Working my way around a packed house at The Neon Theater in Dayton during the Q&A following the FilmDayton Film Festival premiere of Andrew Garrison’s award-winning documentary Trash Dance, I was in awe, once again, before a set of moving images and the stories conveyed. It happens often, on scales large and small, and I always try to acknowledge those moments to remind myself that I am lucky to get paid to bear witness to such experiences.
Trash Dance captures the development of contemporary dance choreographer Alison Orr’s experimental performance piece featuring a crew of sanitation workers who partner with her to produce a moving story about their work and its impact on the Austin, Texas, community (more than 2,000 people gathered at an abandoned airstrip during a rainstorm to appreciate their efforts). And while there is an obvious grace in the movement of the workers and their equipment through space, which Orr sensed when she pitched the idea to the powers that be, the movie doesn’t make you want to get up and shake your moneymaker.
This film sets the stage for a far more intimate exchange between the audience and the workers/dancers, primarily people of color, by involving us in the rhythms of their private lives. Men like special crane operator Don Anderson, an African-American man with a quietly graceful soul, who we see manning his grill as he talks about the perceptions of the general public about his job and his desire and commitment to Orr’s project or a select group of women, both African American and Hispanic, who go toe-to-toe with the guys to prove themselves every day on the routes.
As a society, we seek to define ourselves as more than what we do for a living, but Orr and Garrison show us here that maybe we should examine what we do — we should break open that box to see the creativity embedded in our daily work and how it might be more in sync with who we are. That reflection needs to be reduced and rendered down to two people and through a bit of surrender, it happens when we find ourselves locked in step with individuals like Anderson.
Driving home after the event, I began to think about the host of other workers who toil away silently and in near invisibility every day right before our eyes, lost in the shadows and unheard even when political debate pushes them into the forefront. Recently, I have been appalled by the knee-jerk reactions by progressives and pundits on the left who were outraged by the owner of Chick-fil-A and his position on same sex marriage. When we propose boycotts of the fast food chicken franchise because we disagree with the political views of its owner, what happens to the workers? Do we assume that they share the beliefs and ideology of their bosses? Have we so accepted the court-sanctioned idea that organizations are people that we have cut people, individuals out of personhood entirely?
If that is the case, then the workers of Chick-fil-A are in desperate need of Orr and Garrison to shine a light on their efforts, to highlight the game of musical chairs in the politicized arena where, when the music stops, both the bosses and the public at-large pull all the chairs out from under the workers in the trenches. Workers who might have same sex partners or have had abortions or might not believe in God or might be here on expired visas or whose family has been part of this country since it was snatched out from under the Native Americans.
These workers need friends in high places and low and all points in-between, friends with eyes and ears, real vision and the ability to track the sound of their stories. I keep referring to “these workers” and having danced off beyond Trash Dance and its workers/dancers, the point I feel needs to be made is, if we’re not careful, we will miss the reality that we are the workers caught in the invisible ever-contracting middle.
For the next couple of weeks, the two political parties will convene and celebrate, but for the life of me (and the country as a whole), I’m not sure what either side has seen worth celebrating. The storylines being spun offer no hope, no inspiring beats to propel us forward, nothing to encourage us to get back on the dance floor. The powers that be should remix The American Dream, Trash Dance-style, to remind voters that once upon a time, we had the groove and we can still be as funky (and diverse) as we want to be.
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