Competition and the rewards of victory are the juice that drives sports and politics and business. America thrives on it. Yet, when it comes to the performing arts, people can get a little queasy with the concept. And for contemporary dance — well, forget about it!
That’s why the A.W.A.R.D. Show! at On the Boards this past weekend kicked up a bit of a storm in the local contemporary dance community. The program consists of three nights each of four choreographers showing one work of 15 minutes or less, with a winner determined by audience vote each night. The final performance, this past Sunday, pitted the winners from each night against each other for the grand prize of $10,000 (the two losers got $1,000 each) courtesy of a generous grant from the Boeing Company. Four dance professionals and the audience each got a vote on the final nod for the ultimate champ.
Contemporary dance, or what many in the past called “modern dance,” has traditionally been the bastion of rugged individualists and iconoclasts, starting with the high priestesses Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey and their disciples in the late 1920s and 30s. These were the artists who were creating a new American art form that bespoke freedom and future promise.
Contemporary dance has developed many strands and approaches in the decades since, many extensions and possibilities, with pluralistic voices embracing cultural influences from hip-hop to Bollywood. There remains a strand of exceptionalism in the DNA of these artists that says, “be unique, be different, be your own voice.” In echoes from the days of the high priestesses, it also can still say, “we are pure.”
So to some in the field the idea of a contest between artists seemed anathema, maybe too much like a Reality TV show. I must admit that the modern dance voice within me had the same initial reaction. Several of Seattle’s leading independent choreographers themselves apparently had reservations of one kind or another and did not participate.
The A.W.A.R.D. Show! was co-produced by On the Boards with the national organizer (it is held in three other cities) New York’s Joyce Theater, a prolific presenter of dance companies. It was the brainchild of choreographer Neta Pulvermacher and producer Marisa Konig Beatty, who envisioned it as a way to both build and educate audiences for dance. They believe that contemporary choreographers and dance groups are already competing for grants, for dates, for audiences, so why not in a more publicly engaging way?
I was able to get to only the second and third nights of the programs, but that was certainly enough to get a taste of how things were going. The houses both nights were full or near to it at On the Boards’ lovely 400-seat space. Though I expected a mostly youthful audience, I was surprised by the number of older folks, some surely family of performers.
Lane Czaplinski, the artistic director of OTB who has reinvigorated the organization since his arrival several years ago, laid out the plans for the evening. They included audience guidelines on how to vote, and a post-performance talk with the artists only after which viewers could vote to select that evening’s winner.
Friday’s victor was Catherine Cabeen for her solo “Segments,” performed to the live music of kora player Kane Mathis. Mostly staying within a broad diagonal shaft of light, Cabeen engaged the evocative sound of Mathis’ 22-stringed African harp at times internalizing the music in muted movements, or openly engaging it with her long-limbs and strong technique. In the most striking moment she approached Mathis and did a modified penché arabesque in which she pitched forward, head to the ground, one leg extended to the rafters, with her body’s line neatly referencing the long neck of the kora.
A former performer with the Martha Graham Company, and that of Bill. T Jones, Cabeen is a beautiful dancer, and I suspect her winning was due as much to that as to her choreography. Having the gifted Mathis on stage with her was a bonus, though interacting with him towards the end of the piece and then exiting through the audience seemed to me a false note. On the same evening, Sonia Dawkins of SD/Prism Dance Theatre demonstrated skill in her work “Linkage,” a segment of a longer piece, moving her dancers in and out of inventive groupings.
Saturday’s performance brought the overall winner of The A.W.A.R.D. Show! competition, the very clever soloist Amerlie Reeber. With wicked humor, minimal and judicious movement, excellent use of the stage space, and a bit of mugging, Reeber hilariously both mocks and deconstructs our obsession with consumerism, home ownership, and making our palaces into personally designed statements of identity.
On the OTB blog she writes of the piece as a reflection of her own experience with first-time home ownership, and at several points in the dance the levity turns dark. Beyond Reeber's own experience, one could easily take it as an evocation of the disaster that has befallen so many Americans who have lost, or are in danger of losing their beloved homes.
Also on Saturday’s bill was, “In Time,” a lovely and flowing work by choreographer Lauren Edson. It was pleasing to see the dancer’s lyricism and full-out movement, and how well this choreographer moved her committed performers about the stage.
So how did the The A.W.A.R.D. Show! concept work? Well, it certainly drew out an audience for local dance, which is good. It also asked them to think about dance in ways that they might have not previously, which was also good. And at least one choreographer walked home with $10,000, which was very good for her.
A few things to think about for the future: The one evening I stayed to listen, the after-performance dialogue asked some questions that seemed too obtuse for both artists and audience. Perhaps an especially articulate choreographer could tilt the vote her way in a close contest, since folks vote after this discussion, and not before. This potential skewing of results could be an unintended consequence of the desire to get artists and audiences talking to each other.
The program listed guidelines for how the audience might “judge” the dances. Experienced dance-goers might use this information to good effect, but many novice viewers might not have the baseline of information to make sense of them. Perhaps a few, easier cues might have been helpful, and some additional information how choreography, and performance of it, might differ. Maybe there should have been a small award for “best dancer” as well as best dance.
Finally, I would have liked some greater diversity in these programs — artists of color, choreographers working from a place of ethnic or cultural identity, or those fusing dance forms that cross cultural and aesthetic boundaries.
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