Trash Dance: Film Review

Emphasis on behind-the-scenes creation works well for doc about oddball art.

An Austin choreographer teams up with sanitation workers for a whimsical art project.

Austin, Texas is famously proud of the unexpected cultural collaborations it has nurtured in the decades since hippies and rednecks started hanging out together in what was then a laid-back college town. But even in Austin, building a modern dance piece around sanitation workers and their gear counts as strange. Andrew Garrison's Trash Dance makes sense of the project, following choreographer Allison Orr through what proves to be a charming and unpretentious collaboration with City of Austin volunteers; the doc should play well in niche bookings, and would surely become a cult hit with sanitation workers in other towns, should someone find a way to bring it to their attention.

Orr, a choreographer eager to incorporate people outside the arts -- firefighters, gondoliers, et cetera -- into her work, must begin each project with a task unknown to those who run traditional dance companies: Instead of opening auditions and whittling a mass of hopefuls down into a company, she has to go out and persuade strangers to want to participate in something that doesn't make sense to anyone but her.

She turns out to be well-equipped for that job -- friendly and unassuming, energetic but not pushy. We watch as she attends meetings with sanitation workers, speaking in her friendly twang about what she has in mind and inviting her audience not just to execute but to help envision the final product.

Orr both wins workers' trust and assembles a vocabulary of appropriate movement by going out with crews -- riding along in dump trucks, scooping up animal carcasses, doing overnight shifts cleaning up after the drunks leave Sixth Street. Along the way she discovers the hidden talents of her new colleagues: One plays harmonica, one raps, another is proficient in breakdance-like "jamskating."

Garrison goes further, interviewing men and women who do what most viewers would call one of the world's lousiest jobs and finding that many aren't even able to make ends meet on this job alone: Numerous interviewees hold second jobs. The picture isn't wholly bleak -- speakers are eager to point out that educated, professional people haul trash -- but there are enough allusions to personal difficulty that one wonders why more documentarians haven't sought material among the trash-pickers.

Documentation of the performance itself, which employed 16 huge vehicles and two dozen sanitation workers, is limited to the film's final third. While the show was clearly a hit, its parking-lot-sized dynamics don't always translate well to the screen. The high point is a quiet sequence in which a lone worker, Don Anderson, controls a massive crane with precision and grace. Watching that scene may be the only time a viewer ever finds himself wishing he could be a garbage man for a day.

Director-Producer-Director of photography: Andrew Garrison

Producers: Andrew Garrison

Executive producers: Charlotte Herzele

Music: Graham Reynolds

Editor: Angela K. Pires

No rating, 67 minutes

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