Choreographer Allison Orr has made a rather sizeable splash on the local art scene with her innovative approach to applying dance to everyday life.
Her immensely popular and critically-acclaimed Trash Project — a coordinated effort between Forklift Danceworks and the City of Austin's Solid Waste Services Department out on the tarmac of the old Mueller airport — showed her aptitude at large-scale projects featuring nontraditional performers that explode the strict definitions of what we consider "dance."
For her latest project for Forklift, Orr brings the camera in with a much tighter focus for an intimate, indoor dance experience with Austin Symphony Music Director and Conductor Peter Bay. Entitled Solo Symphony, this clever new show spotlights the beautiful, poetic movements of an accomplished maestro, translating them into the nearby language of dance.
Inspired by footage of Bay in full music-making mode, Orr replicated and manipulated his familiar gestures into a tapestry of recontextualized actions that flow seamlessly between directing the 13 orchestra members on stage to individual dance performance and back again.
This scaled-down symphony will perform some of Bay's favorite musical pieces of all time as well as an original score created by regular Forklift collaborator, Graham Reynolds, maybe the busiest composer/musician/bandleader in Austin.
A year in the making, Solo Symphony will enjoy only four performances at the Rollins Theatre in the Long Center for the Performing Arts. In the midst of their opening week of rehearsals, we were lucky enough to chat with Orr about the collaboration process with Bay and Reynolds and the challenges of learning a whole new performance language under a time crunch.
CultureMap: Hi, Allison! Thank you so much for taking time out of what must be a demanding schedule to talk with us. How did you manage to coordinate this show with your, Peter's and Graham's schedule?
Allison Orr: Oh, good time management. I’ve gotten better at being efficient, but, truthfully, I’m always winging it. I now do about one big show a year, and I don’t ever want to rush because I want it to be good. So it’s about strategic planning. It’s why Peter, Graham and I started planning this show about a year ago, meeting once a month in the Fall and then more regularly in the Spring. Peter and I have been meeting three times a week this last month. And Graham and I have worked together a lot so we now have a sort of shorthand that makes it all much easier.
You've demonstrated with your work that you prefer to choreograph non-dancers. What are the unique challenges of choreographing someone, like Peter, who has never formally learned dance?
Well, this type of movement is definitely outside of Peter’s comfort zones as a conductor. At the beginning of the rehearsal process, he kept saying, "How am I going to do it?" It's not a part of his process, but doing it over and over again has gotten him there. It was definitely awkward for him at first. But the lovely thing about Peter is that he says 'Yes' before he says 'No.' This show definitely pushed him, and this is very nerve-wracking for him. But now that we’ve run it so many times, it's like second nature.
Part of your process is getting to know the community you are choreographing and learning their movement language. How much did you have to learn about the Austin Symphony and about Peter’s job to be able to create this piece?
So much. I'm not nearly as connected with music or with musicians as I thought. I don’t speak the same performance language that Peter speaks. I think of 'Spin' and 'Kick,' and Peter thinks about 'Flute' and 'Cello.' So Graham has been an invaluable intermediary. It was Graham’s idea to have Peter pick his favorite scores, and then walk us through those with movement and music. It was all a giant puzzle that had to be pieced together. After every rehearsal, Peter's choreography notes are totally different from mine. He writes musically and I do it physically; so they look completely different. I can’t even read what he’s created for most of them. And I love that.
I have always loved watching the conductor at the symphony because of their grand, infectious energy. How much of the performance is Peter actually conducting and how much is your choreographed movements?
All of the movements you see are his own. I watched hours and hours of Peter conducting the symphony as they performed some of his Top 10 favorite scores. Then we slowed them down and put a new emphasis on them. You can actually see the music engaged through his body. His amazingly beautiful gestures are all brought to life in a totally new way. I didn’t want to choreograph him so much that he isn’t himself, that it’s not natural. I love to watch people be who they are. It’s a real balancing act.
Does Peter ever step away from the orchestra and engage in full-on dance steps?
He's still on the podium the whole time, and his movements are all derived from conducting. There are no jettes in this piece. (Laughs.) Unfortunately. As you watch Peter, though, you’d think he was a dancer. Eighty percent of what a conductor does is movement, it's just all above the waist. But they're working hard up there; it's all quite physical.
Was it intentional to have Solo Symphony performed at the Long Center as that is where the Austin Symphony most often performs?
After considering a few other spaces, we chose the Rollins Theatre for the intimate feeling I wanted. It felt right. I want it to feel like everyone is in the front row at this symphony. And Peter works there (at the Long Center) all the time, so it feels right.
Speaking of feeling at home, your list of achievements is so impressive and rightfully deserved. I’m sure you get offers to go inter/national with your work all the time. Does the big city call to you, or will Austin always be your home?
I grew up here in Austin, so this is my home. My family, my parents, my siblings, my cousins are all here. No, I won’t leave. It’s a conundrum, though. Since people have been seeing [Trash Dance], I've been asked to come out to other cities and create new works there. But my process is slow and it takes a lot of money. It's about hanging out and being with people. It's hard to do that in other cities, with a limited budget. What would I want to make outside of Austin? Sure, if someone in Paris said, 'Come make something here for six months and bring your whole family,' sure I would do that. But it’s really expensive to do big, outdoor performances with multiple departments, so I'm not sure how I could do that kind of work with the heart and soul anywhere but in my home town. I might get to try it with little experiments in the near future. But for the long-term, this is definitely my home.
Solo Symphony plays at the Rollins Theatre at the Long Center for the Performing Arts from Thursday, July 11 - Saturday, July 13. Tickets are available through the Long Center website.
Stay tuned to CultureMap Austin's Facebook page to register to win two VIP tickets to the Thursday night opening night performance and after party to meet the director, composer and star of the show.