Written by Dance, Essay, First Person

Stepping, In Time

Gestures for manual labor become a dance and inspire reflection on optimization and ease.

As an adult, I’ve come to bristle at the word “efficiency.” Some of this, I think, is in my body itself, in the feet and ankles and calves and thighs and hips I put forward as I step and move up and down. When I was little and first learning to walk, my parents noticed that I have one foot that turns in. The consulting orthopedist told my mother that he could break my leg to correct my gait. But he didn’t foresee the turned-infoot causing trouble with balance or running; she couldn’t abide the thought of an unnecessary broken bone and declined the surgery. And so my step skews slightly, my left toes pointing in toward my right, especially when I’m tired, when the once learned, now unthinking repetition of one foot forward and then another begins to break down.

Some of my aversion to efficiency, I know, is of my own making. I can lay claim to no great quickness or dexterity, physical or intellectual, and so I have cultivated a way of doing things that is more intuitive, less programmed. I don’t drive, have never had a license, and so have made walking and public transit integral parts of not only my routine but also my identity. I walk as a way to see and be in the world.

One place I am often on my feet is the Georgetown Steam Plant, where I serve, as the occasion arises, as a site monitor for the landmark building, now owned and operated by the public utility Seattle City Light. It’s my job to let visiting artists know where they can place generators and find the porta-potty, where food is allowed and where climbing the ladder-stairs is not. I am facilitator, safety advisor, and sometimes tour guide.

Built by the Seattle Electric Company between 1906 and 1907 to meet the city’s growing demand for electrical power, the steam plant is industrial architecture on a grand scale. In the largest space, the engine room, three turbogenerators once converted thermal energy into mechanical and then electrical energy, circulating humid air like giant lungs in the vast space that opens up between the plant’s reinforced concrete walls. In our era of nanotechnologies and unseen networks of exchange and communication, the building’s enormous condenser, its intricately segmented lubrication pumps for step bearings, its dry vacuum pumps with outstretched spokes, its insulated electrical cables, and its flattened cooling air ducts all have imposing command, even stilled and silenced as they have been for the last four decades. Hours at a time, the plant’s concrete floors and large, unheated rooms are hard on both performing and observing bodies, like my own, that step forward, up, and down. But the building’s beauty commands, even as we grow weary and our muscles slacken.

After touring the steam plant in late 2014, performance artist Tia Kramer and dancer and choreographer Tamin Totzke knew immediately, they told me, that they wanted to collaborate to make a site-specific work here. I had not met them or known their work before but could tell that they were seeing the plant with fresh eyes. Their research, as I would learn in the next months, would lead them to efficiency engineer Frank Gilbreth and the work that he did with his wife, Lillian. I had known Gilbreth’s name and the fame he and his family had garnered with the book-turned-film Cheaper by the Dozen. But Tia and Tamin’s inquiries opened up a whole new history to me.

Video still from Study of Time and Motion, Tia Kramer and Tamin Totzke, 2015.  Videographer: Doug Arney. Performers: Ezra Dickinson, Tia Kramer, Rachael Lincoln, Mary Margaret Moore, KT Shores, Aaron Swartzman, and Tamin Totzke.

Gilbreth was hired in 1906 by the Seattle Electric Company to supervise design and construction of the plant in Georgetown. Before that, he had established his career by finding a method that made bricklaying faster and easier. Lillian, meanwhile, was an engineer and the first industrial organizational psychologist. Working together, advancing what they called “scientific management,” the couple used observation, film recording, and detailed accounts to scrutinize worker efficiency. The Gilbreths’ motion studies led them to develop what they called “therbligs” (their surname spelled backwards with the “ht” transposed). “Therbligs” are eighteen elemental gestures the Gilbreths used to analyze and optimize manual labor, identifying and eliminating unnecessary movements so that with tasks completed faster and the body taxed less, people would have more time for leisure, for what the Gilbreths, their thoughts ever given to increments of time accrued and spent, called “happiness minutes.”

These simple gestures—including “search,” “find,” “use,” “inspect,” “grasp,” “assemble,” and “release load” — became the building blocks for the choreography that Tia and Tamin built with their collaborators at the Georgetown Steam Plant over the better part of 2015. They were a means to reanimate this industrial building and to respond, by way of a performance called Connect/re-position, to its history.

I shadowed the performers during their rehearsals from spring, through summer, and into fall of 2015. At the November performances, I called the audience together; informed them of the safety protocol before we began to walk through the building (“Watch for a low-hanging beam. Careful of the oil pans on the ground near some of the machinery.”); guided their slow ascension from engine wing to boiler room to follow the movement of the performance; directed attention; and added to the century-old setting spoken descriptions of history and of early twentieth-century engineering against which the choreographed movement unfolded.

Before the performance even began, as the audience stepped into the plant, a loop of projections met them. The Gilbreths’ cinematic time-and-motion studies, made over the first several decades of the twentieth century, show workers laying bricks and making soap and professional athletes winding up and releasing baseball pitches. Factory work is shown against a gridded background, timed with clocks. Scrolling blocks of text offer explanation about how the Gilbreths’ analysis and resulting modifications made these sequences of motion more efficient for each task.

Original films of Frank B. Gilbreth, part 2. Presented by James S. Perkins in collaboration with Dr. Lillian M. Gilbreth & Dr. Ralph M. Barnes. Prelinger Archives.  

These silent, imaged movements at the entrance soon gave way to actual bodies moving in space. The performers called out words and stepped briskly along unmarked, intersecting pathways. One unscrewed a bare lightbulb, then screwed it back in. In the vast space of the engine room, bodies responded to the mass and forms of the two vertical turbogenerators. At the wheels of the two dry vacuum pumps, Tamin and another dancer arced their arms and curved their spines in a duet. Their outstretched limbs paralleled the geometry of the machines at times — dancer as Vitruvian Man, as wheel, as square. Body as machine. At rest, they lowered their heads and stretched their arms, supplicating before the equipment. 

During another part of the performance, all seven dancers moved in unison but faced different directions. They stepped, they raised their hands, they turned, they ran, they looked up, and they doubled back. The looking and touching brought them into contact with the space out, above, and behind. Slowly, as the score looped, the dance began to unravel. The once carefully calibrated unison broke down. Instead of moving in a direction of ever more finely honed repetition, as the Gilbreths’ subjects had in their projected motion studies, the performers moved toward entropy. They sought each other out more and put their hands on each other, temporary respites as the order gave way.

And then, for our final stop, we moved backwards, to the start of the power-generating process. Here, in the boiler room, oil and then coal and then oil were fired to heat the water to create the steam to power the turbogenerators in the engine room. In this space, the machinery is mostly hidden behind a regular rhythm of brick fire walls. Gilbreth’s clever design, which had relied significantly on gravity to move coal and its byproducts through the plant, is now largely invisible or dismantled.

Study of Time and Motion, Tia Kramer and Tamin Totzke, 2015. Photograph: Grant Bowen. Performers: Tia Kramer, Tamin Totzke, KT Shores, and Mary Margaret Moore.

And so here, in this large room, bodies themselves became the focus. In the performance’s final sequence, as the seven dancers moved toward the stationary audience at the far end of the space, they took on the form of one elaborate machine, each with his or her own mechanism and repeated movement. They approached close to us and then peeled off one by one until the last finally stopped. And walked off.

In 1977, I told the audience then, environmental regulation finally led Seattle City Light, which had acquired the steam plant in 1951, to decommission it. By then, Washington’s hydroelectric facilities offered more efficient, more sustainable ways to generate power. The plant and the labor that fueled it had become obsolete.


After those months of rehearsal and performance, I slowly came to see my own aversion to efficiency—in body, in mind, in routine, and in work—as a form of resistance, first followed instinctually and now with practiced deliberateness, to the sweep of industrial logic turned glib corporate culture whose structure gives form now even to many nonprofits and places of higher education. Increasingly, twenty-first-century work demands not only hours at the job but also a constant availability and psychological investment that extend, insidiously, to time off the clock. Books and articles I read before and during these months resonate now anew.

“…[E]mployers want more from their employees than was typically demanded in the factories of the industrial era,” women’s studies professor Kathi Weeks writes in her book The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries. “Not just the labor of the hand, but the labors of the head and the heart,” she continues. “…Whereas Fordism demanded from its core workers a lifetime of compliance with work discipline, post-Fordism also demands of many of its workers flexibility, adaptability, and continual reinvention.” [1]

And from historian Jill Lepore’s 2009 New Yorker article “Not So Fast” on the Gilbreths, Frederick Winslow Taylor, and Louis Brandeis: “Efficiency was meant to lead to a shorter workday, but, in the final two decades of the twentieth century, the average American added a hundred and sixty-four hours of work in the course of a year; that’s a whole extra month’s time, but not, typically, a month’s worth of…happiness minutes…”

I slow my step.

Not everything can be measured. Not everything must be harnessed. Not everything should be put to use.

Moments of happiness, as I’ve come to know them, often look like idleness (sitting, lounging, not stepping), or indirection (wandering, without final destination in mind), or excess (taking too many steps; the long way, the slow way, just because). “…[T]he wasting of time is the most personal, most private, most intimate form of conversation with oneself,” the poetMary Ruefle writes.

Months after the performances in Georgetown, I watched Tia and Tamin perform again, this time at Seattle’s Henry Art Gallery. Their piece approaching proximity was part of an exhibition of time-based work by mainly American artists there, Six Weeks, in Time. It was a sequel to Connect/re-position and the second half of the larger whole they call Study of Time and Motion. The Gilbreths and their elemental gestures were still there, but gone were the weight and heft of the steam plant and its history. In the Henry’s white-walled galleries, the performers transposed the “therbligs” into gestures like picking up coats from a hook and hanging them back up. They sat in and moved chairs. They looked intently upon and swiped at their bare hands. Sometimes, they flocked in unison.

Approaching Proximity, in six weeks, in time. 2016. Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, Seattle. Performers: Grant Bowen, Jeff Huston, Tia Kramer, Mary Margaret Moore, KT Shores, & Tamin Totzke.

Tia wrote of the experience, “After many hours in the Georgetown Steam Plant performing at the Henry felt light, humanizing, and playful.” Away from the imposing architecture of the steam plant, I could see the lightness and play Tia described. But as I sat, stilled and at attention, I also thought of white-collar jobs, of tedium and commuting and the slavish attention we devote to our smartphones, even when there’s nothing new or immediate to command our attention. The physically demanding world of the industrial factory that the steam plant evoked had become the image-based world of the post-industrial office.

I had arrived at the Henry just as the first cycle of approaching proximity was ending. As I waited for the next to begin, I talked about the piece with an artist I was meeting for the first time. She spoke to me of her father. In his old age, she told me, his memory unmade by the late stages of Alzheimer’s, he returned to and repeated the isolated gestures he had once performed as a factory worker. They didn’t have any further utility, but the movements had been etched in his brain as a muscle memory that persisted when and where other recollection failed. His displaced movements told a story that words, no longer available to him, couldn’t.

Karl Marx famously wrote of the alienation of labor that industrialization begot. This artist’s father was a man, I thought, for whom the final product of his industry was not only unattainable but forgotten. And yet the gestures themselves remained.

“Because what is organized movement without teleology, after all, but a dance?,” Anya Ventura ventures in a recent article on slowness in making, looking at, and writing about art. In Ventura’s view, we can’t reduce dance to a nameable ultimate purpose, an end.

I don’t imagine that this man, his labor freed from utility, understood his gestures, now the unmoored vestiges of work carried out long ago, to be a dance. But the organized movement of Study of Time and Motion had made his daughter and has made me, over these many months during and since, look at and think about how we spend many of our days working, how that work, over time, engages our hands and feet and sometimes our heads and our hearts, and how we tell each other stories about the work that we do and have done, the steps we take and have taken, even if some of those stories are enacted, embodied, even if some of them are written in space and time and become words only through a kind of dance between making and looking and then making again.

“Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction,” Wendell Berry writes.

I follow him; I go my own way.

I step. Sometimes I raise my hand, or turn, or run. I look up. Time and time again I double back. I pause. I stray. I digress.

Sometimes, I think I, too, am dancing.

An earlier version of this essay was a finalist for the Montana Book Festival 2017 Emerging Writer’s Contest.

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