Leash up: Forklift Danceworks revives ‘Dances for Dogs and People Who Walk Them’

At the Austin Animal Center, Forklift stages its participatory dance for people and canines


I first wrote about choreographer Allison Orr 22 years ago. It was April of 2000 and Orr was staging “Dances for Dogs and People Who Walk Them” in Zilker Park. The show involved ordinary people doing short choreographed dances with their dogs.

I went to Orr’s house in Travis Heights and we talked in the front yard. I watched as she rehearsed “Dad, A Daughter, and a Dog,” a piece for her six-year-old neighbor Ava Sonleitner, Ava’s father Steve, and their dog Jennie.

Orr based her choreography on the typical movements people make when dogwalking. It didn’t entail costumes or special tricks or goofy theatrics. Hers is and remains an aesthetic that celebrates the prosaic ways we move our bodies.

“I remember I thought  ‘oh my god, a reporter!’ and maybe people would actually come see the show,” Orr told me recently when we talked by phone.

I told her that my biggest challenge writing that first article on her was explaining what exactly she was doing and, moreover, why it was dance.

“People are now much more accustomed to community-based performance — to participating in a movement experience together,” she said.

Orr was a solo practitioner at the time, not the award-winning leader of a much-regarded company, Forklift Danceworks, that has several choreographers, an administrative staff, teaching artists, and a wide, appreciative audience.

Related: ‘Allison Orr’s inclusive art-making is radical for an arts world that ultimately equates excellence with exclusivity’

While Forklift’s work has progressed since that Zilker Park performance in 2000, watching a home video of it reveals what has remained core to the company’s community-inclusive work. There’s the celebration of familiar movement and of people’s workaday lives, and there’s much joy.

When we spoke, Orr was out on a walk with her a dog, a long-haired dachshund named Benny, a rescue around 10 or 11 years old. That proved inadvertently very apropos, and not just because we were reminiscing together. Come April 23, Forklift will remount a new version of “Dances for Dogs” at the Austin Animal Center.

Orr credits Krissie Marty, Forklift’s associate artistic director, with pushing to bring “Dances for Dogs” back. Forklift choreographer Gretchen LaMotte will direct the show, building on the original program, with additional choreography by Marty and Forklift choreographer Francis Rodriguez.

“There is a natural dance that happens every day between dogs and the people who walk them,” said LaMotte, in press materials. “Whether trotting along calmly or tugging on the leash ready to run and play, a dog’s movement tells a story. And the people who care for dogs are an integral part of that story.”

Orr will lead the program’s finale — the “Insta-Dog Dance” which the audience and their leashed dogs are welcome to participate in.

“I’ll teach it everyone in 3 to 5 minutes, and then we’ll all do it together,” she says.

“Coming out of the pandemic people need something joyful. And this was a show we could offer now — it didn’t need two years to develop like we do with other projects.”

I mention to Orr that, at home with our pets for the past two years, perhaps in a way we’ve all been working on this show together.

“Right? We’ve all gotten through the pandemic thanks to our pets,” she said.

The Austin Animal Center is the seventh municipal department Forklift has partnered with. And as it has with others departments, Forklift will shed light on the often-unheard stories of animal center workers who like so many faced challenges during the pandemic, (Because of pandemic closures and social-distancing limitations, the center lost hundreds of volunteers, folks whose efforts supply critical support to staff.)

Adoption fees for all animals will be waived on performance day.

Graham Reynolds, Orr’s longtime musical collaborator, will lead a live group through the show’s score of big band music, featuring vocalist Gina Chavez.

People and their leashed dogs can arrive beginning at 1 p.m. to enjoy food trucks and activity booths with local pet vendors. The outdoor performance begins at 2 p.m. Like all Forklift performance, “Dances for Dogs” is free. Reservations are encouraged to guarantee entry. forkliftdanceworks.org/projects/dances-for-dogs-and-people-who-walk-them-2/

The Austin Animal Center will be open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and all adoption fees will be waived.

Orr suggests “Dances for Dogs” may become an annual event for Forklift, a “Nutcracker” of sorts for the adventurous and expansive dance company, and the opportunity to spotlight the essential animal welfare services of Austin Animal Center.

And besides, she says: “Who doesn’t want to dance with their dog?”

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
An award-winning arts journalist, Jeanne Claire van Ryzin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Sightlines.

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