This post is part of the Customer, Client, Collaborator Series in conjunction with Doug Borwick and ArtsEngaged on developing relationships with both new communities and existing stakeholders through artistic programming, marketing and fundraising, community engagement and public policy. (Cross-post can be found at Engaging Matters.)
The need to deepen relationships with current stakeholders and build relationships with new audiences is a compelling question for us at Forklift Danceworks. When we are asked this question, we often answer with a question: Who loves Elvis?
In 2007, Forklift’s Artistic Director Allison Orr choreographed The King & I—not the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, but an evening-length, contemporary dance performance work to address her curiosity, “Just what does Elvis Presley have to do with you and me, anyway?” In making the work, Allison knew she needed to find a way to get input and inspiration from the Elvis community. She sought out to find, “Who loves Elvis?”
Meeting the dedicated Elvis tribute artists and hearing stories from fans, Allison decided to loosely structure the performance of The King & I on Elvis’ last concert. Thinking even more about the fans who love Elvis (who also love to get together to talk about their love for Elvis!), she decided to perform the dance over three weekends around the 30th anniversary of Elvis’ death. Through collecting stories about Elvis’ life and work, performances of his songs and of course, choreography that included his iconic moves, this show with three professional dancers and five Elvis Tribute Artists was really a collaboration with many others, with inspiration and input from the Elvis-loving community.
In the years since The King & I, we have choreographed dances for trash collectors and their vehicles, electric utility workers and their equipment, forestry technicians and a heritage pecan tree, and baseball players and a historic field. The key to the success of each project has been asking, “Who loves Elvis--or recycling, or electricity, or trees, or baseball?” and finding the community that already has a stake in the dance we are making and inviting them to join us in the creative process.
In essence, community engagement is inherent in our process of making dances. We hang out, talk and ask questions, and most importantly we listen. We get really excited about the knowledge that exists in the groups with which we collaborate. Each specific community has had an abundance of ideas, expertise, and resources to offer our art making process. Practically, the only way to make a great dance with trash trucks is to work with someone who has been driving a trash truck for years. In the same way, the only way for us to make a great dance about Elvis is to work with people who love Elvis, too.
Our other trick? The people we work with become co-authors of the dance and the stories we tell within it. Baseball players have choreographed the action of 10 pitchers throwing in a circle; linemen have choreographed hanging electrical wire by hand and dropping pulleys in canon. Our projects share the story of our determined community with a wider audience and we often ask about, and listen for, what our community wants the general public to know.
For us as artists the exchange between ourselves and the community we are partnering with is reciprocal. We also ask ourselves what do we have to offer the community we are working with? What is the value add for them? And this ultimately encourages us as artists to make better dance. We want to make great dances, and by seeking relevance, connection and engagement from the get go—we give ourselves an even better chance of making that awesome dance.
And it just gets better. Working in this way—where relationships and listening our central to our dance making process—continues to provide us with rich material for art making. With each project, we engage with a new community that tells us even more about our city. Honestly, we feel blessed. How else could we have learned about what it is like to free climb a 100 ft transmission tower, or prune one of Austin’s oldest trees, or hit a home run in front of thousands of fans?
Our art making is what allows us to deepen and build relationships. So our advice...go find out “who loves Elvis?!”
Post by Clara Pinsky, Program Coordinator; Krissie Marty, Associate Choreographer; Allison Orr, Artistic Director
Photo: by Sung Park [Donnie Roberts, left; Allison Orr, right]