But the works referred to are not just scenes of naked bodies rolling on the floor of a dark loft; the pieces that are forced into this category are in my mind honest-to-goodness dance, with choreographic structure, tricky timing and steps that unfold for days. Two of the outstanding performer nominees in that field – Emily Wexlerin Yvonne Meier’s “Mad Heidi” and Nicole Mannarino in Sarah Michelson’s “Devotion Study #1 — The American Dancer” — were very much dancing in dances. This type of categorical thinking poses a major problem: the focus is on defining dance rather than examining what is onstage.
In other examples Eleanor Bauer’s “Big Girls Do Big Things” and Emily Johnson’s “Thank-you Bar” — each nominated under the “not technically considered dance” category for outstanding production — are pieces that define the dance of today: intimate, sometimes installationlike worlds that are driven by a deceptively casual combination of movement and sensation. Like it or not, this is dance too.
While the Bessies garner little attention outside of the dance world, they remain an important barometer of what is happening in the field. The awards, named for the dancer and teacher Bessie Schonberg, date to 1983 when David R. White of Dance Theater Workshop initiated them to honor outstanding work in New York City. They were an annual event until the 2008-9 season; after a hiatus Lucy Sexton, an independent producer, took over the awards, which are administered by Dance NYC.
But this type of categorization makes me wonder: Does the Bessie committee not know what it’s looking at? Or does it exist in a time capsule where Judson Dance Theater, the artistic movement that ushered in postmodern dance and embraced pedestrian movement, never happened? Instead, there seems to be more attention focused on raising the profile of the Bessies than on artistic achievement.
Despite efforts to glamorize the Bessies — this year’s ceremony will take place on Oct. 15, once again at the Apollo Theater in Harlem — it’s hard to respect an award that doesn’t consider the work of Ms. Meier or Ms. Michelson to be dance. “Devotion Study” is pure dance from beginning to end. Just exactly how were the triplets of Ms. Mannarino’s so different from those seen in “Event,” performed by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company? (The Cunningham shows, at the Park Avenue Armory, were nominated for an outstanding production in the category of a work at a venue “of more than 400 seats.”)
It’s as ludicrous as saying Twyla Tharp is not a choreographer, and Sara Rudner is not a dancer. This is the second year that the “technically not-a-dance” category has been in place, and there is no shortage of instances in which the label could apply. A couple of recent theatrical productions come to mind: Dmitry Krymov’s “In Paris,” starring Mikhail Baryshnikov, with strict choreographic pacing, or Cate Blanchett’s sinewy, awkward-elegant movement in “Uncle Vanya.”
Ms. Sexton reinvigorated the Bessies with the intention of extending their reach beyond the experimental dance-and-performance scene; she hoped to expose the breadth of the dance world. Nominees are now published. She also created categories and four subcommittees, two of which look at work in theaters with more than 400 seats and fewer than 400; the third focuses on dance that stretches the boundaries of a culturally specific form; and the fourth examines performance-oriented work.
The seating distinction separates Lincoln Center from, say, the Kitchen and allows a ballet dancer or two — this year, it’s David Hallberg — into the mix. Full disclosure: I served on the committee from 1996 to 2006, before such subcommittees were in place. But it doesn’t take firsthand knowledge to see that the overall committee, with 41 people, is unwieldy.
Ms. Sexton is in a tricky place. In an interview from London she said that she plans on changing the wording of the problematic category, but her alternative — to have a committee looking at work on “the performance end of the dance spectrum” — is no better. For an award like this to work, committee members must think drastically outside of the box or get rid of the categories altogether — all of them.
One of the reasons dance is so powerful is that it is an ephemeral art form, untethered by the logic and rules of everyday life. Categories are almost regressive. Of course it also comes down to a basic question: Do the Bessies matter? Absolutely. A public display of the best dance of the year is critical in a field with so few rewards. But I also get the sense that Ms. Sexton’s struggle is about something more profound than handing out awards. How do you make the world care about dance? This is the conversation that should be surrounding the Bessies, not definitions.
by GIA KOURLAS
coutesy of the NYT