It is already 100 degrees at 10 am, and three Austin Energy linemen are fully geared up and standing around the Austin St. Elmo Training Yard, waiting to show their stuff in a preview of Forklift Dancework’s PowerUP.
The third installment of PowerUP, a free event running September 21-22 at the Travis County Exposition Heritage Center, is a choreographed performance that features the employees and machinery of Austin Energy. The contemporary movement piece is set to an original score by Graham Reynolds and choreographed and directed by Allison Orr, Forklift’s founder.
The performances give the audience a well-blended, postmodern piece of art that showcases the daily routines of everyday workers through a keenly artistic eye.
Most recently, Orr directed The Trash Project, a performance work that celebrated Austin’s sanitation employees and garnered national attention.
A sneak peek of Trey Longoria, Mark Herndon and Herold Reyiz — Austin Energy linemen who perform in PowerUP — provides ample evidence that they are the kind of men who don’t spend a lot of time standing around doing nothing.
After all, these are the men who jump out of trucks and give you a strong, calloused handshake before climbing up utility poles to fix downed power lines after a windstorm
A glimpse of the lineman before the performance creates the vague feeling of standing on the set of a Village People video. But the performance proves to be worlds away from the campiness of "YMCA." It's a well-blended, postmodern piece of art that showcases the workers' daily routines through a keenly artistic eye.
As the men gracefully climb up and down electrical poles in synchronicity, a fellow lineman stands on the ground, smiling and playing the accordion. Broad and strong, these are not the type of men you would expect Austin City Council member Laura Morrison to address with the words, “Thank you gentlemen, that was beautiful.”
Austin Energy workers are also some of the country’s best, competing in the National Linemen Rodeo and consistently beating out other contestants in events such as “Pole Climbs” and “Hurtmen Rescues.”
“In Texas, we normally clean house,” says Longoria of the rodeo competition.
Just as The Trash Project shed light on the daily routines of Austin sanitation workers, PowerUP is designed to draw attention to the inherent artistry and skill behind the jobs of Austin’s energy workers. The performance is possibly the most ambitious of Forklift’s to date, featuring bucket trucks, cranes, field trucks, and a set of 20 utility poles that were constructed specially for the event at the Expo Center.
Funding for the event came through donors and a successful Kickstarter campaign, a resource Orr sees as essential for a small, heavily volunteer-based organization such as Forklift, which doesn’t have the staff to manage a large gala event.
Orr recalls how quickly support for PowerUP poured in. “Less than 48 hours in, we were almost halfway to our goal,” she says.
The success of The Trash Project helped drum up excitement for PowerUP, which was conceived just as The Trash Project was opening. “Maybe the day after the premiere of the trash project, I started to think, 'How in the world will I be able to do something just as good?'” Orr says. “So I began to talk with people at Austin Energy.”
In the summer of 2010, Orr attended a Linemen’s Rodeo, the type Longoria says Texans dominate. Orr says the rodeo sealed the deal for her. “I saw these guys in action, and I knew from walking up that we could have an amazing show,” she says.
Longoria, Herndon and Martinez haven’t done anything like PowerUP before, and they agree that it feels different from the rodeo competitions.
“This feels like art,” Longoria says. “Not so much like work.” Although none of the men has been involved in theater before, like all good Texas men, they do know how to two-step. “You definitely have to have some rhythm,” says Herndon of the performance aspect.
And a tough work ethic. “She works our asses off, she pushes us hard,” Longoria says of Orr, who worked with all of the performers at least once or twice a week – work they did in addition to the hours they put in at their jobs.
Orr, with a MFA in choreography and a bachelor’s in anthropology, presents her work as a unique intersection of community outreach and theater. “From kids to somebody in power to someone who knows nothing about electricity," she says, "everyone will take something away from it.”
PowerUP takes place at 7:30 pm on Saturday, September 21, and Sunday, September 22, at the Travis County Exposition and Heritage Center. Admission is free to the public, but tickets must be reserved online here. No entrance will be granted without a reservation, so be sure to RSVP ahead of time.