On Pools and Performance-Making: My Summer with Forklift Danceworks

From Gretchen LaMotte, senior at Wesleyan University and Forklift Fellow supported by Wesleyan’s College of the Environment:

“We’re in the mystery now.”

That’s what Allison Orr said to me as she dropped me home after my third day of work as a summer intern with Forklift Danceworks. In that moment I recognized what had brought me here to Austin to be part of Forklift’s performance-making.

This summer was the second opportunity I’ve had to work on a project with Allison, the first being the class I took with her at Wesleyan University, which I wrote about here. My introduction to Krissie Marty, Ann Starr, and the rest of the Forklift team this summer confirmed something I’ve sensed about the Forklift process from my first exposure to it: Forklift learning is life learning. Community-based artmaking is life-making; it is life work. There were many moments over my two-month internship when I found myself jotting down something someone on the team said, or something I noticed about how they approach their work.

I learned about hanging out in the mystery, that part of the creative process when we have a sense of the elements of a performance—the people, places, and stories involved—but these have not yet taken a concrete form. I saw how deep listening and forming connection can be the cornerstones of making change in the world. I also learned about persistence, and the hard work required to achieve artistic excellence. In the weeks leading up to the performance, I made so many calls to the Aquatics office to make sure we had lifeguards scheduled for rehearsal that I’m surprised they’ll still talk to me!

Tap, Juan, and Paul in the opening section of the performance. Photo by Lynn Lane.

In the performances, my primary responsibility was to the three Aquatics maintenance employees in the show: Juan Hernandez, Paul Slutes, and Jonathan “Tap” Tapscott. They are three of just ten men who oversee more than 50 bodies of water in Austin, so they know a thing or two about hard work. These guys made my job easy! Together with the Forklift artists, we created the performance frame through which the beauty and skill of their daily work could come through. I would give them a cue, and they would take it from there, showcasing their expertise in scuba diving and chemical testing, and encouraging audience members to participate in the dance. Seeing their commitment to the performances each night, and hearing them speak passionately about their care for Austin’s city pools and their desires for equity and accessibility, was inspirational every time.

Paul, Tap, and Juan perform a routine chemical test in beautiful synchrony.

Before the first night of performances, Allison shared this wisdom with our team of stage managers: “We don’t do this for perfection; we do this for connection.” I have been passing this on to people left and right, for its relevance to working in community and to artmaking, and as an approach to living. I feel the truth of this statement in the strength of connection among our cast members; the working lifeguards and Aquatics staff without whom the performances could not have happened; the production team; and the community who came to our shows. And I felt it after the final performance as I watched Paul, Tap, and Juan jumping off the diving board like they used to in high school. Check out this video I took of Tap “bombing” the lifeguards with a giant splash. This work is all about connection, yes, but this moment felt like perfection to me:

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