Forklift Danceworks was founded by choreographer Allison Orr in 2001, the name signalling her interest in machines and the movement of everyday work, and in collaborating with the different communities of Austin, Texas, her home town. The company has a core staff of three – apart from Orr, a managing director, and a second choreographer, Krissie Marty, who is also director of education – but also employs artists, composers, stage managers, production designers, etc for individual projects. It raises most of its funds through individual donors, supplemented by arts funding received via the state tourist tax, and some federal funding.
Mission: activating communities through a collaborative creative process
When Allison Orr first started creating participatory dance works, her interest was less in civic engagement than in “making compelling and memorable and impactful dances. I felt that the way I could do that was to work outside of the studio with people who were expert movers and to show the often invisible labour of everyday life. But the feedback we’ve gotten from collaborators is: this project has changed the way I think about my fellow employee, or the way I think city residents see us, or the way I think about my job. We now think of ourselves as playing in the world of civic engagement, because of what our collaborators taught us about what the works do for the city.”
“We now think of ourselves as playing in the world of civic engagement, because of what our collaborators taught us about what the works do for the city.”
The company’s mission has formulated in response. Previously it referred to transforming communities, but now Orr understands it more as “leveraging the creative process to support communities to activate themselves, in a way that they determine needs to happen. The idea is that we use the dance-making process to support the community to build connection, build understanding, advocate for itself on its own behalf, be heard, be witnessed, feel more agency, feel more hopefulness.”
Orr’s primary interest is in “the invisible choreography of labour that powers our city. We are very connected whether we notice it or not.” She aims for her work to “give people a look into how their cities function, and how their lives operate on the backs of the work of so many other people. And we’re really working to activate all kinds of people in relationship to how they see each other and how they see themselves as part of an interconnected group, or an interconnected community.”
The company has a “broad definition” of community. On the one hand it might mean a city department: 2009’s The Trash Project, for instance, was made with refuse collectors and their vehicles, and was “pivotal” for the company in terms of its artistic success and appeal to audiences (the remount of the show, in 2011, reached upwards of 4000 people). On the other it might mean a neighbourhood: 2014’s Play Ball was made with the African American Cultural Heritage District and celebrated a historic baseball field, encouraging the company to work “not only with movement but also the story of a place”.
Whoever the community, all Forklift’s work shares some common principles:
1: Authentic relationships
Forklift tends to design and lead the fundraising for its projects, shaping their creation from the beginning because: “It takes a really long time to authentically build relationships with a community.” Orr might spend a year doing so with a group – and in that time will avoid using the word dance. “When I’m working with certain groups of folks, dance can be quite a terrifying word. I also have learned to not talk much about the final show at the beginning, but to spend time listening, asking questions, just learning about the work and gaining trust.”
2: Communal expertise
Orr’s choreography works on the principle that “everyone is inherently creative, and that all people deserve access to the creative process. We’re working to reveal the extraordinary in the ordinary, finding inspiration in the stories of everyday people. We’re certainly not the only experts in the room: we want to value the role that we all play together.” Having built trust with a community, she searches for “great movement material: expertise, ease of movement, where somebody is doing something embodied, and you can really sense their presence and their love of it”. She choreographs from those movements, relying on the community members to “help guide how the actual dance is put together. They are giving the choreographic solutions, and they really are the experts.”
“We’re certainly not the only experts in the room: we want to value the role that we all play together.”
3: The performance as the middle of the process
Rather than work towards an end-product, Orr seeks to “use the performance as a catalyst to garner greater public support and understanding behind city issues”. Currently Forklift is working with the Parks and Rec department in Austin, specifically looking at the city’s swimming pool system, and is “trying to use this project as a way for the public and city staff to deepen understanding of each other and the issues surrounding pools. Ultimately we’re trying to impact policy, by listening long enough to know what the community’s really wanting, to see how we can impart some tools or experience that then would allow them to go after those things.”
4: Staying connected
Part of that forward thinking involves staying in contact with community groups after the performance ends. A positive development in Forklift’s practice has been a shift towards communicating publicly about its work in the company of its collaborators: “If I’m speaking at a conference I’ll bring a sanitation worker with me or somebody from the power company. The way we make the dance is very much a conversation and a collaboration, it’s not just my story alone to tell.” Forklift will also return to job sites and community sites to “relive” performances, sharing a meal with participants and their peers, and inviting the performers to tell the story of the show back to those who didn’t take part.
Benefits for all
Although Orr admits to facing logistical difficulties in Forklift’s work – from the burden of fundraising to the bureaucracy of city departments – she suggests the challenges she faces are less pronounced than for “other choreographers who work in more traditional ways. I feel like I’m doing it the easy way and I don’t understand why people don’t do it this way.” Collaborating with working-class people, “folk who do critical labour that is often invisible or overlooked”, gives her a clear appeal to city departments: “They want the true story of their employees to be told, and we can help them do that in a very unusual and different way. But it has to be about: what am I going to do for you as a community? What are you going to get out of it? What will that benefit be?”
An insistence on reciprocal benefit has made Forklift “a little more confident about what the dances could do civically – and more confident that this process of art-making is just as meaningful or viable as a strategy, as master planning or policy groups or whatever else a city does to solve problems or tackle issues. We get people talking that wouldn’t know how to talk to each other any other way.”
Orr’s ambitions are less for Forklift itself than for an entire culture shift. “Wouldn’t it be great if the city were trying to solve a problem like traffic, or housing, and they had their typical consultants and they had an artist? When a city pulls together a planning team, I’d like to see them pull together artists, and artists push ourselves to think in these ways. We have to try to sit down with city staff and say: in five years, how would you like things to be different? And really think about how we could design a project that would address what they’re saying their needs are. Through the creative process, we could offer a means to create understanding and dialogue that would be just as useful, or possibly better even, as other means that cities have figured out to engage.”