WILLIAMSTOWN — Since founding Forklift Danceworks in 2001, artistic director Allison Orr has, among other things, ridden on fire trucks, hauled trash and steered a Venetian gondola. Orr isn't on a desperate, far-ranging search for a new gig. Instead, she's informing her current one by practicing what she calls "ethnographic choreography." By embedding herself with various groups of laborers, she can craft dances that accurately depict their everyday job functions in performances that feature them at the fore.
"I think of dance as specific movement, design and performance, space and time. So, lots of people think dance, and they think conga line or ballet. ...That's not what we're talking about. We're really talking about work movement," Orr said during a recent telephone interview.
Lately, those movements have included washing dishes and sweeping floors. This weekend, a new Forklift project, "Served," will highlight Williams College's Dining Services staff. During three performances over Friday and Saturday at the Paresky Center, more than 50 staff members will prep, cook and clean in a dining hall during an hour-long program. An original score and a band that includes jazz bassist Avery Sharpe will accompany the kitchen-themed action.
"When I explained it to the employees, I'm like, 'This is a cooking show to music. These are demonstrations,'" Orr said.
Some of the 20 or so short dances will precisely mimic a work movement. For example, a worker will fill up a mop bucket with water. Audiences can also expect to see some chopping and dishwashing.
Forklift will tweak other tasks. For instance, Orr wants a trio of staffers mopping the floor to push in the same direction simultaneously and "wave" on beat.
"I'm really in there as a choreographer asking them to memorize sequences and change their work a little bit, so it's not just like what you do every day even though the core movement is coming from that," she said.
Debbie Shea, who has worked in Dining Services for more than 21 years and is currently a cook's assistant at Driscoll Dining Hall, has never seen any performance like it.
"It was pretty mind-boggling," the North Adams resident said of Forklift's idea for the piece.
In August of 2015, '62 Center for Theatre and Dance producing director Randal Fippinger contacted Orr about the prospect of bringing her Austin, Texas-based organization to Williamstown for a multi-year residency. (Fippinger cites Orr, himself and Williams Vice President for Campus Life Stephen Klass as the show's "core creators.") Director of Dining Services Robert Volpi soon expressed his support for the project after seeing "Trash Dance," a documentary about a project with Austin sanitation workers. The staff also saw the film.
"I was skeptical, but I was intrigued," said Chris Vince, a cook's assistant at Mission Park Dining Hall and a Dining Services employee since 1998.
Orr, Forklift associate choreographer Krissie Marty and other members began embedding with the workers in 2016. On any project, Forklift employees' first job is to listen to while helping out. Then they ask questions.
"It's awkward, this odd person who's not even from your community showing up to say, 'Can I watch you work?' So what's better is working alongside [them]: wash the dishes, dry the dishes, sweep the floor and then, casually, conversations emerge. We're really studying: What are the daily rituals? What does the daily work look like? So, we ask questions like, 'What do you love about your job? What's the hardest thing about your job? What do you wish people knew about your job?'" said Orr, who studied anthropology at Wake Forest University.
The choreographer returned 8-10 times, she estimated, over the past couple of years. She had nearly no experience working in a kitchen before this endeavor, but Vince said she understands the department's work well at this point.
"I think she's got an extremely good handle on it," said the North Adams resident, whose daughter Amaya dances at Studio North Dance Arts. (His 2-year-old daughter, Zaylee, may follow suit one day.)
Asked what she's learned about kitchen labor, Orr said, "The work is hard and, just like so many other jobs I've studied, it never stops. But a kitchen is such an intimate place."
She has also noticed the employees' affection for the students.
"I don't think all of [the students] know how much love goes into all that Dining does," Orr said.
Vince and Shea certainly enjoy seeing them.
"I love the kids," Shea said.
Vince appreciates hearing when the meals they serve bring back family memories for students.
"My father used to do this," he said he hears sometimes.
Forklift will aim to alter more than just the students' expectations.
"Our work is about revealing the often invisible choreography of work that sustains our daily lives. That's our job: to help set up an opportunity for people to notice what happens all around them, all the time, but is often not seen," Orr said.
"Everybody's job is important," Shea said, "and sometimes people's jobs are overlooked."
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.