two-scene controller and 24 dimmers. To some extent it was all about making all this stuff work, and it seems amazing, with something of this scale, that we could. The eight followspots were 1,200W HMIs, and between that and a measly 24 dimmer system it eats up the amperage really fast. We had one generator that was practically exclusively dedicated to power distribution and lighting, with three or four speakers powered off that as well, and the other one was powering everything else.

AS: You rented the equipment from Big Apple. How much load-in time did you have?

JC: I would say we had about 18 hours including focus and sound and video setup, and that was from scratch to towers being assembled, power distribution, generators, everything arriving, and just half of it was getting the equipment disseminated. This pile goes a quarter-mile over there, this pile goes a quarter-mile in the opposite direction, and all of this stuff goes front of house. And to some extent we had the deliveries arrive like that, to just generally place things. The difficult thing about this kind of work is that it's really hard to rehearse. The dancers can't go back; you can't stop and say, "Let's take that cue again." Basically once they're over the edge it's one direction. We can get to the end of a scene and stop and regroup.

AS: You have to hoist everyone back up again.

JC: In fact, in most cases it's not a hoisting up, it's a running up, so it saps their energy. We did have a daylight rehearsal for everybody, where the dancers performed. It was broad daylight but at least the collaborators and the stage manager could look at it and place things choreographically.

©2002 Ellen Crane

AS: Did any of the ambient light from the New York cityscape interfere?

JC: It was much brighter than we anticipated. People were saying it's the moonlight, and it wasn't, it was the ambient city lights. Some of that we had control over and a lot of it we didn't. We found that Friday night, which was fairly cloudy, was worse because you'd get all that city light bouncing off the clouds, so the ambient level got really high. It's funny, because, again, like any theatrical project you have with video or projection, you're balancing to the projection, and that becomes your ceiling in terms of how bright you can bring things up, and the ambient really stepped on the video, which, of course, stepped on me.

AS: Is there anything else you'd like to say about the project?

JC: This was a great project for me. I love the outdoor work in the summer. It's really tough, and this was the toughest of them all, just because of the weather [it rained two of the three nights], but the payoff is so interesting, compared to what you get with everything else. And it's very live. At one point we considered going much more high-tech, having moving lights and board cues instead of followspot operators. We initially spec'd this as a 60-channel setup with three or four followspots and the rest moving lights and using bigger film-style equipment, broads and 12kWs and things like that, but it just didn't work out, primarily because it couldn't be accurately rehearsed, and we didn't have enough time within that to program, and the specifics of what we needed were so wide and the budget so small compared to what we wanted to do, that we ended up scaling back and keeping it much more almost like a live shoot.