Have you ever seen a truck dance? The question’s not as crazy as it sounds; in 2009 (and again this past August), non-profit arts collective Forklift Danceworks, led by Artistic Director Allison Orr, teamed up with 24 employees and 16 sanitation vehicles from the City of Austin and Solid Waste Services to produce The Trash Project, a public dance performance showcasing the beauty in objects we usually take for granted.
Founded in 2001, Forklift Danceworks aims to highlight the natural grace of the everyday. Orr, who holds an MFA in choreography and also has a background in social work and public health, has always had a focus on inclusion and building creative communities that serve otherwise marginalized groups.
Forklift offers classes and original performances that promote and highlight their cause; past productions have teamed dancers with Venetian gondoliers, the visually impaired, women over 65 and, of course, the City of Austin employees and their equipment.
“I like to dance, but I’m not the shining star of dance class,” Orr explains. “I was a really great high kicker in high school, but I never really saw myself having the skills to be a professional dancer. But I became really interested in choreography, and I did a lot of ethnographic research. I started experimenting with this idea of choreography that comes from a daily lived, daily work experience, working with people who also don’t identify as dancers.”
Excerpt from The Gondola Project:
In addition to directing innovative, original productions, Forklift also offers a broad spectrum of classes and workshops for all skill levels.
One of their ongoing outreach programs is called Body Shift. Meeting once a month, it’s a mixed ability dance class, plus a weekend intensive, that uses improvisational methods and is accessible to people with and without disabilities.
“The mission of the company is to make art that serves a wide and diverse audience,” Orr explains. “So our outreach programs are really intended to serve groups who maybe aren’t receiving these kind of services. In terms of body type, you traditionally think of a tall, skinny dancer — that’s a common image most of us have about what a ‘dancer’ looks like. That world’s not very friendly, especially to people with disabilities.”
Additionally, Orr has been running a program called Leaps and Bounds for 10 years. A non-profit outreach effort that serves primarily low-income families, Leaps and Bounds operates at Mainspring School and Allison Elementary School. Providing supplemental, creative arts instruction for students, Forklift led 200 classes serving over 100 students this year alone.
“We’re hoping to continue to grow and serve more children with it,” Orr says
Creating those unique connections helps Forklift highlight unexpected pairings between performers and environments.
“The relationships are really what’s critical to the success of the performance,” says Orr. “I do get the opportunity to build real friendships with the people I work with, and that’s a really great thing. I think that’s what people see reflected in the work, when it’s successful; they see that honesty and vulnerability that the performers have in showing themselves to the audience.“
Public works employees and equipment, for example, often carry stereotypes and stigmas, associated with uniformity. Orr’s Trash Project was built to defy those preconceptions.
“Part of the thing I’m interested in doing artistically is to give you, as an audience member, a look into who they are,” Orr says of her performers. “For a few moments, you might then understand more about yourself, or the world, because you know a little more about this guy who operates a crane, or runs a rear-loader, something that may seem not that significant or important.”
With her next project, Orr is taking a turn to work with a subject that actually is known for artistry and fluid movement: Peter Bay, conductor of the Austin Symphony.
“He’s agreed to collaborate with me on a piece that will feature him as a performer, using his movement as a conductor as a gestural vocabulary for the dance,” Orr reveals. “Graham Reynolds, a composer I’ve worked with a lot, is doing the score,” Orr continues. “Some of the music might be created based on what I want to happen with the dance. The dance will really be the conducting, I’ve been going to symphony rehearsals and learning more about the world of conducting.”
Orr, Bay and Reynolds’ collaboration will be performed at the Long Center and the Rollins Theater in July of 2012. When it came to choosing the focus of the project, Orr admits that she’s always had a personal interest in the subject.
“It’s about coming up with ideas that I feel like are unique, but it’s also about doing stuff that I’m curious about. Really, I pick things that I’m really interested in, that are fun or new or challenging for me in good ways. That’s the lovely thing about being an artist — I get to choose.”
Excerpt from The King & I feat. Mayor Will Wynn:
The simple, subtle beauty of Forklift’s productions have naturally attracted plenty of attention. The Trash Project won several local arts awards, and the company has been profiled nationally, including in the Washington Post and on NPR and the National Geographic Channel; they've also presented performances in Washington DC and Venice, Italy.
When she’s not working with Forklift’s diverse groups of performers, Orr teaches at Austin Community College. She’s exploring ways of bringing Forklift’s innovative programming and performances to other cities, though she has bigger future plans than that: “It would be really great to make work around the world. And I have these dreams of space, of NASA, choreographing a space walk or a dance in outer space — I’ve always thought that would really be something.”
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