Choreographer Allison Orr finds her art in the places that most people overlook. Where some see the banal drudgery and repetition of daily life, Orr finds beauty, fluidity, originality and grace.
As founder and creative force behind Forklift Danceworks, Orr has made her mark by taking the seemingly ordinary and reframing it in extraordinary ways. To do so, she’s recruited a cadre of non-traditional performers to her various dance projects: Venetian gondoliers, Japanese baseball players, sanitation workers and roller skaters, to name a few — each opening their trade or passion to observation and interpretation through Orr’s choreographic vision.
Her first collaboration with public workers set a path for her career to this point.
“In Case of Fire” enlisted the City of Austin Fire Department and featured thirteen Austin Firefighters from stations 11 & 17, two fire engines, and a ladder truck. The thirty-minute performance took place in 2001 as one of the most memorable parts of Fire Prevention Week in Austin.
To research for the piece, Allison virtually embedded with the firefighters for over a year — riding on calls, interviewing the firefighters, and incorporating as much knowledge as she could in order to understand the nature of the profession and the people who represent it.
Since that initial project, Orr has undertaken works to explore the movements of a traffic cop (“Traffic Maven”), employed five Elvis impersonators to recreate the King’s last concert (“The King & I”), teamed up with roller skate aficionados (“SKATE!”), and, most recently, choreographed a cast of 50+ city electricity workers complete with cranes, bucket and field trucks and a set of 20 utility poles (“PowerUP”).
Perhaps the work that had the greatest impact, though, was her 2009 project that elicited elegance from a type of work that is perceived as antithetical to such a notion. “The Trash Project” was Orr’s effort to recast popular notions of sanitation workers, taking the day-to-day work of a largely underappreciated city service and making it into an art form. The 75-minute industrial ballet featured 24 employees and 16 large sanitation vehicles from Austin’s Solid Waste Services Department (SWS), and attracted an audience of 4,000. “The Trash Project” won numerous arts awards, and was captured in Austin filmmaker and UT faculty member Andrew Garrison’s award-winning 2012 documentary Trash Dance.
SWS Director Bob Gedert was moved by the outcome: “The Trash Project” showcased our employees in a way that had never been done before. [It] helped boost employee pride and morale and garnered lots of positive media attention for the department.”
Orr’s artist statement provides perhaps the most concise window into her philosophy:
“As a choreographer, I am inspired by practiced and habitual movement that comes from people’s everyday life or work experience, for I see dance as being any movement that is performed deliberately in space and time. I am particularly drawn to authentic expressions of highly skilled and virtuosic movement performed by people not labeled as dancers. . . I believe that embedded in that movement are stories about who people are and what they care about.”
Finding dance in the everyday isn’t as difficult as it might seem when one is aware of Orr’s background. She has two degrees: one in choreography, the other — which helps to obviate her artistic works thus far — in anthropology. In an interview with Texas Highways, she states, “I want to choreograph untrained dancers to explore, as an anthropologist would, how communities function.”
Allison Orr will be the inaugural guest for a new speaker series at UT’s Fine Arts Library (FAL) on the state and fate of dance titled “Living Dance,” scheduled for 6 p.m., Thursday, February 19. Orr will share stories, thoughts and footage from the remarkable projects that have arisen at the intersection of dance and daily life including “Play Ball Downs Field,” “Play Ball Kyoto,” “The Trash Project” and “PowerUP.”
Beth Kerr, the FAL’s Theatre & Dance Librarian, hopes to use the “Living Dance” series to bring greater awareness of Austin’s rich dance heritage and to begin documenting its past, present and future. “Austin’s dance scene is vibrant, ever changing, and innovative, as it has been for quite a while,” says Kerr. “My hope is that this series will open up discussion of work these artists are doing and lead to focusing some national attention on this amazing pool of talent.”
“Living Dance” with Allison Orr of Forklift Danceworks takes place at 6 p.m., Thursday, February 19, in the Fine Arts Library at The University of Texas at Austin. The event is free and open to the public, and special event prepaid parking ($3 ) for the E. William Doty Fine Arts Building can be purchased at the Parking & Transportation Services website.