25 Years of the Izzies

By Julie Potter


In 25 years of recognizing Bay Area dance, members of the Izzies committee have collectively seen more than 10,000 performances, contributed countless volunteer hours and even announced the awards at a “bring your own tofu burger” barbecue. “As the dance world morphs we adapt. Indeed, to read through the history of the Awards is to follow the thread of dance in the Bay Area,” said Raquel Lopez, former chair of the Izzies committee who has served three times since the ’90s.

Awarding dance is no easy task and the diversity in Bay Area dance dictates the criteria for the evaluation of performances to be somewhat fluid. “The concept of excellence is always an ideal for judging something, but excellence means different things to different people. For one person it might have to do with how eloquently a particular point of view was expressed in movement; for another person it might refer to how relevant the ‘research’ has been. Someone else might want to judge in terms of technical execution–speed, force, and line…The criteria for excellence are varied and I don’t think any of us on the committee think that art is measurable.” Therefore, dialog and consensus at Izzie meetings remain key to making decisions about how to recognize the creative artistry that abounds in the Bay Area dance community.

In addition to recognizing excellence, the Izzies bring people together and allow those working in dance to make connections. The honorific awards help contributors to the community gain visibility and credence. Once awarded, Izzies certainly appear on resumes, bios and grant applications for years to come, even from those who may say they don’t place value on awards in the arts because of the subjective nature. Despite the sticky task of judging the arts, many programs don’t shy away from the task [controversy?]; the dance industry’s A.W.A.R.D. Show! as well as the film world’s Oscars and Golden Globes are each different lenses through which to see the art. The Izzies represent a high standard that encourages the public as well as dance colleagues to pay attention to certain artists and works.

When discussing the joys of the Izzies, current co-chair of the Izzies, Dennis Mullen commented “One is just seeing the work of San Francisco dance artists–what they’re doing and what they’re accomplishing is amazing…The second part is after the ceremony. Everybody lingers on so there’s a cross pollination, people get a chance to talk.” He also points out that members of the committee possess the role of being observers who follow artists’ work and careers over a period of time. For Lopez, “It is a joy to watch the subtle transformation of artists coming into their own as dancers and choreographers.” She enjoys the ability “To shine a public light on dance ensembles and companies that move with one spirit…granting awards to thereby focus the attention of the public on the power and beauty of dance.”

The Isadora Duncan Dance Awards, informally known as the Izzies, are awarded annually to recognize outstanding creative achievements in the performance and presentation of dance. According to Mullen, “The history of the awards is a ‘Who’s Who.'” This March the Izzies recognize work performed between September 1 2009-August 31, 2010, honoring the dancers, choreographers, designers, composers, dance companies, scholars and other individuals who have made important contributions to the Bay Area’s dance community in nine categories: outstanding achievement in choreography, individual performance, ensemble performance, company performance, visual design, music/sound/text, restaging/revival/reconstruction, special awards and sustained achievement.

The award categories have remained the same over the years with the Special Award category accommodating for innovation in the field. Additionally, the committee can decide to give up to three awards in each category. “From the very beginning we have recognized that there are many different sources from which a dance performance springs to life besides the artistic vision and dedicated work of choreographers and dancers. That is why we have always given awards to lighting and sound technicians, composers, musicians and costume designers who animate a dance piece with their technical skills. It is these artists in other disciplines who help extend the idiom of dance” said Lopez. Also, Special Awards and Sustained Achievement Awards often honor teachers, presenters, dance scholars and dance writers. “These individuals are the ‘scaffolding’ of the dance community and they are not ignored.”

The all-volunteer Isadora Duncan Dance Awards Committee was established in 1985 by the Bay Area Dance Coalition, the regional dance service organization from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s (which later became Dance Bay Area and then disbanded in 1992 with several services being adopted by Dancers’ Group). While awarding accomplishment in the arts was not a new concept, it was debated by the service organization before the event was started. Some were concerned that picking award recipients would cause conflict and competition among local artists. An inclusive nomination process helped the awards gain momentum as well as a celebratory spirit. The first ceremony was held in the auditorium of the old Asian Art Museum in Golden Gate Park and since then the ceremony has occurred at a variety of places including the Herbst Theatre, Laney College Theatre, Brady Street Studios, ODC Theater, YBCA, the Green Room at the War Memorial Opera House, the Veterans’ Building, Brava Theater and the Koret Auditorium. Now with a track record of 25 years, Mullen thinks the awards are here to stay.

Tackling the challenging task of awarding dance, the current committee is made up of 20 artists, teachers, dance writers, academics and arts administrators with diverse areas of expertise. Each member is charged with viewing at least 20 “Izzie-able” performances (which do not usually include visiting companies on tour) and a broad range of work within the viewing cycle. Then, after each show the committee member completes a viewing record for the performance. “All of us on the committee commit to seeing work outside our area of expertise–even sometimes work that might challenge our personal taste. And because there is such a broad range of expertise among the committee members, we have the opportunity to see the work with someone who has a deep knowledge of the form” said Lopez. Therefore, an informal mentoring process exists for approaching the many genres of dance in the Bay Area. Most committee members serve for three years at a time as it helps to serve for a year or two and learn the process, although working artists for whom three years is an unrealistic commitment may sit for one year. Allowing working artists to serve for one year keeps the committee diverse. According to Mullen, “It brings fresh blood and fresh viewpoints.”

Diversity is the word that comes to mind for both Lopez and Mullen in describing Bay Area dance. “San Francisco is an international city on the Pacific Rim, so surely that influences our dance community and its artistic output. The Bay Area has numerous universities and a large GLBT community. We are a region that supports large arts institutions, as well as a myriad of community-based arts organizations and everything in between. In addition our climate is conducive to site-specific work in all corners of the urban areas and in the surrounding countryside” said Lopez. Mullen champions the Bay Area’s output of new work, heartened by the maturation of San Francisco’s dance organizations since space, mentors and teachers, as well as resources keep dance in the region thriving.

So what’s to come in another 25 years of the Izzies? While many more nights in the theater are pretty much a given, the Izzies are also pursuing 501c3 status (they are currently fiscally sponsored) and continue to refine an archival process for the ephemeral records that are part of the Awards (the programs are archived at the Museum of Performance and Design.) The winners of the 25th annual Izzie Awards will be honored in a ceremony on Monday, March 14, 2011 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum (701 Mission Street). The event, free and open to the public, will begin with a greeting reception in the lobby at 6 pm, followed by the awards ceremony at 7 pm. To view a full list of this year’s nominees visit izzies.org.

This article appeared in the March 2011 issue of In Dance.

Julie Potter is a public practice specialist, performance curator and writer based in San Francisco. As the Director of ODC Theater, she provides artistic and administrative leadership including season programming, artist residencies and public engagement. Potter was previously the Creative Ecosystem Senior Program Manager at YBCA and completed her M.A. in 2016 at Wesleyan’s Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance.