All spiritual traditions teach that even the most mundane tasks have meaning when they are undertaken with higher intention. I've written about a zillion words on the ways art can embody this truth. Today, I'd like to tell you about a new film that shows it truly, deeply, and beautifully. Andrew Garrison's film Trash Dance (the website is going live soon, but may not be ready by the time you read this) shows the yearlong collaborative, creative process whereby Austin, Texas, choreographer Allison Orr worked with employees at the city's Department of Solid Waste Services to create a dance performance conveying the power and grace of the essential work of carrying away the detritus of our lives.
I'm forever advocating what is perceived as a radical change in our understanding of culture's public purpose. In one section of the new book I'm currently writing, for instance, I imagine resident storytellers as part of the intake process at every medical facility, helping people to connect with whatever aspects of their own stories will best support their resilience and healing. I have ideas along these lines for every social institution: there is no enterprise that cannot be made better through the work of artists who place their gifts at the service of community and democracy. By telling a story that turns on garbage—on work that is often reviled, despite its importance to liveable communities—Garrison has provided an illustration that couldn't be more apt, and an argument for the public interest in art that I find irrefutable.
A favorite quotation comes to mind from The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera's 1984 novel: "Without realizing it, the individual composes his life according to the laws of beauty even in times of great distress." If this is true (and I believe it is), then what should we do about it?
My own answer is that we need art to respond to what ails us as a society, which precisely what Trash Dance does. We suffer from objectification, disconnection—all the distortions that make us see our neighbors as less than (or more than) ourselves, instead of living out the ideal of equality embedded in true cultural citizenship. As always, the antidote is The Golden Rule, and in Trash Dance, we see it practiced as an art. Choreographer Allison Orr (who is white) shows up in this film as open, present, real, and operating with total commitment. The Solid Waste Department employees featured here are African American and Latino, dignified, articulate, proud, wary, and equally committed to doing well in this shared creation. To work together, they bridge barriers of race and gender, embodying the human desire to see and be seen, to be treated as persons rather than things, to receive the acknowledgement and encouragement that lubricates civil society.
I love the way Don Anderson puts it in the film: "We're not just these dirty people that pick up garbage. There is some grace to what we do." Later, he says, "I really thought about the importance of it, not only to Allison, but the way it would shed light on what it is that we do here, that it's not just collecting garbage or picking up trash. That gave me the inspiration of really wanting to give her a hand, to do my part in making her production a success."
Interviewed just before the dance premieres on an abandoned runway soaked from a day of rain, Orr says, "It's about me setting up the possibility for people to show themselves and to show themselves to folks they may never ever see again in their lives in a really personal way, and for people to leave feeling more connected to each other, people that don't even know each other. Setting up an opportunity for all of us to be in this shared moment of 'What's Don's life driving that crane for those four minutes?' That's really what it's about."
The film is beautifully shot and edited. There are moments in the final performance—Don Anderson's crane solo of elephantine grace is one—that took my breath away. If you sit down to watch doubting the transformative power of art in the service of community, I can't imagine you will stand up feeling the same way.
I also want to let you know about three new projects that I hope will interest you:
- AS OF MARCH 1st, I'VE LAUNCHED A NEW PARTNERSHIP WITH THE CENTER FOR DIGITAL STORYTELLING (CDS). StoryLab (working title) will expand the work of this world leader in the evolution of digital storytelling, creating bold new demonstrations of the power of story in the service of real democracy and a livable future.
"Humanity's ability to learn from experience, to cross cultural boundaries, and to create a sustainable future will depend on finding ways to listen deeply, speak truthfully, and pay attention to the wisdom that emerges," said Joe Lambert, CDS's founder and Executive Director. "In forming this partnership with Arlene Goldbard, we will be engaging with the most articulate spokesperson for culture and democracy we have in the U.S. and certainly one of the leaders in the world. Her writing is a key theoretical source for my work and the work of CDS. She is an outstanding organizational and planning consultant, and I welcome her to CDS in the role of strategic visionary."
I have worked with many organizations, but this is the first time I have chosen to form a working partnership with one. I am proud and excited to join CDS, the premiere innovator in this field, whose integrity, creativity, skill, and capacity are unparalleled.
- ALSO ON MARCH 1st, THEATRE BAY AREA LAUNCHED A BOOK ON ITS NEW RESEARCH, and I'm in it. Counting New Beans: Intrinsic Impact and the Value of Art contains my essay "Symposium: Seven Characters in Search of An Audience (with apologies to Plato)," in which I situate the debate over theater's impact in a bar in San Francisco. It will make you laugh, think, and (I hope) want to contact me to talk about how what you care about most can be shared with the public in an equally entertaining and insightful fashion.
(If you're in the Bay Area May 14th, I'm keynoting TBA's Annual Conference at Berkeley Rep.)
- ON MARCH 1st, COMMUNITY MUSICWORKS (CMW) RELEASED MY NEW PUBLICATION, Music & Civil Society: A Symphony in The Making. I was commissioned to create this downloadable, interactive publication to capture the essence of a movement to pursue social justice through classical music. It continues the Music & Civil Society symposium CMW cosponsored with the Cogut Humanities Center at Brown University in November. Read, listen, and watch this fascinating, promising cultural phenomenon.
And now, for your listening pleasure, a remarkable blast from the past, the soundtrack for a trip to another dimension: "Colors," tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders and vocalist Leon Thomas from the 1969 album Karma. If you like this, take a half hour or so to put your brain through the blender of "The Creator Has A Master Plan," the other cut on this album. Unfortunately, it's too long for a single YouTube video, so you'll have to listen to it in three parts or find another platform.