When someone joins the Isadora Duncan Dance Awards Committee (The Izzies), they’re usually pleasantly surprised. Instead of a mysterious, shadowy group they will find a group of individuals like themselves—passionate about dance and possibly carrying some impressive dance credentials, but more or less human. The committee’s perceived mystique might be a good thing, but I think it’s time for an overview about what it is and what it does—their guidelines and how the awards function within the Bay Area community. I’m coming to the end of my second year on the committee, and I’d like to do what I can to demystify its workings as I have experienced them. Most of what I have to say is factual, but all of the opinions in this article belong to me.
The Izzies committee has a simple goal: to recognize excellence in Bay Area dance. There are a host of other committee functions and activities, yet recognizing excellence in dance drives all that we do. The awards are focused on local artists. Performers must be local or artists-in-residence to be nominated or receive awards, and other contributors such as choreographers, musicians, writers and designers must be local, or have created their works for local companies or artists. This is an important statement about the stature and vibrancy of the Bay Area dance community, even though some artists can be hard to place because they spend so much time internationally. The goal isn’t to deny the benefits of cross-pollination or to transform ourselves into some sort of artistic gated community, but to honor the dance that is local.
The awards are intended to honor excellence in all forms of Bay Area dance. People have suggested that it would make more sense to have separate award categories for different types of dance, instead of trying to compare the apples of dance theater to the oranges of kathak (for example). Separating dance genres would certainly make the job of judging easier, but it brings up a couple of issues. A lot of great dance crosses boundaries; it isn’t necessarily easy to categorize, say, an artist using a contemporary approach to traditional dance. The second issue is that the Izzies’ intention throughout its history has been to recognize all of Bay Area dance, in its magnificent difference. Paul Parish, now in his second term of service, recently made the point that it isn’t such a big deal to compare apples and oranges—you simply choose the most luscious piece of fruit.
When the committee was founded in 1984 as part of the San Francisco Bay Area Dance Coalition (that would become Dance Bay Area), recognizing all styles and genres of dance was part of its mission. The Izzies’ structure has evolved and changed over the last 22 years in response to the community, and it has even once or twice come close to unraveling. There have been times when the committee almost fell apart; when it had only a few members; when it was made up of critics (and the viewing requirement was 40 works a year). The ceremony has been larger, smaller, in different places and with more or less bounteous amounts of food.
At present, the committee has over 20 members representing a wide range of expertise and interests. Its finances and structure are in great condition. Part of its mission has always been to provide a record of the accomplishments of Bay Area dance. With this in mind, the committee is in the process of finding a permanent home (probably the SF Museum of Performance & Design) for its archives. Most recently the Izzies entered into an agreement with Dancers’ Group to produce the April 2008 awards ceremony so the committee members could focus on the business of seeing dance; this was the first year of the new arrangement. To present the annual awards—called the Bay Area Dance Awards (BADA Awards)—the committee partners with Bay Area National Dance Week and VoiceofDance.com. This relationship allows each partner to present a community award making the ceremony a fuller community, and richer celebratory, event.
The committee is entirely volunteer; it isn’t even quite a nonprofit, but an organization which is fiscally sponsored by Dancers’ Group, allowing it to accept charitable donations and apply for grants to support its work. Everyone on the committee is responsible for viewing live performances and other dance related events and making nominations, but they also share a number of other tasks necessary to ensure that the organization runs smoothly. The committee is divided into various subcommittees, which take care of different parts of the organization: finances, membership, tracking awards nominations, publicity, fundraising, and governance. The Izzies are governed through bylaws (called “Committee Structure” on the website), which include the award categories and the conflict of interest policy. More complete information about bylaws and structure, along with lists of earlier nominees and awardees, is available on the website, izzies.org.
The Izzies’ viewing year runs from September 1 to August 31. In August, a crop of new members joins the committee. Members can join either as one-year Active Artist members, or as full three-year members. Of course, many three-year members are active artists; the one-year option exists to encourage working artists to join in spite of the large time commitment. Members can elect to extend their terms, with a maximum of six years’ service without a break. Each person commits to come to monthly meetings, serve on subcommittees, and see a minimum 20 “Izziable” dance performances during the year.
Each monthly meeting is divided between committee business and artistic work discussion. Members bring records of what they’ve seen as well as nominations for artists in the various categories. Over the year, the committee fundraises, publicizes its activities (which also means publicizing the artists nominated), keeps track of what work members have seen and nominated, and plans its part of BADA.
How the awards are selected: The voting meeting takes place over the course of two days in September. On the first day, the members show videos (or, if the videos are unavailable, anything else they can get) of the works they have nominated. On the second, the voting takes place. It’s done by a ranking system, based on a review of voting theory by recent member Carrie Gaiser Casey. There are two types of awards. For most awards—choreography; performance; visual design; sound design; and restaging, revival or reconstruction—a short list of nominees is announced publicly before the awards, and the award recipients are revealed at the BADA ceremony. The voting for these categories happens in two stages: First, members vote on the list of nominees developed over the year, arriving at a short list of five nominees (the actual nominees that are announced). There may be as many as 30 nominees in some categories, reflecting the committee members’ appreciation of the artists’ achievement. Receiving an Izzies nomination out of the field of candidates is a significant honor. Then, the short list of nominees is voted on to identify the single recipient of the award. The special and sustained achievement awards work a little differently, with the award recipients announced well before the ceremony. The bylaws of the committee allow for up to three awards to be given in any one category, and can happen when the final votes for artists are extremely close in that category.
Voting for special and sustained achievement awards follows the same ranking system as the regular awards, though usually only one round is needed. Special awards cover contributions to Bay Area dance that don’t fit in any of the other categories, such as films, festivals, conferences and special events. Sustained achievement awards are for services of more than ten years, though in practice most groups and people who receive this award have been working for much longer than that—ten years is just a blink of the eye in Bay Area dance.
There are obviously ethical issues that come up when a group of people decide to give awards to their own community. If the committee were made up only of critics, it would be in some ways easier since critics are used to keeping a bit of journalistic distance from their subjects. This isn’t—now—what the committee is. The current Izzies committee is comprised of working artists, writers, academics, and administrators, with the goal to have members representing as many geographical and artistic areas of Bay Area dance as possible. All members run the risk of colliding with the committee’s conflict of interest policy. The policy is written to acknowledge the interconnectedness of the dance community, while making sure that the awards are fair, and can be seen as fair. If committee members are involved in a work they can’t vote in that category, and a work can’t receive an award if a committee member was involved or engaged with the work in the specific category in which it’s nominated.
The great corrector, and the great protector of the committee’s honesty, though, is simply this: it’s a committee. When it comes to the voting meeting, every member has one (count it, one) vote. After a year of business and artistic discussions, each member’s passions and biases are out there for everyone to see. And while obviously the committee’s decisions don’t and can’t satisfy everyone, they are committee decisions, reflecting the consensus of a group of knowledgeable people. I’m not trying to be stupidly optimistic here, or to pretend that there have never been challenges within discussing work or another committee members another point of view, or that its impartiality doesn’t need to be defended. I’m just saying that the committee’s power is communal, which is exactly as it should be.
If you want your work to be seen by the committee, please get the word out about your show. List your performance in In Dance and newspapers; get your email list going. You can also email the committee directly, firstname.lastname@example.org.