coe’s allison orr launches new book

Allison Orr’s book launch for her new book Dance Works, Stories of Creative Collaboration  was held on Wednesday, May 3, 2023, in the Romance Languages Lounge. The ceremony was accompanied by a live set by DJ Mo Torres and DJ Lloyd.  

The book launch was a celebration of Allison’s accomplishments, both on and off of the Wesleyan University campus. Off campus, Allison is the artistic director of Forklift Danceworks, an award-winning dance company based in Austin, Texas. Her work draws inspiration from the habitual motion of labor, and highlights unlikely dancers. By incorporating ensembles of real workers, her choreography challenges traditional notions of  dance. It acknowledges that everyone and everything is in constant motion, and all people are part of a collective dance. Allison finds the beauty within worker’s daily motions; it is these motions which build our cities and lives. Through her work, Allison engages entire communities through art.  In addition to her contributions within the dance world, Allison Orr is a research fellow in the Bailey College of the Environment and her book was written at the encouragement of College of the Environment Director Barry Chernoff.

At the ceremony, Allison described her process developing “On Campus,” a series of distinct dance projects at Wake Forest University, Williams College, and Wesleyan University. At Wesleyan, Forklift Danceworks developed WesWorks, a project that highlighted the contributions of Wesleyan University staff. WesWorks was the first public performance on Wesleyan University’s campus since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. The cast included 35 employees, and utilized multiple outdoor spaces. 

Several of the staff members involved in WesWorks, Dean Canalia (plumbing foreman, 24 years at Wesleyan), Alena Staron (customer service, 28 years), and Donna Steinback (customer service, 28 years), shared their experience working with Allison Orr on WesWorks. 

Initially, the campus staff members on the panel shared that they were hesitant to join WesWorks. Alena described that Donna warned her about the project in advance, and told her to avoid the three women from Forklift Danceworks who kept coming into their office. However, when Allison continued to show up, began to get to know the staff, and started bringing snacks (and sandwiches) to share, her efforts eventually began to sway them. 

Donna described her reasoning for joining as part of a desire to spend more time with Wesleyan University staff in different departments. Working the customer service phone line, she would often communicate with a variety of maintenance staff,  including Dean, and had gotten to know their personalities well over time. However, it was rare that she saw staff from other departments in person, other than at the occasional staff party. WesWorks was an opportunity to bring together staff in a meaningful and collaborative way, and to create closer relationships between people from different departments. 

Dean shared that he also was hesitant to join the project, but described that he had a great time throughout the process, and was able to find humor in the little moments he shared with other staff members before performing. The production “improved communication, pride, and morale” among staff members, and showed how it is possible to develop a more embedded and connected Wesleyan community.

During the ceremony, Allison read several excerpts from the book. One excerpt was about how she found the initial inspiration behind choreographing with labor-focused motion which underpins Forklift Danceworks’ projects.

Her desire to work with unconventional dancers began when she was studying as a graduate student at Mill’s College and became interested in learning more about the staff: the people who often stay at a college or university for a much longer duration than the students, who pass through in just four years. Allison spoke with workers and was able to receive a tour of the Physical Plant, which managed electricity for Mills College. As she walked through the plant, she noted the vast amount of “entertaining motion.” As a dancer and choreographer, she found beauty in the everyday patterns that the staff engaged in. 

After a dance rehearsal, she noticed a window cleaner who moved meticulously and carefully while cleaning, with exceptional attention to detail. She approached him and learned his name was Manuel, and asked if he would be willing to collaborate with her to create a dance. Through some convincing, he agreed. He performed in the dining hall, which became so full with students and staff that it became standing room only. The performance was a huge success, and was loved by the whole campus community. After his performance, Manuel lingered only a moment before getting straight back to work. 

Allison also described her time working on The Trash Project in Austin, Texas. This piece highlighted the contributions of sanitation workers in Austin, and featured 24 sanitation employees and 16 large sanitation vehicles. After the project, she had a conversation with a sanitation worker named José who reflected upon his opportunity to work with Forklift Danceworks and having the opportunity to engage with his creativity. He described that his feeling of responsibility toward his work often made him forget that he could still use his imagination as an adult.

When I asked Allison how students at Wesleyan can better engage with the full campus community, she told me about WesBridges, a student organization that collaborates with Physical Plant and contractors that regularly work on campus. They host appreciation events for staff and seek to develop an understanding of the responsibilities of Wesleyan workers. She also recommended that students get involved in projects which center mutual respect and collaboration. 

By the end of the ceremony, I was struck by the amount of support and camaraderie present within the room. It is clear that Allison Orr has the unique skill of being able to create community wherever she goes, bringing together people from different departments, disciplines, and walks of life. She fuses the artistry of dance with the mundane motion of everyday life, and highlights that every person has the capacity for vast imagination and creativity.