Art Works Blog

Grant Spotlight: Forklift Danceworks

I see dance as being any movement that is performed deliberately in space and time....I believe that embedded in that movement are stories about who people are and what they care about.---Allison Orr

The camera focuses in on Don Anderson, an employee with Austin's Solid Waste Services Department. With understated incredulity he says, "That lady's crazy! How we gonna make trucks dance?" That lady was Allison Orr, director and choreographer of Forklift Danceworks, who set out to make a dance piece focused on the unheralded men, women, and machines that drive through the city streets and pick up the garbage. She may have a crazy imagination, but in 2009 she did, in fact, make 24 sanitation workers and 17 trucks dance on an abandoned airport runway in front of more than 2,000 people. The Trash Project was the subject of a documentary film called Trash Dance that has since garnered several film festival awards and has begun to appear in commercial theaters around the country.

In her choreographer's statement for the film Orr wrote:

"As a choreographer, I am inspired by practiced and habitual movement that comes from people’s everyday life or work experience, for I see dance as being any movement that is performed deliberately in space and time. I am particularly drawn to authentic expressions of highly skilled and virtuosic movement performed by people not labeled as dancers. . . I believe that embedded in that movement are stories about who people are and what they care about."

Orr’s next project, PowerUp, centers on the employees of Austin's Municipal Energy Department and was recently awarded a $10,000 NEA Art Works grant.

Between meetings, childcare, and lunch, Orr spoke about her new work.

NEA: So how's PowerUP going?

ORR: There's so much interest from the public. People are excited particularly on the heels of Trash Dance. There's lots of public support and enthusiasm. That said, I'm at that stage in the process when I think, "How the heck am I going to make this happen?" It's the natural five- to six-month out feeling. But [there are] lots of ideas and interesting, hard-working folks that I'm getting to know.

NEA: Are you developing the movement at this point?

ORR: I'm at the point where I'm creating the sketch for the choreography. We raised funds to have Peter Bay, conductor with the Austin Symphony Orchestra, lead a string orchestra for the performance, which means that my fabulous composer Graham Reynolds has to write orchestral music as well as the improvised ensemble pieces that he will do with his group of musicians. So this moves my timeline up significantly because it takes more time to write music for an orchestra and for the orchestra and the conductor to learn it. Right now, I'm making decisions about when the orchestra will play and when they won't, and what the milestones are for the production.

I have a team of collaborators including a designer, a fellow choreographer, and Graham. We're all meeting and talking through ideas. Rehearsals probably won't start until July. I'm doing a lot of observing now. I especially want to incorporate staff who don't work out in the field---the engineers and the women dispatchers---all those in the office who make the work happen. I'm beginning to get to know them and figure out how to include them in the piece.

NEA: You didn't include them in The Trash Project, did you?

ORR: I did not. This piece is ten times bigger. For the office staff, I'm going to focus on stories and maybe their sections will be more gestural in contrast to the big machines and the climbing. But they have such great stories as evidenced by comments like, "I think of all the linemen as my husband." They are very protective of the people who are working out in the field and feel very much part of the job, too. So that will have a different look and feel choreographically than the interaction with the vehicles.

NEA: Is this the first time you are adding stories to your work?

ORR: No. That's always a big part of my process. It allows me to get to know people and the potential participants in the piece. But I also use text in the performance as another layer of expressing who people are. In The Trash Project, I used text with Tony, the dead animal collector. As a repeated motif, audiences witnessed his truck winding its way around the tarmac three times while hearing stories about his childhood and what it's like for him to do his job.

NEA: Can you describe your process? Do you start with audio interviews?

ORR: This time I'm waiting to do some of the audio interviews until I'm sure who will be in the show. In the past, I've used the interviews as a way to get people to talk to me. But people are happy to talk right now because they've seen an example of what I do. They're psyched! They want to be part of it and are ready to go.

So the first step in the process is to be introduced to people, do a lot of listening, and get a chance to observe their daily work. I ask questions like, “Tell me what you love about your job. What's the hardest thing? What does nobody know about who you are and what you do?”

Then, there's lining up all of the artists who are on the project. We're super excited that we have a whole crew of musicians and this amazing violinist who is coming in from New York City. There will also be sound clips in the show---of the equipment and of the power plant. Sounds will help give us more voices into the show.

And then there are the many non-field crews who will be participating---admin and office staff. Krissie Marty, a fellow choreographer who also worked at the Dance Exchange and is now with Forklift, is directing that.

From there, we will do interviews and begin to make decisions about what the actual show will look like. The last step will be who actually performs. Then we have to practice. And that often comes down to scheduling. Also, there are some employees who have other talents. For example, we've got a country-western singer, an accordion player, and a slam poet who are all employees of the power company. Each of them may have a cameo or featured moment.

NEA: At what point do you include the equipment?

ORR: We're making our final drawing of the set now, determining where the poles are going to go, figuring out exactly how many vehicles [we’ll use]. Then the plan has to be approved by the city. For example, if you put a pole in the ground, you can't change it the next day. So I have to be sure that's how I want it. I have a sheet of the equipment from the department of all the vehicles that they have, what they're for, and their dimensions. With this piece, it's mostly bucket trucks, wire-pulling equipment trucks, and some really big cranes.

NEA: What does a rehearsal looks like?

ORR: It's hot. It's outside. Usually I schedule rehearsals for different sections since not everybody is in every part of the dance. Each section is three to five minutes, and there are usually 12-15 sections. It's often building the casting around who's available when and who can operate what machinery. We have a very short rehearsal period, just about three months.

But even before the rehearsals begin, I'll have already gone over the materials with somebody on the ground to make sure that what I imagine is possible and within their scope of work. Unlike working with dancers when I might come into the studio and we would play around with ideas, here I have to do the research ahead of time to ensure, for example, that you can turn a truck a certain way. I come in like a drill sergeant. Now, I do want to hear their ideas, but I can't come in and not know what's possible and safe.

I try to be really efficient because you're getting some really big trucks out there. You can't do a sequence 10 times. But then usually, the weekend before the show we have an all-group rehearsal that's about 4 hours long where we run the show twice and that'll be the first time that the guys will have seen the whole thing. And then, the day of the show we'll come back earlier that day and run it one more time and then we'll do the show.

NEA: There's a moment in the trailer for Trash Project, it looks like just before the performance when you're charging across the tarmac and you say, "OK people, let's pretend this is going to work." I love the sense of adventure in that scene.

ORR: I'll tell you, that is the moment when the other artists working on the show make such a difference. My composer is incredible because in performance sometimes a truck takes longer or they get hung up and the composer has to improvise and fill the space. That's why we work so closely together in the creation process so that they know the piece from top to bottom and can improvise to make it work. What's really fun is, with The Trash Project, so much of it was done on handheld radio as I was talking to the guys in the trucks. They can't hear each other nor sometimes can they see each other. So I'm cueing everything on radio sitting right next to Graham and then I'm cueing him. There's this whole behind-the-scenes-Wizard-of-Oz thing running it all. Little does the audience know!

NEA: How have the workers that you've worked with feel after this experience? Do they see themselves as dancers? Do they feel differently about themselves?

ORR: Some of them come from performing backgrounds already, for example, Orange Jefferson in The Trash Project, who is a harmonica player. There's a part in the movie where one of the employees Chris says, "Now that I've done this, I can see that if you put music to what we do, yeah, we're dancing every day." It's a way of looking at things.

The biggest payoff for the employees is having the public say thank you. Now, the public can put a human face to the job and has a clearer understanding of the skill it takes and how hard the job is. For the workers, it's simply the applause, the standing ovation at the end of the show, and then having the audience come up and shake their hand and say thank you. It's huge!

NEA: How has this changed you as a dancer and a choreographer?

ORR: I just keep coming back to the importance of surrounding myself with good smart people and trusting in the creative process. It seems that my projects are getting bigger, and it can feel insurmountable, but I have to remember that you take it one step at a time. We figure it out day by day.

I feel the biggest benefit for me is the friendships with people I might not have connected with any other way. These people would do anything for me now, and I would do anything for them. I have this lovely "cover" as an artist to go into a totally different world for a year or two to ride on the back of a truck or climb a pole. My life is so much richer for it, and I'm grateful for that.

NEA: Do you have anything to add?

ORR: It's exciting to see people who may not feel connected to contemporary art get really excited about making a show, coming at this with genuine care to tell a story. Also, we are so honored to have NEA support because it does feel like a vote of confidence that this work is important on a national level.

Visit the NEA News Room to learn about some of the other 817 projects that received Arts Endowment support in our most recent round of grants.


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