Adrian Ortega stood back from the pool at the Austin Motel on South Congress Avenue looking uncertain.
“I have done nothing like this before,” said Ortega, a former Austin lifeguard who now oversees the city’s aquatics programs, including swim teams. “It’s totally outside of my comfort zone.”
About an hour later, Ortega was performing lifeguard drills for a small audience as part of a preview of Forklift Danceworks’ newest dance. The company has begun a three-year residency with the Austin Parks Department to choreograph performances at three city pools, highlighting those like lifeguards and maintenance crew members who take care of the city’s 51 pools.
This isn’t the first time Forklift’s choreographer, Allison Orr, has made city workers dance. She's choreographed shows with garbage workers and the Austin Fire Department. Orr told the audience last week she turned her eye to pools because of their history as both segregated and open spaces.
“It’s kind of the last place of public gathering where anyone can show up and be together,” she said. “And I feel like that is why it matters so much that we figure out how to keep our system functioning here. It’s dire.”
The performance feels well-timed: The city, faced with a failing system of aging infrastructure, is finishing a master plan for the pools. While the typical lifespan of a pool is 30 years, Austin pools average 50. They constantly require maintenance, at times forcing the city to shut them down.
In the face of that disheartening news, Orr offers a chance to dance. But it isn't synchronized swimming; she sets lifeguard drills to music.
In one scene, City of Austin employee Amanda Weems blows a whistle, yelling, “Active victim!” She and Ortega jump into the pool, grabbing two swimmers under their armpits before buoying them to the wall. The music intensifies with the drills, until Ortega is yelling, “I need a backboard,” to help a victim.
But then it all falls away, as the lifeguards and swimmers retreat from the water, and the audience claps.
It’s a show that asks those typically behind the scenes to wade into the spotlight. People like Paul Slutes, who supervises the city’s pool maintenance crew. As part of last week’s preview, he depicted a check of the chlorine levels in the pool.
“The public doesn’t get to see behind the scenes what we deal with every day,” said Slutes, who has worked for the city's aquatics department since the mid-1980s. “They just think that – ‘Oh, you’re filling up the pool? How hard is it to fill up a pool? Just put some chlorine in it, and call it a day.’”
Slutes said it’s much harder than that; he has to deal with chemical regulations and pools that grow increasingly temperamental with age.
The first public performance of “My Park, My Pool, My City,” will take place at Bartholomew Pool at the end of July. Two other unnamed pools will be featured in performances over the next two years.