An elaborate dance performance involving Austin city garbage trucks serves as an unorthodox excuse to get to know the sanitation workers themselves in “Trash Dance,” a short yet satisfying glimpse behind the scenes of waste management that feels like a breath of fresh air in a field that typically leaves people holding their nose. Buoyed by the wide-eyed goodwill of Allison Orr, the ultra-curious choreographer who arranges a series of ride-alongs through which she can gather inspiration for the big show, this upbeat blend of civic portraiture and arts programming feels ready-made for public television and institutional play.
At first, Orr’s ultra-peppy naivete feels like an odd match for the gruff, blue-collar world she’s chosen for her latest show. Through her Austin-based Forklift Danceworks, the chipper choreographer identifies distinctive professional groups, such as gondoliers and garbage men, and designs custom routines around the movements they already practice as part of their everyday routine. “This lady’s crazy,” the sanitation workers think after she makes her initial pitch to the predominately male, mostly black team, and it’s tempting to agree with them.
Still, it doesn’t take long for this solicitous little white lady to win over her dubious crowd, showing up day after day to learn how they do their jobs, all the while appealing to the latent exhibitionist in each of them. As the trash collectors slowly warm to the idea of performing in front of a crowd, director Andrew Garrison good-humoredly observes how Orr’s girlish middle-class attitudes clash with the pros’ no-nonsense approach to handling society’s unwanted items. After fumbling her way through a few inadvertently condescending questions, Orr emerges with sincere respect for the participants, an attitude clearly shared by this appreciative docu.
“Trash Dance” dedicates its final 15 minutes to showcasing the dance performance itself, though Orr’s vision doesn’t quite translate to the screen: The trucks are too slow, the cameras too far removed from the underlit outdoor stage to do justice to the experience as it was witnessed by the 2,000-plus spectators attending the rain-drenched premiere. However, the film enhances the experience by drawing attention to the professionalism and personalities of the many city employees who participated, to the extent that auds will be looking for the specific contributions of individuals spotlighted along the way.
It all seems like an enormous amount of work for a one-night-only event, and yet the film will no doubt generate enough good publicity and awareness for the city to justify accommodating such an odd on-the-job distraction. The project couldn’t have happened without Austin’s blessing, and as such, it’s not surprising that Garrison avoids the conflict-seeking tone so common among docus. Despite being produced on ultra-modest means, “Trash Dance” feels more humanistic but no less compelling than equivalent reality-TV programming, like a low-intensity episode of “Ice Road Truckers” with a dash of Busby Berkeley thrown in.