By Max Liboiron.

“When I got to get the stuff in the bucket, first I go down the far left edge of the pile, dump it in. Then I go down the far right side of the pile, dump it in. Then I go down the middle. So everything fits in the back of the truck, all even.”

“That’s dance!”

“No…”

“Yes! That’s coordinating movement, space, and energy. Dance.”*

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The conversation above takes place between a sanitation worker in Austin, Texas, and choreographer Allison Orr in the excellent documentary Trash Dance, directed by Andrew Garrison. The film shows Orr’s process of putting together a choreographed “dance” of dump trucks, trash bins, and sanitation workers based on their everyday movements and talents.

The story is excellent not only because of the behind-the-scene views of Austin’s sanitation infrastructure via Orr’s month of preliminary ride-along with waste workers. Rather, the interviews with sanitation workers and the progression of the project from one of indifference, suspicion and disbelief on their part, through the slow buy-in, and finally to the display of comradery, talent, dedication, and somewhat ad hoc beauty is the center of the documentary. While the three-minute solo with the mechanical crane set to classical music is beautiful in itself, it is the interview with the huge African American sanitation worker declaring that he had to be in the show because he was the best damn crane operator in the city, and asking himself “how am I going to make this machine romantic?” that makes the movie. As one sanitation worker puts it, “The thing about this project is, we go from being just a bunch of nameless trash haulers to being Anthony, and Drew, and Ian.”*

In this way, Trash Dance is similar to the work done by New York City’s unique artist-in-residence and anthropologist-in-residence. In fact, Robin Nagle, DSNYC’s anthropologist-in-residence was one of the panelists after a viewing of Trash Dance in DUMBO. Along with the director and a NYC retired sanitation worker, the panel tended to be about telling stories about the day to day work and everyday workers that keep the city clean. These stories had the same kind of e/affect as the documentary. The differentiation of a massive work force into unique individuals doing a valuable job is reflected in both Robin Nagle’s new book, Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City, and in artist-in-residence Meirle Laderman Ukeles‘ famous performance piece Touch Sanitation, where she individually shook the hand of every sanitation worker in the city over a two year period. It would seem that cultural workers introduced into waste infrastructure have a similar mission that I haven’t seen achieved by many other means. Cultural production via the humanities is a kind of methodology of respect and storytelling for which sanitation is a rich canvas.

Panel discussion after the screening of Trash Dance in NYC featuring (R to L) director

Panel discussion after the screening of Trash Dance in NYC featuring (R to L) director Andrew Garrison, retired sanitation worker Alfonso, and anthropologist-in-residence Robin Nagle.

You can see the film streamed from the official Trash Dance website for a limited time. There are also screenings in:

April 26-May 2 | The reRun Theater | Brooklyn NY
May 3-9 | Violet Crown Cinema | Austin TX
May 5 | Dance Camera West @ Annenberg Beach House | Los Angeles CA
May 17 | 14 Pews | Houston TX
June 22 | Northwest Film Forum | Seattle WA
July 13-14 | FilmBar | Phoenix AZ
July 12-18 | Gateway Film Center | Columbus OH

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*All quotes are based on recollections of dialogue after viewing the film and are not verbatim.

Max Liboiron is a postdoctoral researcher with the Intel Science and Technology Center for Social Computing and the Superstorm Research Lab.