“I’m not a good ballet dancer, but I teach contemporary dance,” Allison Orr tells a novice on the fence about whether to join her latest production before adding as an incentive, “You don’t wear shoes.”
Not that her potential recruit would be afraid to get his feet dirty – in fact, he does it every day. And that’s what attracted the Austin-based choreographer Orr to her local sanitation facility to seek out potential hoofers for a most unusual dance project that’s the focus of “Trash Dance,” the latest documentary from “Third Ward TX” director Andrew Garrison.
Shot over the course of the year, the film follows Orr through the process of convincing a group of sanitation workers to use the movements they’ve cultivated through driving their gargantuan trucks and collecting trash into a performance that recycles their daily routine into modern, elegant art. Yet the beauty of Orr’s project isn’t exclusively on the airfield where it’s presented, but in how she brings the disparate co-workers together to realize talent that they may not have known they had as well as show off to the public the value of the work they do.
For his part, Garrison doesn’t only capture the buildup to the performance from the point when his camera starts rolling, but well beyond as he and Orr really get to know the folks who keep the streets of Austin clean. In the litter abatement and recycling collection departments, he finds people like Don Anderson and Charles Ledbetter, who use the opportunity to show immense pride in their jobs, while learning others such as Virginia Alexander and Shiron Hill need to take a second one to make ends meet. It’s a collection of personal stories that make it all the more powerful when they congregate in front of a 2000-strong crowd on a rainy day, not entirely sure whether the threat of thunderstorms will derail Orr’s best laid plans, to put on a show.
One thing that is for certain, however, is that “Trash Dance” should be one of the biggest crowdpleasers at this year’s SXSW Film Festival and on the eve of the festival, Garrison took the time to talk about how he came to the project, the elaborate planning required to shoot such a grand dance routine and what he’s looking forward to at the film’s premiere this weekend.
How did you first learn of what Allison up to?
I didn’t know what she was about to do. I had seen some articles in the paper about other projects she had done — dance performances with Elvis impersonators, with skaters — and I had filmed Liz Lerman, who I later learned Allison had interned for years ago, and Liz Lerman works with nontraditional dancers, so I was interested in the idea of it.
I was asked at a meeting by a friend, “What are you going to do next?” And I said, “Well, there’s this dancer Allison Orr, who I’m kind of interested in how she works.” And he said, “Well, she’s my wife. I can introduce you.” [laughs] So it was just a phone conversation after that. She was just about to start working with the service employees next week and she said, “I’ll meet you Monday at safety training at 5:45.” That’s how it started.
Was she immediately receptive to the idea of a documentary? It seems incredible that one hadn’t been made already given the unusual nature of her work.
She’s had other things documented before, but never like this and this was also the largest effort she had ever made, the biggest project she had taken on and in fact, she thought that this would be a good thing, so she was welcoming.
But I hope this is going to be a good thing for her because this is going to be something she’ll be known for. She’ll go on to do other stuff, but how much of a burden is it going to be [for people to be] like “oh, do Trash Dance again!” — I don’t know.
Some of the sanitation workers admit to some hesitancy in joining the production, but one, Dan Anderson, said he was eager to commit “to shed light on what we do.” Did you find that to be something that unified everyone?
I was interested in that and interested in how people cross all kinds of barriers to come together to do stuff. That’s fascinating to me. But there are a few things going on. One was people did respond to [the idea] we’re going to show ourselves in our own voice to the public and they’re finally going to see us rather than the truck that’s in the way or picking up some garbage on the street. So that was important to people. And a number of people would say, “Why are you going to be doing this?” And they’d say, “Well, Allison asked me to.” [laughs] She made those kind of bonds.
This seemed to be a really wonderful representation of Austin with the way art always lurks just beneath the surface of the city. Did you see this as being as much about the city as it was about the people?
Not so much. I’m glad you like it as a picture of Austin because the city is the context for it, but I don’t think it’s either unique to Austin or that Austin is the only reason that this could happen. There’s an artist working with New York City sanitation workers and she’s not doing exactly the same thing, but there’s some overlap.
Did you feel as if you learned something new about the community that you’re a part of?
That’s the cool thing about doing a documentary is that you do it about things that seem interesting and you find out all kinds of new stuff that you didn’t know because it is interesting. I got to hang out with people at their jobs doing something which I knew nothing about and the enormous respect they showed for the work, that was interesting and surprising. I really liked the people who I worked with, so that part of it was all pleasure. It was good making new connections and new bonds with people, but it wasn’t so much like I didn’t know these things were going on.
Since the weather became such a factor for whether the performance would actually happen or not, was that a concern of yours as well?
Oh yeah. We were in the middle of a five-year drought. That’s why you don’t see people out in the rain in most of my footage and that week before the performance, suddenly, it’s just raining every day. So we didn’t know if the performance was even going to happen. If it got postponed, I had rented equipment and people had schedules to come and do this, so it was a major concern. It was touch and go.
That was on top of the fact that this was probably the first time you had to shoot a performance of this scale. What were the logistics like?
Absolutely. The space of the performance was about 200 yards wide. I shot the whole year before mostly by myself with a Sony EX-1 [camera], so I had to come [with] 10 Sony EX-1 or EX-3s on site before the performance and for the one day of full rehearsal that happened before the performance.
But before that happened, the EX-1 has got a thick lens, so I couldn’t change it to something wider and to cover the whole field of view, I was experimenting with multiple cameras. I was trying five cameras and then we went down to three cameras so we could composite an image, like a super-wide angle image. After we narrowed it down, it looked too gimmicky when I tried to composite the images — it morphed into a film making it look cool rather than it is cool and we got it. So I abandoned the idea, but there was never one rehearsal that behaved exactly the same way as another rehearsal in the individual parts.
I assembled a camera crew that were mostly volunteers, a lot of graduate students who were just exiting or recently graduated and there’s also some very seasoned veteran shooters. We planned to shoot the day of rehearsals so [while] I had ideas about what I wanted, but everyone could see what was going on and they could think about what they wanted to shoot during the actual performance. We we shot all day the Friday before, which was like a 10-12 hour day and then we shot all day of the performance, which was a rehearsal, and then we were waiting to see if they actually performed. But basically, each individual cameraperson had general instructions, then it was relying on them to get that shot they thought would work and we put it all together at the end.
There were actually finally 12 cameras because I put a Flip camera on the crane so I could see Don Anderson and see his face while he’s [operating] it. I didn’t even know that my camera would capture his face so closely, but the Flip’s point of view was very cool. There was one more camera than I’ve said because I had a crew doing a behind-the- scenes kind of movie and we used a couple shots from the 7D cam.
People surely will want to seek that out after seeing it, but since we’re speaking before the premiere, are you excited for people to finally see it?
I’m teetering between being exhausted and being completely flipped out because it’s going to be really fun. The thing I’m looking forward to…the [entire staff] has not seen a finished version. I cut a performance version for everyone and we saw that within a few months of the finished performance and it was fun to see people like rooting for each other and laughing and enjoying it. They haven’t seen this. There’s 250 employees. Some of the performers who are characters in the film have seen it. I brought it to the Gardner Center [where they work], I had screenings, but people are busy and a few people would stop in and [say], “oh yeah, that’s good, that works,” so I can’t wait to see kind of how they respond and families are going to be there and just seeing them see themselves and seeing each other is going to be just great.
“Trash Dance” premieres at SXSW at the Paramount Theater on March 10th at 1:30 p.m. It will also screen March 13th at the Paramount, March 14th at the Canon Screening Room and March 17th at the Stateside Theatre.