Wednesday, July 3, 2013

making meaning

During the performance "The Trash Project" in Austin in 2009
“Art-making is an experiment in conjuring up the possibilities that are hidden in the habitual and the familiar.”

I thought of this line from Harvard’s 2008 report called “A Vision for the Arts” while watching the film “Trash Dance.”

A documentary directed by Andrew Garrison and featuring choreographer Allison Orr, “Trash Dance” takes its name from a project Orr created in 2009 featuring employees and vehicles from Austin’s Solid Waste Services Department. Orr spent a year with the men and women who collected garbage, dead animals, and recyclable material. She accompanied them on their routes, asked them questions about their lives, and learned about the multiple jobs they held and talents they possessed.  She wanted to both learn about the people “who pick up my trash” and make a performance that shed light on their unique lives, movements, and skills. Their show, called “The Trash Project,” happened only one time on an abandoned airport runway in Austin for an audience of a couple thousand people. Thanks to Garrison’s film, thousands more are now viewing highlights of that evening as well as the poignant and at times hilarious moments that led to its creation.

This is one way to describe the film I watched at the AFI Silver last week, but it fails to capture the many ideas and questions that it set in motion. Orr is both a gifted listener and a personable, charismatic leader, traits that enrich her process and her creations. One of the first scenes shows her interacting with the employees as she describes “The Trash Project” to a large group of men. Orr’s enthusiasm and sincerity pose a stark contrast to their suspicion and disbelief. As she perseveres, the men shift as well. Ultimately her cast consists of 24 men and women and 16 of their vehicles. Before we see their performance, Garrison’s cameras follow them through their routes as well as their daily lives: we see a single father raising a young girl, a woman’s passion for boxing, and Orr trying to explain to some employees what contemporary dance is after they ask if she dances ballet. Her reply is, “It’s done barefoot.” In a director’s statement Garrison writes: “Orr told me 90% of her job, at first, is to listen to people. Not just observing their movements, but hearing their concerns—about their family, about work and how they view the world. At this point I knew that if she actually did that, there would be a film.”
performers bow at the end of "The Trash Project"
“Trash Dance” is a stunning film, and the night in Silver Spring when I saw it, people in the theater spanned several generations. In some ways the crowd the film attracts can be as eclectic as the people in the movie itself. I started to wonder if this was one of Orr’s goals: to explore how a performance can open up different ways of getting to know one another, of listening to stories, and of fostering a sense of connection. As she writes in her choreographer’s statement: “I wanted to make a dance that offered a more fully human picture of the people who work as ‘trash men,’ and I wanted the audience and the performing employees to feel more connected to each other once the performance was over.”

There are moments in the performance that are breathtaking: a crane that emerges from a vehicle operated by Don Anderson rises like a snake emerging from a charmer’s basket. Anderson works the machinery with the grace and precision of an origami maker folding a sheet of paper. His duet with the vehicle transforms the apparatus into a flying crane, stunning and dramatic.  Another highlight of the performance is a solo by Anthony Phillips, a Litter Abatement employee whose dancing fuses Fred Astaire with Lil Buck.