The Performance Club

And the Award Goes to…

This photo is not technically related to this post but influenced the writing of it.

“…A work not technically considered dance but happening in and influencing dance in New York.”

So reads the qualification on two awards given out by the New York Dance and Performance Awards (The Bessies). What exactly does this mean? It’s a category (created last year) that many in the dance world have found puzzling at best and insulting at worst, and in her recent article in the New York Times, Gia Kourlas took smart issue with it:

“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?”

The article went on to contextualize the ways in which Lucy Sexton, the director of the Bessies, has sought to extend “their reach beyond the experimental dance-and-performance scene; she hoped to expose the breadth of the dance world”

Sexton’s recalibration has caused grumbling in general, and led to some strange little culture clashes and turf skirmishes. At least two ballet dancers, neither of whom had previously heard about the Bessies, recounted to me how they felt completely out of place and unwanted when they showed up at the ceremony; a longtime member of the progressive dance world rolled his eyes when dismissing an “insulting” speech that one ballet dancer gave.

I understand the discomfort and the eye rolling, but I find it sad that these worlds are still so alien to each other. And it seems to me that an award meant to celebrate dance should have room for lots of different aesthetics. Yes, Wendy Whelan is a ballerina; she’s also an utter New Yorker, and one of the great artists of our time. Yes, Alexei Ratmansky makes some tired warhorse works; he also made the fiercely contemporary Namouna. If David Velasco’s best-of list in Artforum can include American Realness and Namouna, why not the Bessies?

But here’s the thing about that list, which is something of an award itself (it might be blasphemous to say, but I’d rather be on David’s list than the Bessies’); it doesn’t make a distinction between a queer performance festival on the Lower East Side and a New York City Ballet premiere. It doesn’t apologize or explain: it simply presents diverse contemporary works alongside one another. What Sexton and co. are doing by developing this disastrously asinine “not technically considered dance”  award in tandem with a broadening of the Bessies mandate is the exact opposite; they are, once again, marginalizing and making other that which is simply of the present day. This is a long, tired and ugly story in the dance world, which loves to plant itself behind the curve and wave at the rest of the world as it disappears around the bend: “Sarah Michelson, you may have been the star of the Whitney Biennial, but sorry, you’re not technically considered dance!”

You can’t make this stuff up.

The Bessies has been languishing for awhile. If Sexton really wants to make it matter again she has to find another, better way to widen the tent. We’re once again in a time when the institutional visual art world is increasingly invested in (and investing in) the performing arts, and some in the dance world are worried (I think with good reason) that this bigger, moneyed world will lay claim to and rewrite their narrative. But when you look at how hard it is for contemporary choreographers to gain traction within their own field … well, you begin to wish the visual arts would hurry up already.

Today, Sexton sent around a response to the NYT article. Here it is in its entirety (update: and here is Jeremy Barker’s response to that):

I’m writing in response to Gia Kourlas’s recent article on the changes in The NY Dance and Performance Awards, The Bessies (Aug 11, 2012). Ms. Kourlas says the awards “absolutely” matter, and that they are engaged in a mission not only to recognize outstanding dance and performance, but to “make the world care about dance.” But she takes issue with the creation of subcommittees within the Bessie Selection Committee, which are charged with looking at work in different areas of NYC’s large and diverse dance landscape. She rather inexplicably concludes that the changes mean the awards are “focused on raising the profile of the Bessies rather than on artistic achievement.”

The total number of the Bessie Selection Committee was raised from 15-20 to a total of 41, so there are more eyes looking at more work. The members work in subcommittees so there can be more rigorous considerations of specific areas of dance. The intent, and indeed the result, of the new structure is that artistic achievement is more central to the discussions. And to state the obvious, raising the profile of The Bessies is critical to ensuring the artistic achievement recognized gets broader visibility. 

Ms. Kourlas is rightly concerned with how to define the purview of the subcommittee considering more performance-oriented work. As she noted, we have recently changed the wording so it does not define the work recognized as “not dance.” The Judson movement opened up what could be considered dance. The club and performance scene in the 80s created a stew where dancers were mixing it up with people in different disciplines, from drag queens to visual artists doing performances. This is precisely why the awards are called the NY Dance and Performance Awards.

The subcommittee categories are certainly imperfect, but they are adaptive to a wide, ongoing community dialogue and a changing creative environment. The Bessies’ partnership with Dance/NYC, a branch of the national service organization, Dance/USA, has helped to extend and deepen the dialogue with a broad range of dance artists. It’s also good to note that the subcommittee categories are not mutually exclusive. The same work can be nominated by different committees as it may fall into several categories. And the full committee gathers several times a year to discuss work in all categories. The main focus is on considering and not on defining dance.

Our opportunity is to make clear to a non-dance-insider audience the wide spectrum of dance and performance work being considered. Making what The Bessies do more transparent and understandable to a wider audience is a step in our efforts to “make the world care about dance.”

We welcome feedback and ideas on how best to accomplish that goal.

 

Lucy Sexton

Director, NY Dance and Performance Awards, The Bessies

Produced in partnership with Dance/NYC

thebessies@gmail.com

 

 

20 Comments

  1. John Wyszniewski
    August 13, 2012

    The simplicity of American Realness, next to Ratmansky, next to Trisha Brown, next to Mike Kelley, next to Tere O’Connor on a shelf as equals is divine. 

  2. Counter Critic
    August 14, 2012

    “thebessies@gmail.com”

  3. lucy sexton
    August 14, 2012

    Claudia,

    I’m wondering why the tone of this piece is so inflammatory and confrontational.  You state that it makes you sad that the worlds of ballet and contemporary choreography are still so alien to each other, yet you are strangely insulting of the Bessies attempts to bridge those worlds. Nothing in the manner or words of the two ballet dancers who accepted awards last year reflected that they felt “out of place” or “unwanted”. Marcelo Gomes said he was thrilled to be recognized, and Wendy Whelan was cheered by the crowd when she told “downtown choreographers” to call her as she wanted to work with them. To amplify some comments of a few naysayers, who you fail to identify, is to undermine what was overall a very positive response from both worlds. As you say, Wendy is one of our great dancers, in whatever style she works in, and it’s wonderful The Bessies recognized her. Period.

    Thank you for posting my response. I’m wondering why your piece does not reflect the fact that we have already changed the wording that offended you regarding the committee that nominated a Sarah Michelson dancer—a change that predated Kourlas’ article by the way.

    It seems that that wording is however, still causing confusion. So let me explain how it came to be. The Bessies always awarded performance work—beginning nearly 30 years ago, so hardly behind the curve. They recognized work that truly was outside what one would consider dance. In the early days of the awards, Bessies were given to artists like Ethyl Eichelberger, Karen Finley, and The Wooster Group, who came from the worlds of theater, visual art, and drag/club performing. Dancers within the community understood that these artists were working in the same world we were, that the dance and performance worlds were overlapping and influencing each other greatly. 

    Our goal in recent years has been to try to make clear the wide range of work the Bessies considers. So in trying to describe the work the Bessies recognizes in performance, we wrote that it was work “not technically considered dance but happening in and influencing dance in NY.” The performance subcommittee happened to nominate several dancers and works that fall much more clearly in the world of dance this year. Which pointed up the fact that the description needed to be changed to reflect the flexibility and range of performance and dance work that subcommittee is viewing and advocating for. The current description is: “work at the performance end of the dance spectrum”. 

    Some question the need for naming the purviews of the subcommittees at all. We instituted the descriptions in hopes of making the purview of the Bessies more transparent. We created subcommittees charged with looking at different areas of the dance landscape so that work—like that of Wendy Whelan and Marcelo Gomes, which happens primarily the larger capacity dance houses—can be considered in greater detail by a smaller group who has expertise in that area.

    Finally, this is a process. We initiated the categories for the first time last year, and this year there are already several revisions reflecting the current dance ecology. For instance we have added a revival category for the first time in response to the great number of revived and revised works being presented. 

    We do absolutely want to “make the Bessies matter.” And the fact that last year’s ceremony was attended by more than 1400 would seem to indicate we are no longer “languishing”. But there is much work to be done as we work toward our goal of recognizing and bringing increased support and visibility to the extraordinary dance and performance happening in NYC. We welcome your thoughts and suggestions on how best to accomplish that.

    Sincerely,

    Lucy Sexton

    Director, NY Dance and Performance Awards, The Bessies

    thebessies@gmail.com

    PS. Call me, Claudia. We’ll talk. This is not a fight; it’s a discussion and an important one. I invite us to work together toward our common goals. 

  4. Counter Critic
    August 14, 2012

    “Not technically considered dance,” and ““Work at the performance end of the dance spectrum.” Neither of these satisfactorily describe the work that is intended to be labeled by them.

    The first, first of all, sounds like someone who doesn’t know anything about dance talking to a friend about some show they didn’t understand and is like, “Well, I don’t know what it is. It’s not technically considered dance…” It’s lazy sounding. It also rests a large amount of its meaning on “technicality.” How does dance become “technically” dance? Is it meant to read “technique-ly” dance? This falls within the doxic realm of “Well, people just KNOW what dance is.” And apparently that knowledge has some technical assessment embedded within it. Dance is dance because we call it dance: End of story.

    Now, I don’t even know how to parse “at the performance end of the dance spectrum.” What is The Dance Spectrum, after all? And isn’t all dance fully performance? Can dance ever not be performance? What is the conceptual strategy here? Is there some kind of dance-technically-considered-dance that is less performance and more absolutely dance? What is absolute dance? What is at the other end of this theoretical/technical spectrum? This definition is a riddle at best.

    The thing is, critics of these categories probably do know what The Bessies are trying to get at with these garbled qualifications. So why not ask “the community” for suggestions? I’m sure any number of concerned citizens could come up with possible solutions, if, in fact, we do need to separate these works out from works that are more “technically” dance or that are far flung from the claws of “performance.”

    Here is a suggestion from yours truly: Dance that challenges our assumptions about dance.

    Go ahead and use it. Free of charge. Or come up with something just as good or better. But the two options that have been presented by The Bessies come nowhere near articulating a coherent point of view about dance, nor respecting the work that they intend to honor.

    Come on, Bessies. We love you. We love awards. Now give us awards with real meaning.

    xoxo

    C.C.

  5. Marina Harss
    August 14, 2012

    As a member of one of the Bessies committees—though not involved in the creation of its classifications—I would like to clarify a point of fact. A work by an artist—or the artist herself—can be considered and even nominated by more than one committee and, in principle, win more than one award. Therefore a hypothetical artist might win an award as both “a work not technically considered dance” (or whatever the wording has been changed to) and also as “a work performed in a larger capacity venue.” It could even, conceivably, be allotted a third award as “a work that stretches the boundaries of a traditional form.” In other words, the categories are not mutually exclusive; they multiply, rather than reduce, the number of ways in which a work might be considered.

    My understanding is that the categories are meant to subdivide the larger committee into manageable groups looking at a manageable range of work, ensuring that fewer performances are overlooked. At the same time, there is significant cross-pollination and overlap among the committees, thereby mitigating the marginalization of any particular artist or work. In other words, the same works are very often being looked at, and discussed, by several committees at once. I’m not defending the classifications per se, simply clarifying how they work in practical terms.

  6. claudia
    August 20, 2012

    Hey Lucy –

    Sorry for the delayed response. I didn’t write this with the feeling that I was being inflammatory or confrontational, or that I was insulting the Bessies when it comes to the bridging worlds—in fact, just the opposite, when I wrote “that an award meant to celebrate dance should have room for lots of different aesthetics” I was writing in support of the widening of categories. A New York-centric dance award that ignores Wendy Whelan’s existence seems pretty silly to me, and so I think it’s great that she was recognized.

    And the narrow-minded and ignorant comments that I hear from people in the ballet and contemporary worlds (ok, man, we have to find new terminology here. Uptown/downtown obviously no longer works, but what should the words be?? Labels, blah.) about “how the other half lives”—well, sadly I hear those comments all the time, in lots of different contexts. I’m always disheartened and surprised by the sweeping assessments. Check out this awfulness, for example: http://theperformanceclub.org/2011/09/alien-species/

    I think the widening of the Bessies has highlighted some of these tensions or cultural divides, that’s all (and that’s probably a good thing); it certainly hasn’t caused them.

    What I do have a problem with is the widening in tandem with the marginalization of boundary-pushing work. Intentional or not, I think that’s what this new category does. And “work at the performance end of the dance spectrum” doesn’t seem much better (it certainly isn’t transparent). Why is such a category necessary? What golden standard of dance is being protected here, that this qualification would be needed?

    Another thing I’ve found somewhat dispiriting about the way these awards are meted out is that there doesn’t seem to be any quality control in terms of how many performances people go to see, what they are seeing, etc. Perhaps I am mistaken on this, but from what I’ve heard (sometimes from Bessie committee members themselves), it’s really helter skelter. I would like more clarity on who is chosen, how and why, and what the guidelines are in terms of what they are required to see …(Please don’t take this as blanket criticism of the nominators; I really respect a lot of these folks, including Marina [thanks for chiming in, M] and trust that they are making thoughtful decisions.)

    I also think that an award wouldn’t be an award if it didn’t infuriate a good deal of people (hello, fiction Pulitzer!). It’s sort of like criticism, no?

    clr

  7. claudia
    August 20, 2012

    I should also add, as a few people have asked me: I have never served on the Bessies. I was asked to do so a few years ago but declined due to conflict of interest concerns

  8. Counter Critic
    August 21, 2012

    I think I also assumed Balanchine was a homo. On the record…

  9. lucy sexton
    August 21, 2012

    Thanks for these responses Claudia and Counter Critic. I absolutely agree that awards can and should stir controversy and discussion. And am very glad to have to opportunity to discuss it all in a public forum. Clearly there is more work to be done to communicate the process and procedure of the work of the Bessies. I will continue to try to find ways to do that.

    For now, let me first say that this structure of subcommittees, and the descriptions of their purviews did come out of discussions with “the community” as you suggest, Counter Critic. Every year for the past three years The Bessies have held excellent and productive series of roundtable discussions with dance artists and other members of the dance community. I would love to have you both at the next round. Anyone who is interested can simply write to me and I will put you on the list to be invited. (more than 800 were invited last year). 

    Let me put the question of this subcommittee’s purview to you using a hopefully uncontroversial example. How do we describe to a general public why it is good and right for The Bessies to recognize an artist like the late Ethyl Eichelberger? Ethyl was a theater artist, a drag artist, a composer, actor and singer. But it’s difficult and misleading to describe Ethyl’s work as dance. He was, however, a great influence on the dancers and performance artists working in the field at that time. While all dance may be performance, all performance we wish to include may not so easily be described as dance. 

    Claudia is worried that by describing the purview of the committee looking at more performance oriented work we are somehow “marginalizing boundary-pushing work”. As I said, The Bessies have recognized performance work since their inception, but did so inconsistently. By creating a subcommittee with expertise in the area, and asking them to look at and advocate for performance work being done, we have actually done the opposite of marginalize it: we have made firm our support for boundary-pushing work. 

    It is the description that is tricky. And I realize that when this subcommittee nominated work like Sarah Michelson’s which rightly wants and deserves to be considered wholly dance without any qualifiers, it caused confusion. That is the situation we are trying to fix. One reason I personally liked “work at the performance end of the dance spectrum” is that it is possible to trace a line from Ethyl Eichelberger to artists like Circus Amok and Julie Atlas Muz, people who I think Sarah Michelson would count as early influences of her work. The world of dance and performance is fluid and resists clear definitions. The work of this subcommittee reflects that fluidity. 

  10. Robert Tyree
    August 26, 2012

    What a bramble.

    These name precedents affect US choreographers far beyond New York, so kudos to the open forum. Too often, dance feels colonized by a dominate, dead definition—to the extent that I find myself jealous of peers doing live or movement-based performance. Those terms register a vitality dance (sadly) has lost to me in nearly all conversations.

    The authority to appellation is one I thank you for fighting about and considering very, very carefully.

    Here’s to:

    • a robust and rigorous selection process
    • calling it all dance
    • leaving the finer points of word making open to a multiplicity of invested voices—bickering, going to bat, bonding
  11. claudia
    August 27, 2012

    Thanks, Robert – I am curious, what for you are the factors behind this loss in vitality?

  12. Robert Tyree
    August 29, 2012

    • The absence of any relationship between dance and most everyday lives
    • The lack of access to facilities—private or municipal—for recreational dance practices in the US (RELATED: liquor controls and insurance rates)
    • A lack of literacy in the reception and discussion of dance among both art believers and casual engagers
    • Vanishing budgets for journalism making the one-weekend runs typical of much dance a hard sell for press resources
    • Competition in ever more stunning visual/attention economies forcing marketable images of dance—still or video—into portrayals of immediate exterior spectacle that immobilize us in passive awe

    It feels like dance is comparable to Latin for many people here in the States: a specialist’s interest that lacks lived relevance, or maybe just another thing with no evident necessity.

    I hate that potential audiences might see the word “dance” as something clearly defined and colored with disinterest, and I think reserving the plain term “dance” for productions that resemble longstanding forms ends up mortifying the popular conception of a vital cultural practice.

  13. karinne
    September 4, 2012

    Well as the person who was given this award last year, which I shorthand to the 
    “satellite award,” I appreciated the category and its strange fawn-like stumbly wording. I do think that the events nominated this year fall more into what I might say, technically consider dance, but I know that my own show was part dance, part theater, part installation, part operetta, part video, and yet very much born in and thinking through dance thinking — “happening in and influencing” but “not technically dance” feels quite accurate to me, and I appreciate that the Bessies acknowledge the genre-queer state of the medium, in that it can operate as a home or hostel for its exiles and neighbors and satellites. There’s a huge slow wave of recognition that the thinking that goes on in dance has taken courses into many other spaces and communities, and I think this category is reflective of that same recognition coming from the dance world itself. 

  14. claudia
    September 5, 2012

    Thanks so much for this, Karinne – it gives much food for thought (and is related to Lucy asking how the Bessies might accommodate an artist like Ethyl Eichelberger). I agree that your piece makes sense for this category – in a way this year’s do not for me.

    And “fawn-like stumbly wording” I am going to have to steal at some point…

    My forehead-wrinkling in large part comes from thinking about these categories in relation to the Bessies seeking to widen its audience and reach: what it means in this context for artists doing contemporary work to be put into these side (Aside?) categories as the Bessies broaden to incorporate traditions that are typically seen as more legitimate (ballet, for example) by this wider audience. What accommodations and capitulations are made to gain this reach? Something is always lost when things expand; I think in the arts we don’t spend nearly as much time thinking about this as we should.

  15. lucy sexton
    September 5, 2012

    Thanks for your really thoughtful and articulate post, Karinne. It’s really helpful to hear from artists affected. 

    Claudia, I want to again address your concern that we are somehow marginalizing this area of work—which I take very seriously. The Bessies now have 4 subcommittees looking at different parts of the dance landscape. The nominations from the performance oriented subcommittee are in no way to the “side”. All of the performer noms, and nominations for outstanding productions generated from the subcommittees are equal in stature. And as I said previously, if anything we are now making sure that performance-oriented work is included each year, rather than more randomly as it had been in the past. I agree that it is important to think about what might be being lost with recent changes. But I’m not sure the creation of a committee devoted to more experimental performance and dance work is evidence of that. 

  16. claudia
    September 5, 2012

    Hey Lucy – I guess I’m just not sure how Karinne’s work, or Sarah Michelson’s, or Yvonne Meier’s, is somehow “more experimental” than other types of performance. For me these sorts of descriptions work, intentionally or not, to put artists in little boxes – especially for people who aren’t paying really close attention to the field. And I think they’re outmoded. This maybe seems like semantic nitpicking to you … but, well, I’m a writer and all, can’t help myself on these matters! And I also have seen how this happens, for example, all the time in journalism – “experimental” can all too easily become a longer word for “weird,” and then it’s all too easy to dismiss this art.

  17. Levi Gonzalez
    September 5, 2012

    ok one question. how the hell did that first category get released publicly without someone realizing it would offend a huge amount of the population of dance artists in nyc?

  18. lucy sexton
    September 6, 2012

    I get it, Levi. And am really sorry for the offense and hurt it caused. Karinne actually does a good job talking about our fawn-stumbling attempt at what we were trying to describe. I was more focused on the part of the description that talked about the work’s influence on and presence in the dance world. But of course, the last thing any description should do is tell somebody what they are NOT. Won’t happen again. 

  19. Nancy Dalva
    September 17, 2012

    It’s surprising to me who considers something to be “dance” and who considers it to be something else. But we all start out somewhere.  I happen to consider Sarah Michelson’s choreography (and the work that has inspired her last two pieces seen in NYC) to be  acutely dance-centric.  I also happen to sit on the Bessies Committee (on a sub-committee defined by the capacity of the theater in which a given work is seen).   I felt it was better to have Michelson’s work recognized in any category than passed over because of a dubious descriptor. The so-called “dance world” has been Balkanized for as long as I’ve observed it, and yet…When there were funds left over from an art auction held for his company’s benefit, Merce Cunningham was asked what to do with the money. “Give it to other choreographers,” he said.”We’re all in the same boat.” That would be the devout wish, the zen koan, the mantra. I can’t believe we are still fighting the bun-head bare-foot/sneakers wars after all these years….It’s time to move into the Upper Room. That’s what The Apollo is. See you there! (Note: I write for Claudia from time to time, first at the Brooklyn Rail, and at P-Club. If there’s a ven diagram here, I’m in the middle. All by my formalist self.)

  20. claudia
    September 20, 2012

    I do wish, Nancy, that you would write more often for me!

    Agree on the can’t believe we’re still fighting this – it is the cockroach of battles, will be around long after the last bunhead and barefoot folks expire.

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