My Summer at the Pool with Forklift Danceworks

From Nikki Perez, Williams College student and Production Intern for Bartholomew Swims:

My summer with Forklift was perhaps best captured when Artistic Director Allison Orr said to me, “you jumped on a train that was already racing at 150 miles per hour.” The only thing I’d add to her statement is that I almost missed that train. When I arrived at our small office on East Cesar Chavez Street in Austin, TX, my first task was sorting through the apparently dozens of spreadsheets and Google Docs that had been created to keep track of each element of the show: who knew that there was so much information to manage? And everyday the volume of information only seemed to multiply. How many media release forms do we still need to collect? Were Stephen and his lighting crew able to load all their equipment into the pool despite the storm last night? When does the Aquatics department have the lifeguards scheduled for rehearsals? With so many people and production aspects to manage, the obvious solution was to delegate each Forklift member to a task: Gretchen on the pool maintenance workers, Clara and Jennifer on the lifeguards, Sarafina on the adult community members, Rae on social media, Jake on company development, and me on the kids. Could I be any luckier?

Rehearsals required a change of perspective, since my normal eye-level gaze had to shift down a few feet to find the six to twelve mini-humans hanging off my body or running around the pool. Did Josué sneak into the lifeguard room again? Is Yair rescuing the bugs drowning in the pool? How many popsicles has Eliazar had? 

Photo by Amitava Sarkar

Enveloped in the task of managing these small balls of energy, I barely had time to realize that these children were offering me something that I had not yet found in the Forklift office: true friendship. As I sat on the pool wall during dress rehearsal and rubbed their backs vigorously to keep them warm, I imagined that the kids thought of me more as a boss than as a friend, but as the nights went on, their willingness to share stories with me and confide in me began to make me question my role in their lives. But it was only when they would run up to me with arms wide open, glowing with pride and excitement, and calling me mamá that I realized how important I was to them.

With many of our child cast members coming from families with only a single parent, I had the distinct fortune of being able to offer them something that their working family members could not always give them: time. Time to acknowledge that their questions and curiosities were not “dumb,” but rather interesting and valuable. Time not only to make sure that all their basic needs were taken care of, but also that they had the emotional care and support that would allow them to build their confidence. Time to appreciate them and to help them to appreciate the others who constantly care for them.

It was the realization that “wow, what I am doing is more important than I thought” that made me truly understand how valuable Forklift’s work is to communities. By delving into the stories of different groups within the community and carefully choreographing dynamic audiovisual performances of these narratives, Forklift welcomes the general public to their specially crafted Career Day. Not only do they give audience members a chance to see a detailed account of what their fellow community members do for them, but they also give audiences the chance to experience what it feels like to do these jobs: how proud the pool maintenance workers must be knowing that they maintain 51 of the public spaces where thousands of their peers gather everyday.

Maybe Forklift Danceworks is a misnomer because, no, it is not your traditional dance company; however, it is a company that uses choreography to tell a story. Yes, that choreography is accompanied by music and lighting. Yes, it is a performance. Yes, there are audiences full of people excited to see their peers perform every show. What separates the company from other traditional dance companies, however, is that those peers performing are not dancers. They are trash workers, dining service staff, arborists, lifeguards, and children. They are the people who we have seen everyday without looking at them — until now.

Photo by Amitava Sarkar


Headline photo by Alex Masi

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