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The Deacon Blog

A magazine staff blog with news of alumni and the WFU community

Trash talk from Allison Orr (’93) at SXSW

“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.

Allison Orr

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.

Happy Valentine’s Day, Eric G. Wilson

Overseeing a magazine, one picks up all sorts of magazines wherever they are in reach. That happened today at an appointment when I grabbed a stack and started perusing the latest issues. The hot-off-the-press March issue of O, The Oprah Magazine caught my eye, and when I flipped to the books section so did this version of a valentine:

This book got a mention for having a great title. What the magazine failed to mention is that it is the latest book by Eric G. Wilson, the Thomas H. Pritchard Professor of English at Wake Forest. “Everyone Loves A Good Train Wreck: Why We Can’t Look Away,” published this month by Sarah Crichton Books, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, examines our culture’s attraction to evil and to darkness. According to advance publicity for the book, Wilson draws on findings of biologists, sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, philosophers, theologians and artists.

In a precursor to the book’s publication, Wilson discussed his fascination with the moral of the morbid in November in Psychology Today. “Renaissance scholars kept skulls on their desks to remind them how precious this life is. John Keats believed that the real rose, because it is dying, exudes more beauty than porcelain,” he wrote. In describing his trip to the Ground Zero Museum in New York, he encountered what is now “holy ground” born of “horrific terrain.”

“At that moment,” he wrote, “I understood the terrible wisdom of suffering: When we agonize over what has cruelly been bereft from us, we love it more, and know it better, than when we were near it. Affliction can reveal what is most sacred in our lives, essential to our joy. Water, Emily Dickinson writes, is ‘taught by thirst.’

“To stare at macabre occurrences — this can lead to mere insensitivity, gawking for a cheap thrill; or it can result in stunned trauma, muteness before the horror. But in between these two extremes, morbid curiosity can sometimes inspire us to imagine ways to transform life’s necessary darkness into luminous vision.”

My guess is that you will be hearing a lot more about the “train wreck” book and what Wilson as scholar has learned from his research. (He posted this at Farrar, Straus and Giroux’s Work in Progress blog today for those of you not in the mood for chocolates, roses and sweet sentiment. It’s his take on why horror is good for you and lists his favorite horror films. No shock here: “I’m a serious horror film fan,” he writes. Yes, “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Shining” are among them.)

Best wishes to the professor as he launches his book about what it means to be human, in all its shadow, not just its light.

An inside look at new provost’s ‘dorm parents’ digs

A link to the apartment therapy website keeps zipping among Wake Foresters’ emails since the appointment on Jan. 27 of Rogan Kersh (’86) as the new provost. I want to share it because it provides a glimpse into the student-centered lives of Kersh and his wife, Sara Jade Pesek, and offers a spotlight on sustainability, an ethos important to Wake Forest.

Kersh and Pesek's dorm apartment at NYU

The post begins, “In New York University’s Goddard Hall, on Washington Square Park, most doors open on the chaotic lairs of 200 college freshmen. But door #702, dotted with notes and nametags, reveals an unexpected oasis, the tranquil home of ‘dorm parents’ Sara and Rogan.”

Their 1,350-square-foot apartment is considered a model for sustainable campus living. The couple has not one but two compost options, the regular kitchen countertop container and a worm compost bin. Cabinets are bamboo. The paint has low volatile organic compounds.

The couple won’t be strangers to the high value placed on service learning at Wake Forest. The website notes that Kersh and Pesek led 40 freshmen on a spring break trip to New Orleans with Historic Green, a zero carbon rebuilding project in the city’s Lower Ninth Ward.

I hear the couple is shopping for a house. It’s safe to guess Kersh and Pesek won’t be able to discover a Winston-Salem home for sale to top their Manhattan building as a former residence for famed Americans. Edgar Allan Poe, Winslow Homer and Charlie Chaplin had bachelor’s quarters in the building. Whether they had worm compost bins in their bachelor’s quarters is doubtful. In that, they were not ahead of their time. Kersh and Pesek clearly are.

New Provost: ‘You had me at hello’

Wake Foresters cannot help but be thrilled by the appointment of Rogan Kersh (’86) as the new provost. He’s an alumnus who grew up in Brevard, N.C., and understands the spirit of this place, having gained initiatory insights from President James Ralph Scales on a February day in 1982, and on through his campus days as an undergraduate.

Rogan Kersh ('86), Wake Forest's new provost

In the years after Wake Forest, he became a Luce Scholar and studied in Tokyo, earned two master’s degrees and a Ph.D. from Yale and went on to hold academic posts as a political scientist. Since 2006 he has been associate dean at New York University. In the fall issue of Wake Forest Magazine, he told Lisa Kline Mowry (’82) that he remembered Wake Forest as “bucolic, green, communal.”

Goodbye, concrete. Hello again, Reynolda Gardens.

Three decades ago Kersh was an ambitious but nervous high school student  aspiring to obtain one of the top scholarships available in the state. He was interviewing for a Morehead Scholarship at the University of North Carolina. At Wake Forest he joined the first group of high school seniors seeking Reynolds Scholarships. He describes that experience beautifully in an essay “My Own Personal Wake Forest” in Edwin G. Wilson’s (’43) “The History of Wake Forest University Volume V/1967-1983.”

He writes about arriving late to the Autumn Room in Reynolda Hall to join his 14 fellow-finalists. He was late because of a symphonic competition. He clattered in, “trailing my father’s old suitcase,” interrupting President Scales’ opening remarks. Instead of expressing irritation, Scales gave him “a kindly, welcoming smile, just long enough to reassure me but not mark the moment as disruptive.” The president went back to his talk, expressing his hope that the students “would come to embrace ‘your own personal Wake Forest.’” Kersh said the finalists shared with each other later that they had all had the same experience. Scales turned them from “a collection of nerve-wracked high schoolers into young men and women worthy of Wake Forest.”

I’ll let him take it from there:

“That at once powerful and gentle touch was sustained throughout the Reynolds interview weekend. Tom Phillips’s constant encouraging good cheer, Ed and Emily Wilson generously opening their home to the lot of us for dinner, Peggy Smith guiding us patiently through Reynolda House’s stunning American art collection, Jim Barefield pointing out the high notes of  WFU semester in Venice — on an immense map, displayed upside down (he blamed the map-holders — who, as a pair of hearty Wake juniors, seemed to us impossibly suave and sophisticated): all these encounters felt more like a family gathering than a scholarly inquisition.

“Driving home to the Western North Carolina mountains, fond visions of Deacon-hood danced in my head. I had a Morehead Scholarship interview a week later in Chapel Hill; Wake Forest’s Dean Tom Mullen, another warmly welcoming familiar figure during the Reynolds interviews, suggested I stop by and say hello on the trip back from UNC. He and Bill Starling, the much-beloved admissions director, were standing on the Reynolda Hall steps as I pulled up. From somewhere Dean Mullen produced a clutch of farm-fresh eggs, further cementing my impression of Wake Forest as the most wonderfully intimate, personable institution of higher learning imaginable. We talked a half-hour, in that painterly late-afternoon Winston-Salem sunlight. ‘We hope you’ll join us in the fall,’ Mullen said by way of parting; it seemed more a benediction than a recruitment pitch.’

“And so I did, to my lifelong benefit. For me the deal was sealed with Mr. Scales’s smile — my version of ‘you had me at hello.’ The rest of the weekend, and indeed the four incomparably memorable years that followed, were an extended confirmation of that essential warmth, understanding, and instillation of confidence. Thus began my own, yes, ‘personal Wake Forest.’”

Welcome back, Rogan Kersh. Take it from me, your ‘personal Wake Forest’ remains as bucolic and charming as ever. It’s ready for your next chapter.