The day before the 2009 premiere of The Trash Project, the much-lauded choreographic collaboration between Forklift Danceworks and the city of Austin's Solid Waste Services Department, things got a bit hairy for Forklift artistic director and choreographer Allison Orr: "We changed the whole end." What had worked in planning turned out to be impossible at crunch time, and a new ending for the 24 SWS employees in the cast and 16 department trucks in the show had to be invented. But Don Anderson, a SWS employee whose role in the show was to operate a crane – the kind usually used to hoist old couches and piles of brush into tractor-trailer bins – in stunningly balletic maneuvers, was calm. "Allison, we're gonna make it happen for you," she remembers him saying.
They – Anderson and the rest of the SWS crew, the city, Orr, composer Graham Reynolds and his musicians, lighting director Stephen Pruitt, and innumerable supporters and volunteers – did make it happen. Despite drizzly weather, an audience of 1,400 crammed inside a gated area on the tarmac at Austin Studios, squishing into and standing around the bleachers set up for only 700. After the gate was closed, an estimated 500 more jumped the fence or got around it; other would-be attendees protested and pleaded on the other side. Those who got in witnessed an alchemy, a performance thrilling not only in its novelty but in its anthropomorphism, humor, intelligence, beauty, and illumination of an essential civic service that is usually on the periphery. It is partly for those who didn't get in – who no doubt included some SWS employees and family members – that Orr wanted to revive The Trash Project. On Aug. 27 and 28, there will be two encore performances, each seating 2,000 people. Admission is once again free, although reservations are required and were booked by mid-August. (See "Getting In," below.)
More than half of the show's original cast will reprise their roles, but even-keeled crane operator Anderson has moved on from SWS. (Word has it he's focusing on his barbecue these days.) To fill his role, Orr approached Bobby Brown, a five-year veteran of the department, because he seemed to "have the right heart." At first, Brown was reluctant, citing weekends booked with family activities. But he relishes any chance to operate machinery, so with the support of his wife, he eventually agreed to take on the job. Along with a fondness for the equipment, Brown has an intense focus: In a recent Solid Waste Association of America "Road-E-O" competition of the Lone Star Chapter in Dallas, he reveled in the challenge of maneuvering the crane's claw to pick up a soda can, move it, and set it down upright – all without crushing it. To prepare for the first crane solo rehearsal, he'd taken the initiative to listen to the music at home, "over and over."
Brown is seated next to Orr in the auditorium – a cafeterialike room with rows of tables and padded folding chairs – of the city's Kenneth Gardner Service Center, the coming-and-going point of SWS routes. Having just completed a route that began before the sun had fully risen, he's now able to begin work with Orr on the crane solo that he's due to perform in two weeks. Brown nods as Orr goes over a list of the movements that Anderson performed in 2009, paired with the approximate times it took to do them. (Since the performers cannot hear the music over the noise of their equipment, the musicians follow their timed movements.) Then they hunch over Orr's iPhone, on which she's pulled up a recording of the crane solo music, plinked out on the piano by Reynolds (the complete version being an expansive yet sensitive wonder for piano, cello, and violin). Brown listens in silence, and Orr points out the dynamics in the music – the build to the top, the fast spiral down. She tells what moves Anderson did then but maintains that Brown's contributions are welcome. The piece ends. "Whatcha thinking?" Orr looks at Brown, tilting her head, leaning in.
"I'm thinking of a different start," he says. "That start ... instead of starting with extending the crane, just bring it all the way up into the folded elbow. Just nice and slow, and bring it up to a full extension. Because I believe that in the first couple of seconds, you want to do something that grabs the attention."
Orr nods, listens.
Despite refinements, improvements, and new, personal touches like Brown's contributions to the crane solo, the structure of the show will largely be the same. But Orr made a couple of major revisions. For example, she knew that a section for four performers with leaf blowers had to be changed. The fact that the tarmac, unlike city streets, has no walls or curbs to blow material up against presented a conceptual and practical problem, so this time the performers in this section will brandish litter sticks. Their moves are somewhat inspired by the step routines of Southern fraternities. "All I'm going to tell you" – Orr pauses dramatically – "is that these guys want to be the best in the show." A second new section is a solo for a self-loading dump truck – that's the truck that takes the debris piled up by the sweepers and brings it to the landfill – or, more accurately, a duet for the operator and the truck.
SWS' commitment to not just one but two more performances is testament to the success of the 2009 show and the willingness of SWS Director Bob Gedert, who came to the department in 2010, to promote the city's Zero Waste Goal (a Zero Waste Fair will precede each performance). But to cover costs, Forklift had to raise $50,000 – more than 60% of the company's total operating budget for last year – almost all from private donors. (About $10,000 of the costs have yet to be covered. Donations are being accepted at www.forkliftdanceworks.org.) People who before the premiere had difficulty visualizing the end result – a dance? For trucks and garbage collectors? – now know what to expect, so logistics have been much easier this time. Nonetheless, Orr says the unwavering support of Austin City Council Member Laura Morrison has been crucial at times to make things happen: "To have people like Laura supporting artists – that's the thing."
But Orr is certain that these will be the final performances of The Trash Project. The tarmac is the only space within city limits that is wide-open and flat, paved, and big enough. A grocery chain has shown interest in the site, and it's inevitable that "at some point, that space will not be there anymore."
Twenty minutes after listening to the crane solo music in the auditorium, Brown has set up the crane out in the yard – that is, where the vehicles are. It's parked in an open spot amid rows of green-and-white trucks, and the impressive steel feet on either side of the truck have been lowered for stability – like giant, flat training wheels. Orr, who forgot her required steel-toed boots that day, worries about getting sunburned on the parts of her toes that her sandals expose. Every five minutes or so, another truck rolls in, and an employee gets out and high-fives Orr on his or her way to clock out.
Brown, with his notes, climbs up the white metal rungs and into the seat of the crane. The heat is brutal, but as I look up at Brown and the crane, the sky is crisply, surprisingly blue. This crane is No. 120; another, No. 019, functions more smoothly, so Brown will request it for the performance, as Anderson did in 2009. Brown settles into the black vinyl seat, straight-backed, looking straight ahead with his hands gently placed on the controls. He raises the crane at the "folded elbow" position, so the forearm of the crane is hanging down with the claw below. When he unfolds it into the highest extended position, its altitude is dizzying. One wonders why it would ever need to go that high.
On Orr's advice to just "play around with it" for a bit, Brown swings the arm around, opens and closes the claw. Sometimes when it closes, the jaws shut with an affirmative clank, a sound Orr considers keeping in the piece. Brown moves the extended arm and tests how the claw swings as it opens and closes, resembling a dancer slowly wiggling into her hips before class. Watching the arm unfold evokes the grace of the engineering – and the human inspiration – behind the machinery. Yet the metal and hydraulics are also limitations to be overcome, a means to an end.
After 10 minutes or so, Orr calls up, "How you doing?" Brown shakes his hand – so-so – and looks back at his list. He practices, repeating movements to make them smoother, more lubricated, for 10 more minutes, which feels like an eternity spent on the expanse of asphalt absorbing the afternoon sun.
After returning the crane to its parking space, Brown meets Orr back inside for a wrap-up. Since he won't operate the crane on the job again before the performance – operators rotate positions, working the tractor-trailers in between stints on the crane – he's decided he will find time at work to take it out and practice. Orr explains that she'll take video of the next rehearsal so he can see the full effect and that the most important thing is that the piece, artistically, comes from him.
Gently, evenly, he interrupts. "You know, Allison, it's going to be all right. Without a shadow of doubt, it's going to come out OK."
The Trash Project runs Saturday & Sunday, Aug. 27 & 28, 7:30pm, at Austin Studios tarmac, 1901 E. 51st. For more information, visit www.forkliftdanceworks.org.
Reservations for all 4,000 available seats for the remount of The Trash Project were booked in early August. If you have one, bring your email confirmation as proof. Be sure to come early, allowing ample time for parking, walking from your car to the site, and perusing the information at the Zero Waste Fair. (Carpooling and biking are encouraged.) Seating begins at 6:30pm, and reserved seats must be claimed by 7:15pm at the latest, or they will be given up to the public.
If you don't have a reservation, your options are: 1) Get on the email list to be notified if more tickets are released, or 2) stand outside and hope to be let in after 7:15pm, when no-show seats will be released. However, there will likely be a lot of people vying for those seats, so there is no guarantee of admission.
For reservation information, see www.forkliftdanceworks.org.
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