Watching Terril Watson climb, rung by rung by careful rung, the tower 100 feet tall, a spotlight on him, and Graham Reynolds' intense score sending your heart rate higher with every step, you could imagine yourself under the big top of old and Watson as one of those daredevils about to dive from an impossible height into a terrifyingly tiny tank of water. But as he moved gingerly onto a crossbar, nothing beneath him but fathoms of air and hard earth, the man's recorded voice, casually describing the routineness of such ascents, yanked you back to the reality that, while he was making this climb as part of a show, it's what he does in the course of his everyday job – not for the glory or roar of the crowd but to fix problems. For you and me. Making our lives easier by ensuring that electricity flows steadily our way.
So it went with PowerUP, Forklift Danceworks' collaboration with Austin Energy, in which more than 50 employees of the city utility performed staged versions of their daily duties on a field near the Travis County Expo Center. Linemen walked up poles and rode buckets to their tops and ran cables underground, often with physical skill and derring-do more common to the circus. Indeed, the performance was a literal high-wire act, with workers taking to the skies to run electrical cable from pole to pole a dozen, if not dozens of feet above the ground. Forklift's earlier collaboration with a city department, The Trash Project, created with Austin Resource Recovery, was a street-level show, built around the movements of sanitation workers collecting trash from the curb and cleaning local byways. PowerUP, as its name implies, had higher concerns, and seeing its linemen work in the air with the greatest of ease, no less than the man on the flying trapeze, was frequently breathtaking (and, when one crane bucket extended some 50 feet above the transmission tower, vertigo-inducing).
And yet, no matter how much their actions risked danger or were given a choreographic flourish by Artistic Director Allison Orr and associate choreographer Krissie Marty – as when a half-dozen distribution linemen clambered up and down utility poles in unison, or two network linemen's heads popped out of manholes like prairie dogs – these employees ultimately made you conscious of the true work they do, on a daily basis, for the citizens of our community. PowerUP inevitably echoed The Trash Project in many ways – the balletic grace of its machines, stretching and pirouetting; Reynolds' captivating brew of jazz and funk (here enhanced with the velvety luster of an orchestra under Peter Bay's direction and jolted by Todd Reynolds' electrifying violin); the dramatic lighting by Stephen Pruitt – but the most significant was this: the sense of service from its subjects. The dedication to and pride in their work shone from these Austin Energy staffers like a million-lumen lamp. It left you dazzled and inspired, thankful for them and for Orr, for providing them their turn in the spotlight.
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