Power to the People
Cue the linemen! Now, 'Trash Project' choreographer Allison Orr is making Austin Energy dance
Allison Orr is back in the old routine: up at 5am (5:30 on a "good" day); out of the house by 6. Meet with city crews between 6 and 6:30, and spend the better part of their shifts – eight to 10 hours – out in the field, observing them do their work and frequently doing it with them. Come back to meet with city department officials to work out logistics for the large dance performance she's developing with their employees and/or the creative team (lighting designer Stephen Pruitt, composer Graham Reynolds) to strategize about the show. Go home for family time. Put kids to bed by 8:30. Collapse into bed by 10. Repeat.
This is the daily grind that Orr followed for months and months while preparing The Trash Project, her award-winning, phenomenally popular collaboration with the city's Solid Waste Services Department (now Resource Recovery) that made dancers of sanitation workers and the machines they operate. It's the schedule to which she returned when the work was revived two years later. Now, the Forklift Danceworks artistic director is at it again, albeit with a different city department, Austin Energy, whose employees are the focus for PowerUP, premiering this weekend at the Travis County Exposition Center.
So after exhausting herself with this twice, why is she going through it again?
The question makes Orr laugh. "It's so fun," she says. "I'm having such a blast."
Given the evident fatigue in her face on the late weekday afternoon when she says this, the sentiment seems questionable. But catch Orr in rehearsal some morning, and you can see that she means it – truly, madly, deeply. Out in the staging area for PowerUP – a patch of scrubby ground northeast of the Expo Center Show Barn studded with utility poles and a 100-foot-tall transformer tower – she moves like a general on a battlefield, striding from position to position, checking the placement of each piece of equipment, walking the path that trucks will travel, shouting instructions to the Austin Energy employees in her cast. When a question arises about a sequence's timing, she flips through sheets on a clipboard for her notes, then scrutinizes the 3-D map of the site – a tabletop-sized Google Earth photo with tiny dowels stuck down where the poles stand – before looking back at the landscape and deciding what adjustment should be made. When the time comes to run through a segment with the linemen, she stands in the midst of them, all these guys in their khaki workshirts and hard hats and heavy boots, the clips on their belts jingling like spurs, and she's teased, but she laughs and teases right back, high-fiving this one, throwing her arm around the shoulder of that one. Orr is at home with these men (and where Austin Energy field work is concerned, it's a man's, man's, man's world), her interactions with them revealing clear affection and respect. Through all those early mornings and long shifts, this choreographer has come to understand just what they do on the job and, more importantly, who they are when they aren't on it. Her dance isn't just about showing the artistry in their movement at work, it's about telling their stories.
For Orr, who's made a career of making dances from the movements of people who aren't trained in the art form – firefighters, gondoliers, roller skaters, orchestra conductors, Elvis impersonators, traffic cops, et al. – the personal stories of her subjects have become as important as their moves. She talks at length to the people with whom she collaborates on a dance and weaves recorded excerpts from interviews into the performance as the subjects are moving, Track her work through The King & I, Skate!, The Trash Project, and Solo Symphony, and you'll find story becoming more crucial in each piece – to the point where it's now the dancemaker's first consideration. "It has to be, or it's not going to work," Orr explains. "It gives you a frame and a context to watch the movement. I am interested in movement, but I'm not purely interested in movement, as some choreographers are."
No, Orr is interested in people, their histories and backgrounds, what led them to a certain occupation or vocation and holds them there. Why does someone strap on skates and wheel around the roller rink every week for years on end? What sparked Peter Bay's lifelong desire to wield a baton at the symphony? What does the guy who picks up dead animals for the city really feel about those lifeless creatures? This is the stuff Orr needs to understand for her orchestrations of these peoples' movements to hold meaning. As well as a way in to her dances for audiences, the stories are a way in for Orr herself – a connection to her collaborators. She's found interviews to be "a really intimate way to get to know somebody. People have told me stuff that I don't think a lot of people know about them."
Trey Longoria is the son of a lineman, who was himself the son of a lineman. "My dad didn't want me to do this kind of work," he admits. At the same time, his father recognized Trey as "a hands-on type" who liked being outdoors, so when an opening at Austin Energy came up, he nudged his son to apply. Trey got the job, and after nine years, it's safe to say this third-generation lineman has found his calling. Climbing poles looks to be as deep in his blood as playing music – a skill that will also be showcased in PowerUP, providing squeezebox accompaniment for his colleagues as they "dance" up and down the utility poles.
Orr knows that the person on the high-line or the trash truck has another life off the clock, and she has a knack for teasing out the often unseen talents of her dance project participants. In The Trash Project, she brought into the spotlight the slick rap skills of Ivory Jackson Jr. and sweet harmonica chops of Orange Jefferson. For PowerUP, she's tapped Allen Small, distribution director for the St. Elmo Service Center, to pen and perform some verse. Seems the electrical engineer moonlights as a slam poet and was on a Texas team that placed second in the 2012 National Slam Poetry competition. "You don't directly see it," Small recited at a press conference for PowerUP. "The truth is, it makes the world a better place./It keeps the world connected./I sing the utility electric."
Small's lines speak directly to Orr's wish that PowerUP make visible the largely hidden efforts of the utility's tremendous team of employees: "One thing I hope people understand is the hundreds of hands and hundreds of minds that have to touch the whole system to get that light to come on. There are all these divisions. There's transmission, the guys who work high-line, the big towers; there's distribution, from the substation to your house; there's network, the guys who work underground Downtown; there's relay, people who work in the substation houses on the computer and basically run the whole thing; and there's substation, the guys who work in the substation. And if one thing's off, it doesn't work. It's a massive, massive project to get power."
That, obviously, translates to a lot of stories to be told in PowerUP – and not all of them are steeped in the natural choreography of the pole-climbing linemen. "There's so much you can do with that. That's a no-brainer," says Orr. "The struggle has been how to do that but also tell the full picture. On the sketch, there were blank lines for quite some time until we figured it out. Like the substation: They're not linemen; they don't climb. They construct and maintain [the substations]. They drive genies, they drive buckets, and they work on busing and big heavy stuff. What do you do? We were all just sitting around, 6 in the morning, and one of the guys came up with this idea: There's this mobile substation unit that's two massive trailers – if we lose a substation, it could come in and power those circuits for however long it takes to get the substation back up and running – and he's like, 'Why don't we just use the part with the breakers and the switches?' And I'm like, 'Really?' 'Yeah, yeah. It's just sittin' over there.' And they're freaking letting us put it in the show! It looks like Star Trek coming in, you know? And transmission? These are the guys who work high-line, which is their own breed. I mean, they go up in a bucket 180 feet, and then they climb higher on the tower to like 240 feet. And their superintendent was like, 'Well, we gotta have a tower in the show. We can't have distribution get away with those baby poles, those toothpicks.' So somehow we pushed it through to get a transmission pole on the ground."
The scope of PowerUP, as well as Austin Energy's high profile and profitability, has required Orr to do more delicate navigation of city bureaucracy than either edition of The Trash Project. And if you want the source of Orr's exhaustion, endless government meetings are as much the culprit as those 6am field excursions. But Orr believes that "people have come along in seeing the value of this" and insists that Austin Energy execs have given her everything she's asked for. Key support from Council Member Laura Morrison and City Manager Marc Ott (both huge fans of The Trash Project) no doubt smoothed the way on the latter.
Come Monday, though, all those dealings with city officials, all the long negotiations over equipment and safety, all the ass-crack-of-dawn rides with her cowboy linemen, all the rehearsals in August's triple-digit misery, will be behind Orr. She can sleep as late as 7am (or however late the mother of two preschoolers gets to sleep). But PowerUP has consumed so much of Orr's life for the past three years that she's been unable to look past it, only recently reminding herself that "no matter how tired I am now, when I get on the other side of this, I'm gonna be, 'I'm sad that's over. What am I gonna do next?'" Of course, the instant she finishes a long soliloquy on the uncertainty of future projects, Orr mentions being approached to create a work about and with the Houston Astros, to be staged in Minute Maid Park with a cast – if Orr has her way – of 500. And talk of Houston leads her to a long-standing dream of creating a work about NASA.
The truth is, wherever Orr looks, she sees movement that interests her. And as long as she keeps looking, she'll have no trouble finding dances to make and stories to tell.
PowerUP will be performed Sept. 21 and 22, Saturday and Sunday, 7:30pm, at the Travis County Exposition Center, 7311 Decker Ln. Admission is free, but reservations are required. To make reservations or for more information, visit www.forkliftdanceworks.org.