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Flash Review 2, 4-21: "The Art Bosses"
TV's Take on DTW's Fresh Tracks

By Ben Munisteri
Copyright 2000 Ben Munisteri

I remember vividly the first time I received my Fresh Tracks audition rejection letter from Dance Theater Workshop in the mail in 1992. Shocked at the wallop, I burst into tears. And I am not a man who cries easily. How had this happened? Hadn't I auditioned the same piece Jennifer Dunning had praised in the Times? To me the message was undeniable: I was not going to make it as a choreographer. A small group of powerful panelists had decided this.

Last night's airing of "Egg: The Art Bosses" on the local PBS station included a segment on the Fresh Tracks audition process, which began with a quote from -- I assume -- an auditioning choreographer who gave the showcase similar weight: "Once you get this gig, you've kind of arrived." (From my living room couch I smiled sadly at her naivete.)

The show was full of such attitudes and beliefs -- that Fresh Tracks is the ultimate validation of young dancemakers' work. And though last night's episode didn't address the authoritarian overtones that color the audition process, I believe that because of the way it is structured, competing for a spot is seen as a kind of rite of passage: The harsh tone of the instruction sheet, the refusal to accept videotapes, the inflexibility of the appointment times, the requirement to pay a DTW membership fee before auditioning (I'm not sure if this rule is still in effect). Punitive and unfriendly, the Fresh Tracks audition experience gets choreographers excited in a way few other dance showcases do. Like a gymnastics event or a day in court, choreographers are out to win.

Although very similar to a segment aired for the show City Arts a few years ago (and produced by the same Executive Producer), this episode of EGG focussed more on the panel of judges than on the artists. How revealing it was, then, to see and hear the panelists actually doing their work. Unlike the curators profiled in the preceding segment on the Whitney Museum's biennial, who were self-described as "technicians, not poets," the Fresh Tracks panel was composed largely of other dance artists. Whereas the Whitney curators frequently expressed their disappointment at not being able to include some artists whose work they "cared about deeply," the Fresh Tracks crew mostly complained that they weren't seeing anything, well, fresh.

Clearly, the panelists have a difficult job. Yet they whined about seeing in the audition process the same type of modern dance movement repeatedly without any innovation. They seemed almost affronted by the barrage of poor work they'd apparently been watching. (I felt the same way as an adjudicator at a college dance festival; it was very difficult to stay positive as the process wore on.) But unlike the Whitney show, which exhibits only established artists, Fresh Tracks takes choreographers who are just beginning their work. I would guess many of the them are only a few years out of college, where they learned to choreograph according to the rules explained to them by their professors. No wonder the work doesn't look fresh.

The panelists argued about a dance piece's worthiness. I wondered if they were looking for the kind of dances they themselves might make. Panelist Peggy Peloguin says she is "looking for a connection the artists have with themselves that I can learn something from." Someone else objects angrily to dances with themes whose movements are not related to these themes. Panelist Craig Petersen (not a choreographer) says he is looking to know why a choreographer made a particular piece without his/her having to explain it verbally. I'm sure they are also looking for other, more concrete things: gender and racial diversity among the choreographers and performers, group pieces as well as solos and duets, funny pieces as well as serious ones -- though these considerations were not discussed on camera.

In the end, DTW's executive director David White addresses the widespread belief among auditioning choreographers that inclusion in Fresh Tracks will launch them into the "big time." He does not believe that Fresh Tracks will do this, despite DTW's widespread, implied rhetoric that it will. As the EGG episode ended, a familiar example of this appears on the screen: "Dance Theater Workshop's Fresh Tracks series has launched the careers of such choreographers as Bill T. Jones, Doug Elkins, Molissa Fenley, and Donald Byrd."

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