Choreographer Alison Orr's New Book Dances Across the Page

Dance Works recounts 23 years of Forklift Danceworks as a force for community change

Allison Orr at rehearsals for the PowerUP project in 2013 (photo by John Anderson)

It's only mid-June and it's already too damned hot in Austin.

The heat was the first thing Allison Orr mentioned when we met to discuss her dance company, Forklift Danceworks, their new project, The Way of Water, and how cool it is that MacArthur Genius Grant-winning choreographer Liz Lerman wrote the forward to her new book, Dance Works: Stories of Creative Collaboration.

As many in the local artistic scene may know, Forklift Danceworks, founded by Orr, is an innovative and community-driven dance company that brings together individuals from diverse working-class backgrounds to create inspiring performances. Orr shared her journey, the evolution of her approach to dance and community engagement, and the transformative power of her work. Born in Houston and raised right here in ATX, Orr's upbringing instilled in her a strong work ethic and a love for people. "Growing up, I had a real connection with work," she said. "We all had jobs outside in the garden, or helping my dad make jelly from the mustang grapes in East Texas."

Her experiences traveling and working in Latin America during college exposed her to different cultures and ignited her passion for anthropology. However, it was her realization of dance's potential as a form of activism and social connection that set her on the path to founding Forklift Danceworks some 22 years ago.

The company's first work was In Case of Fire, a performance with firefighters made all the more important coming shortly after the events of September 11.

"I was amazed by how dance could connect with activism, politics, and social issues," she recalled. "Dance became a way to bridge gaps and celebrate the diverse communities we live in."

Forklift Danceworks quickly gained recognition for its innovative projects that highlighted the skills and contributions of ordinary people. One such project was The Trash Project, a collaboration with the city of Austin Sanitation Department. Through captivating performances, the tireless efforts of sanitation workers were brought to the forefront, emphasizing the importance of their contributions to the city. Another notable project, PowerUP, celebrated the unique skills of Austin Energy line workers through dance, challenging societal perceptions and fostering appreciation for these often-overlooked professions.

As Orr's journey progressed, her approach to dance and community engagement evolved. She listened to the communities she collaborated with, ensuring their experiences and aspirations were accurately reflected in the performances. Sharing authorship and co-creating with participants became paramount, allowing the performances to be truly representative of the community's voice.

All of this from Orr's simple, genius realization that everything is dance. Now she expresses that connection in her new book, Dance Works. "Like most great ideas, it wasn't mine," she joked.

The inspiration came from Barry Cher­noff, director of Wesleyan University's Col­lege of the Environment. Recognizing the role of artists in driving change within communities, Chernoff invited Orr and her family to Wesleyan as a guest scholar, providing the financial support to focus on writing. The book aims to be accessible and relatable, offering guidance to artists, organizers, and individuals on how to bring diverse people together through inclusive artmaking processes.

In Dance Works, Orr emphasizes the importance of artists being at the center of critical civic issues. She passionately believes that artists must be present at the table when discussing climate change, promoting public transportation, or addressing challenging societal issues.

Artists serve as messengers and storytellers, capable of bridging gaps and fostering understanding. Through her writing, Orr hopes to empower artists and communities to embed themselves within nonartistic groups, becoming the vital missing link in conversations about tough issues.

Orr's ultimate goal is to empower artists to create art in nonartistic environments and utilize the artmaking process to build community. She envisions artists playing a pivotal role in addressing pressing challenges and shaping a better future. Her incredible journey, belief in the power of art, and dedication to community engagement serve as inspirations for artists and individuals to come together, celebrate the contributions of diverse communities, and strive for positive change. "It's an ongoing process of growth and learning for me as an artist."

Forklift Danceworks presents The Way of Water Sept. 22-23 at Onion Creek Metropolitan Park, 6899 Onion Creek Dr. Tickets and info at

Dance Works: Stories of Creative Collaboration

by Allison Orr w/ foreword by Liz Lerman
Wesleyan University Press
192 pp.
$22 (paper)

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Allison Orr, Forklift Danceworks, Dance Works, Wesleyan Press

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