Several weeks ago, we came across the remarkable 2012 documentary Trash Dance that follows Austin choreographer Allison Orr as she collaborates with the sanitation workers of Austin, TX, whom she has cast as the stars of her latest community dance project. Not all of them are enthusiastic about it.
Orr, whose other projects include firefighters, an Austin police officer, Elvis impersonators, blind people and skaters, came to the attention of filmmaker Andrew Garrison, who was looking to make a dance film as a personal challenge. He happened to catch up with Allison as she began “The Trash Project.” Garrison’s film tells their story. We dare you not to tear up during the performance at the end. It is that glorious for the sanitation workers who participated.
The film, which so humanely looks at the basic point of sharing dance as a thing which sprinkles magic in everyday life, succeeds not only as a great story well told but also as a dance film—a difficult feat since capturing the nuance of emotion and dancer-to-audience connection causes many a well-intentioned dance documentary to fall flat. So inspired were we by this film that we made our own Straz Center Synchronized Cubicle Dance Company music video of our hard-working, behind-the-scenes employees (see below), and we had to talk with Andrew and Allison about the making of the film.
“The project combined several key ideas I have been working on for most of my life—the transporting and fulfilling power of art as practice and as community and communication, and stories from and about people often misrepresented in the media or under-represented,” Garrison told Caught in the Act.
“When I started shooting [film of] Allison and the employees, what I found was a group of very strong people working hard to make their lives and the lives of their families better. They all had very full lives already—they did not need Dance to rescue them. They came as experts and equals with something to share with Allison, and she treated them that way. So, I loved seeing all that and having the opportunity to portray it,” he said.
Orr’s artistic philosophy centers around the simple ideas that art connects and art belongs to everyone. Her most recent project, The Trees of Govalle, featured the City of Austin’s Urban Forestry Division and the trees of Govalle Park, situated in one of East Austin’s oldest neighborhoods.
Orr, who earned an anthropology degree before pursuing a degree in choreography, spent her teen years and early adulthood volunteering in public health and social work, specifically for Amigos de las Americas, traveling to Latin America. “I worked as a community organizer there and learned so much. It opened my eyes to the world. I wanted to work in community, and I wasn’t a pedigreed dancer. I knew I was never going to be a successful performer, a stage dancer. The thought of making dance alone in a studio terrifies me,” she laughs.
Orr’s first work of choreography featured the campus employees of her liberal, progressive all-women’s college—the groundskeepers, maintenance and facility workers—doing their movements in a free lunch time performance spanning three days. “That was transformative for me,” she says. “In one performance, we sat in the cafeteria and watched one of our campus employees, a man whose work was almost invisible to us, work on the windows surrounding the cafeteria as we sat inside listening to a translation of him describing his job, what he did for us on a daily basis. People were in tears, and I actually didn’t choreograph his movements. He just did his thing as we paid attention.”
That moment helped define Orr’s aesthetic of anthropological choreography, finding the virtuosity of movement from people who are trained experts in their everyday and work rhythms; paying attention to them doing their thing as a work of dance art changes the conversation, elevates our ability to appreciate the people in our neighborhoods. It tells a different story.
“I ask people, ‘what do you do that you love?’, ‘show me the movement of your job,’ and I try to understand their expertise. The choreography emerges from that, from my research after embedding with them in their lives.” For one year, Orr rode routes with the sanitation workers of Austin, interviewed them, and studied their movements to create The Trash Project.
“This is the way I can make the best art. I can’t get a trained dancer to do their movement. I have to get a sanitation worker to do that movement. They go to work every day practicing the technique of their skill. I’m asking them to show their virtuosity in their movement skill,” she says. “It has to do with wanting to be authentic. I couldn’t make this art any other way. There is extraordinary virtuosity in the movement of these skilled workers.”
One of the sweetest aspects of the film is watching the relationships between Orr and the workers soften into friendships until the viewer also feels a sense of knowing, as much as possible in a film, the people behind the uniforms. Does she keep up with them once the project is over?
“Hanging out is the best part of my job,” she says. “Don [the crane operator] is a good friend. He’s a celebrity now. Any chance I get to see them, I do. We have an alumni Facebook page, and my big dream is that one day I can have a giant party and invite everyone who’s been in a project so they can all meet each other. I want to hang out with them. Many of us do come to care for each other.”
Of her success with these community dance projects, Orr takes a long view. “I get to go into these communities under the cover of being an artist. It’s much easier than just showing up and saying ‘hey, I want to hang out.’ We work together, we create art, and then the relationships develop. My life is enriched by these projects, and my life is so much fuller because of these relationships. I hope we continue, as a company, to figure out how to keep building the community after the project is over.”
We hope you enjoy Trash Dance as much as we did. Check it out on Netflix or buy a copy from Andrew’s Trash Dance website.
For more on Allison Orr, visit Forklift Danceworks.
For more on Andrew Garrison, visit the Trash Dance website.
Here is our Straz Center Synchronized Cubicle Dance Company music video starring the large cast of Straz Center non-traditional dancers. Thank you, Andrew, Allison and Trash Dance, for inspiring us.