10 People of 2012: Allison Orr

10 People of 2012: Allison Orr

 Allison Orr | Artistic Director, Forklift Danceworks

In the eye of the beholder—this modern choreographer shares the beauty of the quotidian.

For Allison Orr, the scope of dance is limitless. Whether she choreographs for firefighters or Venetian gondoliers, sanitation workers or Elvis impersonators, Orr creates art with an eye for the beauty and the depth of the everyday. “I find my inspiration in watching people who are experts in what they do,” she says. “There’s habitual movement in their expertise that’s almost virtuosic in nature—it can offer a look into their lives and who they are as individuals.” As Artistic Director of her nonprofit company, Forklift Danceworks, Orr has continued to astonish and delight audiences with her creative projects, each one radiant and unforgettable in its honesty.

Orr began to explore the possibilities of dance while pursuing an MFA at Mills College. Drawing on her undergraduate studies in anthropology, she found herself fascinated by the cultures and communities she observed around her. “There’s this aesthetic, choreographic standpoint, where I see real beauty in movement,” she says. “But then, there are the stories and the people themselves and how that connects to our creative community.”

For her final project at Mills, Orr choreographed a suite of dances performed by members of the maintenance staff, entitled A Series of Dances by Campus Employees. Over the course of three days, students and employees witnessed three performances—a duet of two men hanging a banner at the library, a dance with the grounds crew and finally, a solo by the campus foreman. Each piece highlighted the unique movement, rich with subtle grace, of the university’s maintenance men, whose work would have likely gone unnoticed on any other day. “What I’m interested in doing is giving voice to the people whose stories are not often told,” Orr remarks.

At the heart of Orr’s choreography is thus an idea of dance as dialogue, connecting audience, performer and art in unexpected ways. Since she returned to Austin, Orr has choreographed a diverse body of work, from pieces for roller skaters to dances for women in all stages of motherhood, including a beautiful “First Duet” for herself and her then unborn daughter. Whether she’s working with trained dancers or dog owners, each piece begins with a search for striking, unforgettable movement. “I’m looking for things I think any choreographer would look for—change, levels, speed, tension,” Orr says, “and then, I’ll see who those people are and discover what their lives are like. Everybody’s got a story.”

What follows is perhaps the most demanding part of her choreographic process: for almost a year, Orr will study the performers she has chosen, shadowing their daily routines, learning their stories and observing the elegance inherent in their experienced, habitual movement. “That’s what I love about my job,” she says. “How else would I have ever gotten to ride on the back of a trash truck, row a gondola or know what it’s like have a guide dog? My life is fuller because of it.”

After this extensive research period, Orr works closely with her performers to develop and rehearse choreography within the vocabulary of their everyday movement. “When I’m building the choreography itself, it’s always in collaboration with the performers—they’re the experts,” she says. “I ask people to do only what they already know how to do.” As a result, Orr’s work is a visual celebration of the community and the people who bring it to life. Her most recent performance, The Trash Project, drew over 2000 viewers a night to an empty tarmac at Austin Studios, where employees from the Austin Resource Recovery department maneuvered their own bodies, trucks, cranes and garbage bins in a stunning tribute to the men and women, who, though invaluable to the city, are often invisible in our daily social fabric.

“With that piece, we see beauty and artistry and a more human portrait of the sanitation employees,” Orr says. “We confront our own ideas of who a ‘trash guy’ is.” She smiles as she remembers the moment the trash trucks emerged onto the tarmac, one by one, their headlights bright and unwavering against the darkening clouds, while composer Graham Reynold’s score filled the air. “In any other setting, they would have been just trash trucks,” she says, “but here, they were majestic, triumphant.” In another movement—a heartbreakingly beautiful solo—Litter Abatement Supervisor Don Anderson operated a crane, extending its arm and claw slowly, like a balletic développé. Hesitant at first, the crane navigated the space around it before soaring upward, victorious, toward the night sky.

With her transformative, visionary power to see beauty, grace and elegance in the most unlikely places, Orr has reimagined the way we think about dance. In addition to her ongoing outreach programs—which include creative moment classes for children and workshops for dancers with and without disabilities—she looks forward to her new production, coming September 2013. “In the end, what I enjoy most are the deliciously beautiful moments,” Orr says. “And then, I’m seeing something beautiful because those particular people, being who they are, are making it that way. I feel so blessed to witness it.”