Feature Article: Austin Neighborhoods
Creating community conversation through choreography
To describe what summer sounds like is to describe life at the pool—the plop and splash of a cannonball hitting the water, the giggles of young swimmers, the shouts of “walk!” issued by whistle-wearing lifeguards. These are the sorts of sounds and images that have been serving as inspiration for Forklift Danceworks, as they prepare for their next production, “My Park, My Pool, My City,” opening in July.
A multi-year collaboration between Forklift and the City of Austin’s Parks and Recreation and Aquatics programs, the project received a National Endowment for the Arts Our Town grant in 2016, an award reserved for projects taking on a city issue. “It’s not really about a single artistic show, it’s about how to use an artistic process to tackle a city problem,” explains Allison Orr, Forklift’s artistic director.
Using art to reveal the way a city works is often intrinsic to the pieces Orr produces. From working with Austin Energy electrical technicians for “PowerUP” (2013) to embedding with sanitation workers for “The Trash Project” (2009, 2011), which became the subject of the 2012 documentary “Trash Dance,” Orr and her team zero in on humanizing how communities function. Before they create the elements of a dance performance, they do a lot of listening and looking—gathering the stories of the people involved and cataloguing their movements to ultimately translate into choreography.
“With this piece it’s not just the story of a lifeguard it’s also the story of the maintenance guy and the story of the pool user; it’s the whole community of people who are related to this place,” Orr says.
For “My Park, My Pool, My City,” the scope is even broader. Over the next three years, dances will be developed at three different pools, beginning at Bartholomew Pool in East Austin’s Windsor Park neighborhood. “With this piece it’s not just the story of a lifeguard it’s also the story of the maintenance guy and the story of the pool user; it’s the whole community of people who are related to this place,” Orr says. Originally built in the 1960s, Bartholomew Pool completed a multi-million-dollar renovation in 2014. The first historically integrated pool in Austin, it’s open year-round, but swells with summer swimmers.
With its recent renovation, Bartholomew may now be a star of the aquatics program, but the city’s 51 public aquatic facilities rely on regular maintenance, repair work and staffing and many face deep infrastructure needs. Jodi Jay, Austin Parks and Recreation’s aquatics division manager, explains that the city is at a critical point in its facilities development, both maintaining what currently exists and planning for the future. “We do have areas as a community that are underserved that do not have pools,” Jay says, “And so what does a sustainable system within a city that has grown tremendously over the years, what does that look like?”
Collaborating on “My Park, My Pool, My City,” the hope is to raise these issues in a real and human way. “It’s not a simple solution. It’s going to take years and it’s going to take people from across the city caring about it to fix it, the city alone won’t be able to do it,” Orr says, “What we hope is that our project both ends up helping the neighbors that participate to have a deeper understanding of the problem and are more hopeful or willing or organized to advocate for themselves, but also to get people who don’t live in the neighborhood caring as well about the aquatic system.”
Part of the community engagement piece begins poolside. Now in its fifth semester, the Swim ATX program connects high school students with the opportunity to lifeguard — often their first job—thanks to a partnership between AISD and the YMCA. “The whole reason we began this program is we realized that our pool of employees did not really reflect the city as a whole,” explains Adrian Ortega, one of Swim ATX’s founding members. Looking to bring in members of the community who hadn’t previously been reached, Ortega coaches students as they learn the required skills, noting the personal growth that comes through the program. By the end Ortega says, “They really appreciate what it means to be a lifeguard. We’ve also started tracking their grades and their fitness, everything just gets better.” The program helps fill the need for more lifeguards while engaging neighborhood teens. A number of them will likely be a part of the cast of “My Park, My Pool, My City,” allowing their neighbors to see some of the work they do in a new way.
“I think the arts are an effective instrument, sometimes they’re the only instrument of really translating the importance of what is going on in our community and sometimes more broadly in our nation,” explains Frank Cooksey, a former Austin mayor and family friend of Orr’s.
An arts project can help bring the concept of combating infrastructure crises down to human scale, presenting it as the idea of taking care of our fellow neighbors. “The arts are able to characterize [something] in a way that grabs people’s emotions. The pool project in particular involves a kind of attempt to describe human relationships that come out of a community of people who are engaged in service and recreational enjoyment together,” Cooksey says. “Dance, motion, and art are able to get at the way that a community is formed around a local neighborhood swimming pool.”
“My Park, My Pool, My City” runs July 21 & 22, and 28 & 29 at Bartholomew Pool, 1800 E. 51 St. A preview show will be held June 8 at 5:30PM at Austin Motel, 1220 S. Congress Ave. Tickets available at forkliiftdanceworks.org
Read more from the Neighborhoods Issue | June 2017