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Not quite the electric slide: turning utility lineworkers into dancers

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  October 8, 2013 10:34 AM

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Think about the last time you passed construction workers spreading asphalt or sanitation employees tossing bags of trash into a garbage truck. Maybe you thought, “That’s tough work,” or, “This is really slowing down my commute.” When Allison Orr looks at these kinds of manual laborers, she sees something different. She sees dancers.

Orr runs Forklift Danceworks of Austin, Texas, which over the last few years has put together a series of innovative “found dance” performances that turn the physical movements of blue collar workers into art. In 2009 she debuted “The Trash Project,” which featured Austin sanitation workers. Her most recent performance, “PowerUP,” took place in Austin in late-September and featured linesmen from the electricity provider Austin Energy doing the things they do everyday—hanging power lines, climbing poles, lifting manhole covers. Except in this case it all took place at night, under the lights, on a massive outdoor stage to the beat of a live orchestra.

“I see incredibly virtuosic movement among different kinds of people,” Orr says. “I love watching people who are experts at what they do. I see beauty in that, artistry.”

Turning lineworkers into dancers is both easier and harder than it sounds. It’s harder because the whole production takes a lot of time. Orr spent three years planning the performance, including a year embedded with utility crews in which she got to know the men on the teams and observed how they work. It's easier because PowerUP only required the utility workers to move the way they move all the time.

“For the transmission guys,” Orr says, “they gave me one practice, one dress rehearsal, then they came to the two shows. And the dress rehearsal was rained out. We videotaped them and my composer timed the music to it.”

The stage for PowerUP featured many of the basic objects that linesmen interact with in their daily work. There were 18 wooden distribution poles (the kind you see lining your street), an 80’ tall transmission tower, six bucket trucks, two wire pulling machines, a massive 150’ crane called a Bronto, a mobile substation, and two makeshift manholes.

The performance itself was broken down into a series of what Orr calls “events,” short, discrete tasks the linesmen perform in their work. In one part of the show (bottom picture, below), the orchestra played as a linesman climbed the 80’ transmission tower, attached a safety harness, scooted out onto a metal arm, used a rope to pull up a ladder, attached the ladder, attached a wire, and climbed down.

Climbing a transmission tower and hanging a wire is not the kind of movement we conventionally think of as dance. But, Orr says that on a very basic level, the lineworkers dance more purely than some of the actual dancers she works with.

"I’m always trying to teach my dance students how to completely embody their physical presence, how to be completely present,” Orr says. “For people who are authentically doing that, they’re not acting, they really are completely engaged and present in what they’re doing. There’s an awareness that the lineman is giving to his entire body that I think communicates very clearly to the observer. I find that really satisfying to watch, this exactitude, this precision. It’s really grace when it comes down to it. It’s extreme gracefulness, extreme mastery of movement."

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Photographs by Leon Alesi, courtesy of Forklift Danceworks.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

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Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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