“…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.
Director, NY Dance and Performance Awards, The Bessies
Produced in partnership with Dance/NYC