You can never go wrong with a greatest hits album, especially when its tracks involve trucks.
“Trucks Don’t Dance” is a new compilation by composer Graham Reynolds, in collaboration with Forklift Danceworks. It features eight compositions, a host of musicians, and a cause for celebration: Forklift turns 20 this year.
A virtual album launch, co-hosted by KUTX 98.9’s Laurie Gallardo and Reynolds, will take place 7 p.m. CST March 11 at bit.ly/trucksdontdance. “Trucks Don’t Dance” will be released through Rickety Fence Music on all digital platforms March 12, with a limited run of vinyl available for pre-order.
For over a decade, Reynolds has been creating pieces with the Austin-based dance company known for its industrial aesthetic. Forklift choreographs within communities not typically associated with dance: sanitation workers, fire fighters, and college campus dining hall employees, to name a few. Under-recognized workers who sustain our essential, infrastructural existence.
“I’m doing it the easy way,” says founder and artistic director Allison Orr. “The people I make my dances with are career-level masters who practice every day in their work lives.”
Orr, who grew up in Texas, says work time was family time in her home. “My grandparents were raised on farms, we all just really esteemed work.”
As a member of her high school drill team, Orr appreciated the machine-like movement of the team’s high kick line and jump splits on concrete — all in perfect unison.
“We’d have these huge spectacle performances during halftime at football games. I really loved seeing big movement in a large space,” she recalls. “Why would I try to go into a studio and make something when it’s all happening out here?”
Forklift’s first production in 2001 featured the Austin Fire Department performing a dance to Phillip Glass’ “In the Upper Room.” Despite its success, Orr admits there were real limitations. As a choreographer, she wanted the music to follow the dancers rather than the other way around. She needed someone who was a composer and an improviser, who could make any moment work.
Orr eventually approached Reynolds with an idea: “I said to Graham this is going to be odd, it’s with the trash department, and I don’t have much money, and he was like, ‘Sounds great!’”
She credits him, along with Stephen Pruitt, the company’s production designer, with a huge artistic leap forward, starting with 2009’s “Trash Project.”
“The three of us made something I could never have envisioned. It was a perfect, glorious storm.”
In fact, “Trash Project” premiered during a perfect storm — on the tarmac of the old airport, what is now the Mueller development. It featured a group of city sanitation workers and their trucks, shimmering on the runway as the rain pelted down.
Reynolds fondly describes that night, as his electronics and instruments got soaked; his acoustic piano swelled, and everything began to bow. The intensity of that situation — the sheer gamble for such a large-scale production — is what he classifies as a “peak experience” with the company.
“Trucks Don’t Dance” captures a breadth of musical styles, beginning, and ending, with “Dance for a Crane.” It is an emblematic, enigmatic piece stemming from that first fateful collaboration with Orr and Pruitt, involving a balletic duet between a crane and its operator, Don Anderson.
At the time, Anderson was an overnight crew supervisor for Austin’s Solid Waste Services (now Austin Resource Recovery). He was also an accomplished truck rodeo champion.
“People who work with machinery like Don and his colleagues, they love to show it off,” Orr says. “They know how to control time, space, and energy.”
Orr got to know Anderson and his tight-knit crew after spending upwards of a year on site with them. “Trucks don’t dance!” was Anderson’s initial reaction to her proposition, a moment caught on camera by local filmmaker Andy Garrison, who was making a documentary about the potential project. In time, a skeptical Anderson warmed up to Orr’s “crazy” idea about the crane: You want me to do a slow dance.
There is something so moving, literally and figuratively, when watching Anderson swing the arm of his yellow crane around like a long-lost love; a beauty in the mundanity of machinery, and the unanticipated grace in its masculinity. These workers safely handle bulk and brush collection, Orr points out: picking up trees, TVs, and sofas from the streets. They are very adept at being gentle.
Reynolds’ “Dance for a Crane, Part I” has the heavy simplicity of a piano filling with rainwater, the sound of each key eventually falling away. The strings well up with a few notes, and somehow, we’re witnessing what happened on that rainy night at the old airport.
But the sweetness of the violin squiggles off and things get growly, plunky, playful, and Parisian with tracks like “Late Shift” and “Construction Crews.” “Trucks Don’t Dance” pulls from 16 Forklift productions; its tracks were recorded these past six months in Reynolds’ socially distanced studio.
“Dance for a Crane” bookends the compilation to hold everything together, “That way you’re able to go as far away from that as you want to go before you come back to home base,” the composer says.
In the decade since “Trash Project” premiered, a lot has happened at Forklift. Associate artistic director Krissie Marty came onboard and helped remount the project in 2011. Garrison’s documentary, “Trash Dance,” was released in 2012, winning numerous awards and screening in places as far away as Moscow. Anderson, who is featured in the film, is now on staff at Forklift as a community engagement specialist, helping to further cultivate a connection between the company and the neighborhoods of East Austin.
By the time the “Trucks Don’t Dance” returns to home base with its final track, “Dance for a Crane, Part II,” there is more richness than when the album began. The piece is instantly recognizable, but somehow different. The sound returns us to something not yet known. An overlay of trumpet shines new light on the strings, and the piano ruptures with greater strength: bending music to movement, bowing in the rain.