Last week, dance was in the air. The wind danced in the spreading oaks, and instead of ballerinas twirling on stage, lawn mowers were whirling on Davis Field on the Wake Forest University campus.
Seven of the 65 stars of “From the Ground Up” motored through their paces on the parched grass under the direction of Allison Orr, artistic director of Forklift Danceworks, and Gretchen LaMotte, her assistant choreographer. Orr’s company is based in Austin.
The large-scale dance performance by custodial, maintenance and utilities, landscaping, construction, and waste reduction employees of WFU will be at 7 p.m. Oct. 3-5 on Hearn Plaza aka “the quad.” It will run for about an hour and have theatrical lighting and a live band playing an original score.
The event, which is open to the public, will have 15-20 sections and include solos, larger groups and a grand finale with the entire cast.
Orr, who calls herself “the chief trouble-maker,” has always danced, but she graduated from Wake Forest in 1993 with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology. After working for a while in her field, she went back to school and received a master of fine arts degree in choreography from Mills College in Oakland, Calif.
“While I worked at anthropology, ethnography and public health, I was always dancing,” Orr said.
She didn’t realize that those pursuits could come together until she heard about the work of Liz Lerman, who would become her mentor.
According to Lerman’s website: “A key aspect of (Lerman’s) artistry is opening her process to everyone from shipbuilders to physicists, construction workers to ballerinas, resulting in both research and experiences that are participatory, relevant, urgent, and usable by others.
“She founded Liz Lerman Dance Exchange in 1976 and cultivated the company’s unique multi-generational ensemble into a leading force in contemporary dance until 2011, when she handed the artistic leadership of the company over to the next generation of Dance Exchange artists.”
Orr founded Forklift Danceworks in 2001.
“Before that, I did community organizing and social work, so I wanted my audiences to look different,” Orr said. “We work primarily with people who don’t think of themselves as dancers, but they are professionals with expertise in their own fields.”
Mark Agee is WFU’s landscape foreman for turf and special projects.
“My team is involved in everything,” he said. “We help set up for special events like homecoming and graduation.
“Sometimes the heat is hard, sometimes the hours are long, but I like it all; I like being outside. I like the people and making the grass look good and seeing how happy people are when they come to our events.”
Agee is one of the lawnmower drivers in “From the Ground Up.” He said he was hesitant to participate at the beginning: “I’m not a camera kind of guy.” The event will be videotaped.
“But then it seemed kind of neat,” he said. “I’m supporting the university and my team, and I want my kids to see the video. It’s definitely a unique experience.”
The Forklift team began making visits in 2017 to do research and start working on the dance. Orr and LaMotte started working on the dance piece with the facilities and campus services staff at WFU in May. Wake students shadowed the workers, including Agee, to learn about them and their work and to help Forklift prepare behind the scenes for the October performances.
Christina Soriano, associate provost for the arts and associate professor of Dance at Wake, was involved in bringing Forklift to the campus.
“When I learned about Allison’s work I was fascinated,” Soriano said. “The fact she was a Wake alum made the project all the more intriguing too. ...
“Allison’s work is steeped in Wake Forest’s Pro Humanitate spirit. She and the collaborating artists she works with at Forklift Danceworks are master community builders.
“At Wake, our facilities staff often go unnoticed. This collaboration has taught me to see and value the work of my colleagues in facilities and acknowledge they are experts at their jobs. They are a critical part of our community, and the work they do to make our campus run is no small feat.
“‘From the Ground Up’ provides an opportunity for our campus to see this in performance; to highlight their virtuosic work, hear their knowledgeable voices and celebrate their tremendous contributions that make Wake Forest the amazing place it is.”
Cindy Gendrich is a theater professor and director of IPLACe at Wake. IPLACe, Wake’s Interdisciplinary Performance and Liberal Arts Center, received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New England Foundation for the Arts to help fund Forklift’s residency.
“This is a hands-on, immersive learning experience for our students who will be working as stage managers, designers, musicians, lighting assistants and show coordinators when the performances happen,” she said.
“But equally important is that students are learning that the boundaries they think exist between people on campus are imaginary, or at least unnecessary, ones — and that we all have way more in common than we tend to expect.”
Agee’s lawnmower team raced across Davis Field, their rehearsal space, last week. The big, rumbling machines spun in formation.
“This (the dance event) has been a surprise,” he said. “I would never have expected something like this.
“I’m right in the middle of it right now, not on the outside watching. I’m really looking forward to seeing how it all comes together.”