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The Buzz, 9-23: Conflict of Interest
Why the Bessies are Broken, and How to Fix Them

By Paul Ben-Itzak
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 too?

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.

Choreographer/creator 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 alternative spaces.

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.

Additional citations 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.

Alternative spaces: one.

Throw in Chen (Mulberry Street) and Peterson (Judson), and this makes three alternative spaces.

(Besides the BAM-presented National Ballet of Canada and Alonzo King, no awards derived from performances of ballet.)

Hmmm, how could this be?

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' tastes.

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 reviewed.

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 pool.

These are my thoughts. What are yours? Send them to the Buzz at paul@danceinsider.com.

 

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