Choreographer Allison Orr turns garbage collectors and their trucks into modern-dance performers in Trash Dance. The film follows Orr’s collaboration with 24 initially hesitant Austin sanitation workers in what culminates as a surprisingly poignant man-and-machine outdoors ballet with socio-political implications. This all-too-brief doc sticks to its narrative of unlikely creative partners putting on a show despite the extremely compelling personal stories that are merely glossed over in the name of the collective project itself. These otherwise invisible workers are single fathers, break dancers, rappers, and harmonica players, and often work second jobs. Director Andrew Garrison’s camera manages to capture that delightful moment when a person who’s normally just a function is finally acknowledged as a person with something to say. Their eyes tend to glimmer, the camera tends to love them, and their words tend to make incredible, even poetic, sense.
These moments of documentary magic are thankfully not exploited, but unfortunately not explored further. And while we may yearn for a camera that hangs onto the (re-)humanizing intimacy of these characters, Trash Dance’s refusal to linger there may actually reflect Orr’s own refusal to use the workers as figurines for her avant-garde spectacle, and more as a community with agency, working together toward an improbable goal. What might this “short-haired white lady,” as one worker puts it, be doing as she aestheticizes stinky garbage trucks into Transformers-like ballerinas? She actually spends time with the garbage collectors in the field for months, getting acquainted with their hardships and the particularities of the labor itself, than she does probing for sob stories. While it may be easy to see her as being engaged in perverse social tourism, the film does a good job in highlighting Orr as a function (for the spectacle to come to life), avoiding the sense of some kind of heroic personalism altogether. She’s business-like, plain, and almost opaque, and while we may wonder about her motivations, intentions, and her own sob stories, the film refuses to fetishize her as a character.
There are moments when differences clash in interesting and amusing ways, as when one of the garbage collectors asks Orr, perhaps jokingly, if the doughnuts she’s brought them are organic. And they are. But for most of the time Orr is one of the boys, recognizing their man/technology interaction immediately as dancing, describing contemporary dance as “Well, you don’t wear shoes,” and taking a hands-on approach to scooping roadkill into the back of their trucks. Unlike what we may expect from modern-dance choreographers and truculent garbage pickers, the sophisticated articulation more often comes from the latter, as they appropriate the tools and tribulations of their labor with agency and a genuine understanding of the power of re-signification. “There is some grace to what we do,” one of them says.