“This lady’s crazy! How we gonna make trucks dance?”
Leave it to a Wake Forest alumna to do just that. Allison Orr (’93) will be walking the red carpet outside the Paramount Theatre in Austin, Texas, at 1:30 p.m. today (March 10) to attend the world premiere of “Trash Dance,” a documentary that follows her for a year as she choreographs and directs a 2009 dance performance of city sanitation workers and their trucks in Austin. One of those workers is Don Anderson, a crane operator who not only pronounced Orr crazy but also wondered, “How can I make a big ole hunk of machine be romantic?” With Orr’s direction, he did. He’s in the movie, too.
Orr’s trash truck ballet, “The Trash Project,” featured Anderson, 23 other employees and 16 sanitation vehicles from Austin’s Solid Waste Services Department, now renamed Austin Resource Recovery. (There’s a reason those “Keep Austin Weird” bumper stickers are ubiquitous. As a former Austinite, I still keep the sticker on my car to celebrate eccentricity.) The dance performance drew 2,000 people to an abandoned airport tarmac in the city limits. So many arrived to see the show that people climbed the fences, one of them shouting, according to Orr, “Let me in! I recycle!”
The dance took top honors as the No. 1 arts event in Austin in 2009, beating out the ballet, symphony and opera. Jeanne Claire van Ryzin, an arts critic at the Austin American-Statesman, called the emotion-filled performance “simply one of the most outstanding and most moving arts spectacles Austin has seen in recent memory.” It “still resonates with a kind of quirky profundity.”
Last September Orr directed encore performances. And, now, as part of the South By Southwest Film Festival, the documentary about Orr’s work by filmmaker and UT-Austin film prof Andrew Garrison will debut. He told the television station KXAN in Austin this week, “It was this unexpected, wonderful spectacle. It was emotional and it was just great.”
I talked with Orr by telephone Friday at her house in Austin as she prepared for the SXSW frenzy. Married to Blake Trabulsi, this mother of two children under six will not be sashaying down the red carpet alone. Nearly all of the employees in the film will be at the Paramount, arriving by shuttle vans flanked by trash trucks. “We’re hopefully going to make a dramatic entrance — a big splash — and get everybody excited,” she said. “It will be special for these employees to get this kind of Hollywood treatment.”
Orr calls her work “ethnographic choreography” and links it to her anthropology training at Wake Forest. She had often watched and wondered about the people who picked up her trash. Why not find out about them? “I’m often looking to showcase people whose work is often under the radar or invisible,” she says.
She went through employee training with the sanitation department and, off and on for a year, rode in the wee hours on trash trucks to learn about workers’ lives, understand their livelihood and earn their trust. Ethnographic choreography, she says, is “about observing a certain group of people’s work or daily life and then taking the movement that comes from that and using that movement as the basis for the choreography for whatever the piece is, and often casting the performers as those people.” The workers do what they are highly skilled to do. The result is “the artistry or the beauty that happens in those relationships they have either with each other or with the machinery or even with themselves as they’re working. Inside of that there are stories about who they are and what they do that are often not represented in wider culture.”
The film takes viewers into the employees’ homes. Viewers see the workers up close, and that’s what gives the documentary heart, she says. “They’re the lead characters.”
Orr’s work makes sense in the context of her experience at college and in life.
She was a self-proclaimed activist at Wake Forest, proud that she helped erect the award-winning Homecoming float that re-created Wake Forest students’ roles in the sit-ins during the civil rights movement. She helped build a shanty outside Benson University Center to promote her stance against apartheid in South Africa.
Her studies focused on anthropology, women’s studies and, naturally, dance. Her pantheon of favorite professors includes Steve Boyd in the religion department, Mary DeShazer in women’s and gender studies, Provost Emeritus Ed Wilson (’43), Jim Barefield in history and Peter Kairoff in the music department. After college she was a social worker, then spent time as a student assistant to Kairoff at Casa Artom in Venice. (She got the job/title despite having already graduated.) Eventually, she choreographed a dance of eight gondoliers maneuvering their boats in a Venetian canal. Showing the sanitation department video clips of her previous work that included “The Gondolier Project” helped Orr win permission to embark on her trash dance study and production. Not to be overlooked are her dances featuring firefighters and Elvis impersonators, as far as I know, not dancing on stage together.
For now Orr will go in a new direction. Up next is a solo performance in July in which she has choreographed a dance for Austin Symphony Conductor Peter Bay. It will feature 13 musicians at the small theater in Austin’s Long Center, where (you can hear the delight in her voice) “there are already bathrooms and seats.”
“(Bay) is such a dancer when he conducts. At times he live-conducts it; at times it will be more abstracted.” For the fall of 2013 she plans “an outdoor spectacle” that will feature 20 to 30 utility poles and linemen employed by the city power company, Austin Energy. Already, she says, the linemen are boasting that their performance will be bigger than “The Trash Project.” We’ll have to wait until 2013 to know whether that’s just linemen trash talk.
“Trash Dance” will also be shown at 4:45 Tuesday at the Paramount; at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Canon Screening Room; and at 7:30 p.m. Sat., March 18, at the Stateside Theatre. Tickets are available; viewers don’t need SXSW armbands to attend.
Read more about Orr and her dance company at Forklift Danceworks.