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Taking it outside: How Austin’s Forklift Danceworks taps into a well of creativity in the unseen city

From firefighters to public-pool swimmers, the group’s free public performances put communities front and center

person holding another person floating in a shallow pool with lifeguard floats
Dove Springs Swims from Our Park, Our Pool, Our City
Jonica Moore courtesy of Forklift Danceworks

If you want to learn about public art in Austin, Forklift Danceworks would be a good place to start. The company doesn’t only create works for the community; under the tutelage of choreographer and artistic director Allison Orr, it creates works by the community as well.

Orr founded Forklift in 2001 with the mission of working with people who are not professional dancers to create and collaborate on massive works, most of which are performed outdoors. In a article in local art magazine Sightlines, Jeanne Claire van Ryzin elaborated on how Orr works:

Her methodology starts with a commitment to an admirably long artistic and ethnographic residency of sorts within a community. Orr and her team easily spend up to a year embedding themselves with the workers and communities around which a performance is centered.

Make no mistake, though: Forklift’s work isn’t well-meaning community theater; in combination with a community and its dancers, Orr’s vision and precision transform the authentic and granular details of a group’s work, characteristics, and personalities into visually and emotionally arresting, top-notch performances.

Reveling: Trash Is Tops

Forklift made its first big impact on the average Austinite’s consciousness with The Trash Project in 2009. That stunning and unexpected piece, scored by local composer Graham Reynolds, brought a beautiful arrangement of movement by sanitation workers, their trucks and other heavy equipment, and trash cans to life on the tarmac of the former Robert Mueller Airport.

Trash Dance, a documentary about the performance, made the world outside of Austin aware of the groundbreaking work Forklift was doing and won awards at several film festivals. Despite the fact that “work like this is not fast,” as Orr told Van Ryzin, the company has turned out consistently surprising, meaningful, and beautiful pieces, all in collaboration with specific communities in a way that brings out individual and collective creativity and identity, time and again. There was the piece with the city’s electric line workers, who climb up and down utility poles all day. There have been works showcasing firefighters; dogs and their owners; the Huston-Tillotson University baseball team; a troupe of dancers of mixed abilities; UT campus workers; the trees of Govalle Park and the forestry workers who maintain them; a piece with more than 100 teen and preteen girls; and more—always unexpected, always illuminating.

Diving In: Austin’s Problem Pools

In recent work, Forklift and Orr have gone aquatic, setting sights on Austin’s public pools. According to Van Ryzin, this move was in part meant to bring attention to the decaying infrastructure in and lack funding for community pools—many of which, of course, are the only pool access some people have. In a recent Austin Chronicle story, Nina Hernandez described in detail the extent to which pools have decayed and what it will cost to save some of them—a situation that the city is attempting to address through its Aquatic Master Plan (which first had to survey all the pools and deliver the bad news, then propose a plan that includes phasing out some of them).

That’s where Orr comes in; the city’s Aquatics Division invited her and Forklift to be in residency for three years, Van Rizin writes, as a way to bring attention to the pool crisis. The result is a multiyear, collaboratively created trilogy: My Park, My Pool, My City.

The first part of the trilogy, “Bartholomew Swims,” took place last year at Bartholomew Pool in Northeast Austin—one of the rare city pools that has been repaired after suffering major infrastructure failure. This year, Forklift staged “Dove Springs Swims” at the southeast Austin pool. With both—and as it will be with the final installment in 2019—the dances are created with neighborhood residents, pool lifeguards, aquatic department maintenance staff, and others who have a stake in the future of Austin’s pools.

group of people walking by pool with colorful umbrellas
Dove Springs Swims from Our Park, Our Pool, Our City
Jonica Moore courtesy of Forklift Danceworks

Reclaiming: Our Parks, Our Pools, Our City

Austin has seen its share of water-oriented dance, from performances at and in Barton Springs to the work of feminist water ballet troupe H2Hos, which tended to hold shows in private pools, often at the Elks Lodge. It could be argued that such performances have always embraced the community and in some cases lent visibility to underrepresented groups (and were also a lot of fun).

Still, this pool trilogy is different, connected directly to a civic crisis and the communities it affects, bringing that community into the process, listening, providing a forum for expression, and increasing visibility. And it’s done in the most artful way imaginable.

Everybody into the Pool [Sightlines]

Austin’s Pool System Will Collapse If We Don’t Save It [AC]