The Buzz, 9-23: Conflict
Why the Bessies are Broken, and How to Fix Them
Copyright 2005 The Dance Insider
Every year, a committee
dominated by and chosen by New York dance presenters -- not predominantly
dance critics, dancers, or audience representatives -- gets together
and recognizes what it considers the most noteworthy performances,
choreographies, design and other achievements of the previous season.
(Sustained achievement awards are also issued.) Usually, the achievements
recognized by the Bessies -- named after dance pedagogue Bessie
Schonberg -- do not derive only from performances at the theaters
represented on the Bessies committee nor exclusively from mainstream
theaters. In 2003, for example, RoseAnn Spradlin's "Under/world,"
presented at Squid Performance Space, garnered awards for choreography
and individual performances. The awards announced this past Sunday,
however -- predominantly derived from performances presented at
theaters represented on the awarding committee or other, mainstream,
spaces -- demonstrate why the Bessies, as a truly objective arbiter
of the best in NY Dance, are broken. The Bessies committee -- most
of whose members are connected to NY dance presenters or curators
-- is hardly a disinterested party but rather, a body whose serious
conflicts of interest call into question, if not its right to give
out awards, then certainly its right to call these honors the New
York Dance and Performance Awards, with all that implies about objectivity,
impartiality, independence and expansiveness.
On its face, it's misleading
for the Bessies committee -- chaired by representatives of the Joyce
Theater, Danspace Project at St. Mark's Church, and Dance Theater
Workshop -- to say it is giving out awards for "New York Dance and
Performance" for at least one obvious reason: Ballet seems to rarely
register on the Bessies committee's radar. Um, is ballet not dance
But do the awards --
as manifest in this year's awards, anyway -- truly represent a cross-section
of modern dance performance in New York?
Here's what the press
release announcing this year's awards states: "The award recipients
represent a diverse cross-section of work created by independent
artists in the performing arts community, including a wide range
of works seen in smaller, alternative spaces as well as works produced
by major venues."
Unfortunately, a quick
perusal of the results does not bear this out.
awards went to Jerome Bel and Chunky Move, presented at DTW; Ralph
Lemon, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM); Tere O'Connor, The
Kitchen; Cynthia Hopkins (a DTW regular), St. Anne's Warehouse,
Basil Twist (that well-known choreographer of puppets), the Japan
Society; Christopher Williams, PS 122; and Meredith Monk, for sustained
achievement (most recently presented at Danspace Project). Eight
choreographer/creators; one alternative space. Performer awards
went to Molly Hickok of Big Dance Theater, regularly presented at
DTW; Jennifer Nugent of David Dorfman, The Joyce; Okwui Okpokwasili
of Ralph Lemon, BAM; June Omura of Mark Morris, a regular at BAM
& Lincoln Center; Dudley Williams of Alvin Ailey, City Center; and
Chris Yon of David Neumann, Danspace Project. Six performers; no
Other awards went to
composer Jonathan Bepler of John Jasperse, BAM; visual designers
Chloe Z. Brown working with Amanda Loulaki, DTW; Michael Levine
of National Ballet of Canada, BAM; and Ken Tabachnik for sustained
achievement in lighting design with Stephen Petronio, usually presented
at the Joyce. Four mainstream spaces; no alternative venues.
The Time Out "audience
award" -- in quotes because this year, the audience couldn't vote
on just anybody, but had to choose from a pre-selected list -- went
to Neil Greenberg, DTW.
went to H.T. Chen and Dian Dong, "for outstanding service to the
community," said the award citation, Janet Clancy, "for her outstanding
technical support for dance artists," and Carla Peterson, "for guts
and gumption in directing Movement Research." The Susan E. Kennedy
Memorial award went to Jim Staley.
Total tally from the
20 award citations derived from specific performances:
Mainstream venues: 19.
Throw in Chen (Mulberry
Street) and Peterson (Judson), and this makes three alternative
(Besides the BAM-presented
National Ballet of Canada and Alonzo King, no awards derived from
performances of ballet.)
Hmmm, how could this
Well, let's look at
the Bessies committee: Of the 23 members, 15 are associated primarily
with presenting institutions and/or curating, or have recently been,
including directors or other representatives from the Joyce, DTW,
Danspace Project, The Kitchen, and BAM. Seven are independent journalists
or writers. (One other critic notes her affiliation with BAM.) However,
all members -- including the writers -- are recommended by the committee
and selected by its three co-chairs, representatives of Danspace
Project, DTW, and the Joyce.
Yes, it's true that
individual committee members must recuse themselves from voting
to give an award related to a performance at their theater, but
-- especially when one looks at results like this year's -- that
doesn't change the fact that corporately, as a body, the committee
is judging, and this year affirming, its own presenter members'
For some perspective,
let's jump across the country to the Left Coast and the San Francisco
Bay Area, where we find that the 15 members of last year's Isadora
Duncan (or Izzies) Award committee included exactly three people
associated with presenters -- and all these with what might be called
alternative spaces: Laura Elaine Ellis. whose African and African
American Performing Arts Coalition will co-produce the 2005 Black
Choreographers Festival; Denise Pate, who works for World Arts West,
producers of the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival; and Jessica
Robinson, managing director of 848 Community Space. The other 12
members (including the DI's Aimee Ts'ao) are primarily dance
artists and/or journalists. Not only that, the Izzies committee
actually includes...ballet dancers! And, in STARK contrast to the
Bessies committee, it recognizes ballet as a member of its community.
(To read about the Izzies committee, please click here; for a list of 2005
Izzie winners, click here.)
Now, right about now,
I can almost hear several Bessies committee members protesting,
"How dare you question my integrity?" I'm not. For example, I know
Danspace Project's Laurie Uprichard, the committee co-chair, to
be extremely ethical and to have a catholicity of tastes that expand
way beyond St. Mark's Church; Martin Wechsler, the co-chair from
the Joyce, is more likely to be seen at other theaters than his
own, so sincere is his desire to see as much as possible. So intention
is not the question. But in journalism as in jurisprudence -- and
occasionally even in commerce and government -- we have two related
concepts: appearance of conflict of interest and disclosure.
Here at the Dance Insider, for instance, where most of our writers
are themselves active dance artists, we have two very simple policies
when it comes to reviewing work in which a DI staff member is involved:
We disclose this relationship in the review, and we limit to once
per year the number of times a DI staff member's company can be
Were it called "the
presenters' awards," perhaps it would not be my place to tell the
Bessies committee how to go about its business. But since it is
positing itself as the "New York Dance and Performance Awards,"
I -- and you, dance insider -- have a right to offer suggestions
for how the committee and the awards can truly live up to that mission.
I propose the following changes:
1. No theater which
is represented on the committee can be represented in more than
one award recipient. If a particular presenter representative thinks
this would be unfair to his/her artists, he/she always has the option
of resigning from the committee, thus clearing the way for unlimited
artists from his/her theater to win awards.
2. Where a performance
from which an award is derived took place at a theater represented
on the awards committee, this relationship should be disclosed in
the awards announcement.
3. Representation of
dancers on the committee should be increased, including at least
one dancer from the ballet community, one from the folk or world
community if there is not one already, and one from Broadway. These
delegates, as well as dancer representatives from the modern community,
should be selected through a vote of dancers, with ballot boxes
at dance studios throughout town.
4. Editors at all legitimate
media covering dance in New York should be invited to designate
one critic from their organization -- staff or freelance -- to serve
on the committee. These nominations will not be subject to approval
by either the committee as a whole or its co-chairs.
5. As part of or in
addition to 4, above, Robert Johnson of the Star-Ledger, Joan Acocella
of the New Yorker, and Tobi Tobias -- all critics with some considerable
authority in ballet -- should be invited to join the committee to
counter its present anti-ballet bias.
6. The audience award
should be restored to a true audience award, not based on a pre-selected
These are my thoughts.
What are yours? Send them to the Buzz at firstname.lastname@example.org.