'American Idol' meets local dance: And the winner is...

A Portland choreographer takes a $10,000 prize at On the Board's A.W.A.R.D. Show, but the real prizes were sold-out houses and a chance to showcase regional talent.

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A.W.A.R.D. Show winner tEEth, choreographed by Angelle Hebert.

A Portland choreographer takes a $10,000 prize at On the Board's A.W.A.R.D. Show, but the real prizes were sold-out houses and a chance to showcase regional talent.

With $10,000 up for grabs, one lucky choreographer walked away very happy this past weekend. The A.W.A.R.D. Show at On the Boards offered this bounty to the dancemaker whose work won the prize after four nights of competition among 12 Northwest dance troupes. Two runners-up received $1,000 each. All money awarded is to go to creation of new work by these choreographers.

On each of the first three nights a winner was chosen by audience members, who before casting their ballots had the opportunity to witness and participate in a Q & A with the artists. On the final evening, the three performed again, with the victor crowned by the vote of the attending viewers, along with three local experts.

The A.W.A.R.D. Show is organized by The Joyce Theater in New York, one of our country’s finest dance producers, and is presented not only there but this year in five other American cities. As originally conceived, the program had two goals: to serve as a vehicle for developing new choreography, and to encourage dialogue between artists and audiences.

The whole project is laudable — rife with possibilities but also pitfalls, and all were on display during the run of the shows. The virtues are numerous: four nights of sold-out houses with engaged audiences; the opportunity for viewers to experience a sampling of Northwest contemporary choreography; a showcase for Northwest dancemakers and performers at one of our region’s finest small performance venues (with $500 going to each participating group); marketing buzz around the idea of competition for the artists and On the Boards; and of course, the big enchilada of cash prizes. 

The A.W.A.R.D. Show was presented in Seattle for the first time last season at OTB, and though I only attended two of the three programs, in general the quality of work seemed stronger than this past weekend’s. The character of the works also seemed to change, as this year’s artists seemed to feature more dance theater, performance art, and multimedia works relying on props, film/video, graphics of various kinds, florid costumes, and speaking voices rather than an emphasis on exploring the possibilities for movement of the human body. Seeing the performances raised anew the question of boundaries between and definition of choreography, performance, and theater.

Among the stronger dances, and the winner on Saturday, was The Offshore Project’s “The Buffoon,” with choreography by Rainbow Fletcher, first seen last year in OTB’s Northwest New Works series. In it a gang of four threatening figures pester a slight dancer in white, who somehow always remains upright, though precariously so. The evocative score by Dylan Rieck was performed live on-stage by a gifted band of five musicians. The work, while still visually and kinetically potent, lost some of the edge it had at its premiere, perhaps partly as a result of cutting 3 minutes from it to meet the time constraints imposed by The A.W.A.R.D. Show.

Zoe/juniper’s “A Crack in Everything" (excerpt), the winner on Thursday, had a strong visual component, with tracings in chalk on the back wall of the theater by dancer Zoe Scofield outlining her movements; arresting ghost-like projected images of dancer Raja Kelly; and long blood-red strings going from performer’s mouths to an unseen place offstage. The three nights also saw some fine performing from the likes of Sarah Ebert, Lauren Edson, Kelly Ann Barton, and Vincent Lopez.

The whole A.W.A.R.D. Show venture provoked thoughts about arts competitions, how to judge excellence, audience education, and the American Idol-ization of our country. All good things to discuss, but unfortunately none were really touched upon in the all-too-brief question-and-answer session I witnessed.

Discussing dance, an ineffable art form, has on the most profound level nothing to do with its performance. What I heard asked and answered was mostly boilerplate, the things I often hear before or after Q & As at other concerts. 

Those who create dances can be eloquent or not, and often speak about their work in terms of a “mythology” or mindset they have created for it, rather than what they have actually made. I’m not sure how it would have been structured, but I would have enjoyed hearing audience voices as to why they voted for the artists they did, as their participation was the reason for having this competition.

I asked On the Boards artistic director Lane Czaplinski what his goals were in bringing The A.W.A.R.D. Show to Seattle. He mentioned two things: that he could not pass up the chance to get that money for artists, and that the selection process, in which 40 to 50 Northwest artists submitted their videos to a panel of national experts, allowed these judges to see a wide variety of work by our region’s contemporary choreographers.

Czaplinski also mentioned that he asked the judges to consider Northwest choreographers’ work not solely on their video submissions, but also for their potential to create new work, as what was seen in the video might not be what they would present at On the Boards.

He explained that the final night’s vote to determine the winner was heavily skewed towards what the expert judges thought, rather than the view of the audience, which collectively got only one vote while the judges got three. This was a way to ensure some accountability in consideration of the support Boeing and The Joyce have given to the project. Perhaps that should be rethought and the ultimate champ is a result of a popular vote, as it was for the preceding three nights.

Whatever concerns one might have about competition and how these shows are structured, the artists who participated are fortunate that they have such champions as Mr. Czaplinski and On the Boards.

Oh yeah, who won the whole thing? Portland’s tEEth with the multimedia, sweet and sour “Home Made” about coupling, choreographed by Angelle Hebert with live vocals from Luke Matter and Cali Ricks.

A final note: For those who have not had the opportunity to see performances at On the Boards, the organization offers excellent videos. Go to www.OntheBoards.tv.


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