'They're Still On The Job': Forklift Danceworks Shares Portraits Of Essential Workers

May 23, 2020

“At Forklift Danceworks, we make dances with people you don’t think of as dancers,” says Forklift’s associate artistic director Krissie Marty.

That’s very true: Over the years, Forklift has created large-scale dance pieces centered around workers from Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department, city sanitation workers, and firefighters, just to name a few. 

“And when we all got the stay-home order,” Marty says, “as a choreographer we started thinking … Where are our dancers? What are they doing? And they’re all still on the job.”

That realization inspired Forklift’s latest project, On the Job, which this time isn’t a dance at all but rather a document – comprising interviews and photographs – of the day-to-day lives of their collaborators, many of whom are considered essential workers and still doing their jobs every day.

One of those essential workers is Tony Dudley, who is a residential street sweeping supervisor with the City of Austin and a longtime member of the Forklift family. He performed in The Trash Project, Forklift’s large-scale dance piece involving the city’s sanitation department dancing both inside and outside of about their work vehicles.

“It’s been some years ago, but it was a great experience,” Dudley says. “Allison [Orr, Forklift’s artistic director] came out and got a group of the guys and worked really hard changing some guys’ minds about actually giving it a shot and it turned out to be a great project.” He says he was one of the guys who took some convincing, but he’s really glad he eventually said yes. “I’ve always been a dancer in my mind, but not in public,” Dudley adds with a laugh.

“Everybody seems to want to leave a legacy, I believe, in life,” Dudley says. “Trash guys don’t get a lot of recognition. Maybe my great, great, great grandchildren will one day watch it be like, ‘Oh, that’s our great, great, great grandfather!’”

These days, like many of Forklift’s collaborators, Dudley is working harder than ever, doing the job he’s done for years in a more stressful and potentially dangerous environment. “It’s been a little bit more difficult,” Dudley says. “[We have to] make sure everybody’s got gloves and masks. And everything has to be done outside now – sign in sheets, time sheets… everything’s outside. The preparations, the scanning – you come in thirty, forty minutes early and get scanned. It’s putting us in a trying position but we’re making do.”

Orr says she felt it was important to share stories like Tony’s with On the Job. 

“With so many of our collaborators and dance makers being people who are essential employees, you know, they were all still going to work,” Orr says. “And we really wanted to know what life was like for them, at the power company, at the trash department, at parks and rec. You know, I think we were are struck by… how much harder so many of their jobs are right now. And that, for those of us who have the luxury of staying at home, wouldn’t it be useful to know? Wouldn’t it be useful to know what people’s lives are like?”

'On The Job' from Forklift Danceworks