Co-Creation in Dance

by Clara Pinsky, Program Coordinator; Krissie Marty, Associate Choreographer;
Allison Orr, Artistic Director
Forklift Danceworks

This post is part of a series in conjunction with TRG Arts on developing relationships with both new communities and existing stakeholders through artistic programming, marketing and fundraising, community engagement and public policy. (Cross-post can be found at Analysis from TRG Arts.)

allisonelvis21The need to deepen relationships with current stakeholders and build relationships with new audiences is a compelling question for us at Forklift Danceworks. When we are asked this question, we often answer with a question: Who loves Elvis?

In 2007, Forklift’s Artistic Director Allison Orr choreographed The King & I—not the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, but an evening-length, contemporary dance performance work to address her curiosity, “Just what does Elvis Presley have to do with you and me, anyway?” In making the work, Allison knew she needed to find a way to get input and inspiration from the Elvis community. She sought out to find, “Who loves Elvis?”

Meeting the dedicated Elvis tribute artists and hearing stories from fans, Allison decided to loosely structure the performance of The King & I on Elvis’ last concert. Thinking even more about the fans who love Elvis (who also love to get together to talk about their love for Elvis!), she decided to perform the dance over three weekends around the 30th anniversary of Elvis’ death. Through collecting stories about Elvis’ life and work, performances of his songs and of course, choreography that included his iconic moves, this show with three professional dancers and five Elvis Tribute Artists was really a collaboration with many others, with inspiration and input from the Elvis-loving community.

In the years since The King & I, we have choreographed dances for trash collectors and their vehicles, electric utility workers and their equipment, forestry technicians and a heritage pecan tree, and baseball players and a historic field. The key to the success of each project has been asking, “Who loves Elvis–or recycling, or electricity, or trees, or baseball?” and finding the community that already has a stake in the dance we are making and inviting them to join us in the creative process.

In essence, community engagement is inherent in our process of making dances. We hang out, talk and ask questions, and most importantly we listen. We get really excited about the knowledge that exists in the groups with which we collaborate. Each specific community has had an abundance of ideas, expertise, and resources to offer our art making process. Practically, the only way to make a great dance with trash trucks is to work with someone who has been driving a trash truck for years. In the same way, the only way for us to make a great dance about Elvis is to work with people who love Elvis, too.

Our other trick? The people we work with become co-authors of the dance and the stories we tell within it. Baseball players have choreographed the action of 10 pitchers throwing in a circle; linemen have choreographed hanging electrical wire by hand and dropping pulleys in canon. Our projects share the story of our determined community with a wider audience and we often ask about, and listen for, what our community wants the general public to know.

For us as artists the exchange between ourselves and the community we are partnering with is reciprocal. We also ask ourselves what do we have to offer the community we are working with? What is the value add for them? And this ultimately encourages us as artists to make better dance. We want to make great dances, and by seeking relevance, connection and engagement from the get go—we give ourselves an even better chance of making that awesome dance.

And it just gets better. Working in this way—where relationships and listening are central to our dance making process—continues to provide us with rich material for art making. With each project, we engage with a new community that tells us even more about our city. Honestly, we feel blessed. How else could we have learned about what it is like to free climb a 100 ft transmission tower, or prune one of Austin’s oldest trees, or hit a home run in front of thousands of fans?

Our art making is what allows us to deepen and build relationships. So our advice…go find out “who loves Elvis?!”

Photo: by Sung Park [Donnie Roberts, left; Allison Orr, right]

Heard NY

Some time ago I commented [Engaged Mission: I], in response to a NY Times article, that social practice art–art with an explicit social service intent, while admirable, is not the only way to approach community engagement. It’s a good and valuable way to engage, but it is not the sole means to do so. When I discuss community engagement I talk about the “issue” being addressed by a project, but an issue need not be a problem or something in need of “fixing.” An issue can also be the need for people to connect or even just have a good time.

I have in the past talked about how much I like the Knight Foundation’s Random Acts of Culture™  program. Earlier this year the NY Times has put me on to another example of serious fun: Watch Out for the Horses on Your Way to the Train. Chicago artist-choreographer Nick Caves created a work for Vanderbilt Hall in Grand Central Station. It was performed by students at the Alvin Ailey School in “costume-like sculptures” of horses (sort of).

The video below gives a sense of the work itself and of the delight of the unsuspecting Grand Central audience. The intent was to achieve something “magical and family friendly.” I think they succeeded.

To me, this is a great example of art taking the public seriously. The desire to connect and delight is clear. (Inspire, Delight, and Surprise) The costumes are gorgeous, the choreography is effective, the young dancers are clearly talented. There is no obvious social concern being addressed here. However, everyone who experienced this piece will remember it for a long time. That certainly bodes well for their future interest in dance. More to the point, though, from my perspective, each (or at least nearly every) audience member came away with a slightly brighter view of their day as the result of a work designed for them and brought to them–good for dance, good for art, good for us all.



The Trash Project

One of the joys of all the traveling and speaking I am undertaking is the opportunity to find out about cool examples of engagement work going on around the country. I am going to Austin for the Texas Commission on the Arts & Texans for the Arts conference, Strategies for Success. As part of the preparation, I asked the organizers to send me examples of interesting projects. The subject of this post is one of the most fascinating I have ever seen.

The choreographer Allison Orr (her company is Forklift Danceworks)  trained and worked for months with staff of Austin’s Solid Waste Services collecting trash, dead animals, and recycling. Out of that experience (and those relationships) she created a 75-minute performance in 18 sections highlighting sanitation workers’ jobs. It included “a dance for three street sweepers, a truck quartet, a solo for a bucket truck operator and his truck, [and] a grand finale for all 16 vehicles. It also featured SWS workers performing solos in arts activities they did “on the side.” One was a harmonica solo.

The piece was originally performed in 2009 (in the rain) with an audience of about 1500. It was encored in 2011 with two sold-out performances (in 100 degree heat) with around 4000 total attendees. It was named the #1 Arts Event of 2009 by The Austin American Statesman, the #1 Dance Event of 2009 by The Austin Chronicle, and winner of Most Outstanding Dance Concert by The Austin Critics Table. It has been made the subject of an award-winning documentary, Trash Dance, that will premiere at Lincoln Center in February (2/5/13) and be released in the spring.

There is a tendency to look on this kind of project as a clever gimmick. And while there is no question that it and its premise are attention grabbing for being so unusual, there is something about the way the work is described that makes me go deeper in my appreciation. This project took sanitation workers seriously, as community members and as people. 100% of the performing employees surveyed (yes, there were outcomes surveys) reported that The Trash Project improved morale and pride in their job. 94% reported that the performance improved the public’s understanding and awareness of what SWS does, and 97% agreed that it improved the image of SWS employees held by the general Austin public. Jermaine Defreeze, a Maintenance Worker Leader, said,

The piece took the day-to-day work of an unappreciated and unrecognized city department and made it into an art form that won several awards. As the men and women in collections now pick up trash, recycling, brush and bulky items, and clean the streets we have a sense of pride. The public now comes up, saying they saw The Trash Project, and asks our employees for autographs.

These “ordinary” people are important contributors to our society and important to our well-being. (Remember why Dr. King was in Memphis when he was assassinated?) For the arts to make a contribution to their sense of well-being and to the wider community’s appreciation of them is a powerful, important thing to do.

Clearly this is not a prototype example to be replicated by every arts organization. It is illustrative of the result of community awareness and a community-oriented frame of reference. The arts can become more important in our communities by being more important to them.



Youtube video by bubbaofthebubbles

Bonus Post

I said I was going to only do one post a week through August, but here are two things that might be of interest. First, Julia Levy of CultureCraver (kind of an interesting concept: GoodReads for culture is the way I think of it) contacted me when she heard about Building Communities, Not Audiences and wanted to do an interview. Here is the result:

And I just heard from Dorothy Gunther Pugh at Ballet Memphis. (She’s a contributor to the book.) They are advertising for a community engagement position. Here’s the info:

Artistic Administrator/Partnership Manager Organization: Ballet Memphis
Location: Memphis, TN

Ballet Memphis is seeking a qualified candidate to fulfill the new, full-time position of Artistic Administrator/Partnership Manager. The Partnership Manager (PM) will help make ideas become potential programs; will be accountable for implementing the programs; will provide the frameworks and supervision for realization of the various products and programs; will provide communication, administrative and artistic support to the Company and the artistic staff; and will engage in expanding relationships with the community and its supporters.

Requirements include a college degree and professional administrative experience. Experience in the professional ballet world would be helpful but is not required. (S)He will be working closely with the Artistic Director, the Managing Director, all senior staff , the production staff, emerging and experienced choreographers and designers, the professional dancers and trainees, university faculties and administrators, community and government leaders, and school staff and parents.

Salary commensurate with experience plus benefits
Please email your resume and cover letter with references to:

Add “Partnership Manager” to the subject