The Complexities and Contradictions of Awards Ceremonies

By Kate Mattingly

December 1, 2014, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

Mikhail Baryshnikov has a slew of honors to include in his biography, and for years listed prominently the “Bessie,” or New York Dance and Performance Award, which he was given in 1997. David R. White, creator of the Bessies, mentions this on the phone when I ask him if dance awards have any particular value. Often such awards do not come with monetary prizes and they can be perceived as insular, as in a community of artists awarding its own members. But White says they are important and includes a story about Steve Paxton keeping his Bessies citation on a readable wall in his bathroom. When I ask, “In his bathroom?” White answers, “So he could remind himself. He said it was some of the best writing about his work that he ever received.”

Dance award shows like the Bessies are celebrating several milestones this season, both on screens and on stages, yet the challenges and inconsistencies of honoring “excellence” in dance seem more evident than ever before. Although television programs like So You Think You Can Dance, which just completed its 11th season in 2014, do not hide their equation of excellence with popularity, curated platforms like the Bessies strive to honor “outstanding productions” and artists. The Bessies turned 30 this year and hosted their ceremony in New York in October, while in the Bay Area the Isadora Duncan Dance Awards (commonly known as the Izzies) will present their 29th season in March. As Daria Kaufman, a Bay Area artist who served on the Izzies committee from 2013 to 2014, recalls, “The 2014 ceremony was packed and for artists who were nominated for Izzies, these awards gave their careers a boost. An Izzie nomination is something cited in artists’ biographies and it can lead to more opportunities to perform and to be funded.”

As someone who has served on both the Bessies and Izzies committees, I am interested in the benefits and limitations of their selection processes. As Kaufman says, “Every awards system, particularly in the arts, is inherently flawed: perhaps if people know about the selection process then they can view the awards more accurately.”

My own questions that emerged after a year on the Izzies committee included: Is there a way to honor exceptional directions that Bay Area dancers are forging or are these awards reinscribing commonplace definitions and approaches, meaning mainstream spectacles and technical virtuosity? What do these awards mean for different sectors of community members: For artists? For funders? For presenters? Can they be about offering visibility to people who are underappreciated and not covered by dance critics in the Bay Area?

The Izzies committee consists of 15-25 Bay Area residents and includes dancers, choreographers, presenters, teachers, dance fans, former dancers and writers. The committee is strictly voluntary and meets monthly to discuss works that have been seen and nominated and to plan the annual ceremony. Last year this ceremony, free and open to the public, took place to a full house at Brava Theater. The Izzies have existed since 1985, founded by the Bay Area Dance Coalition, and its award categories have remained the same over this 29-year period. The mission of the committee is admirable––“to celebrate the unique richness, diversity and excellence of Bay Area dance, and to foster a supportive environment for its growth and development”––but the execution of these aims, at times, batters against an artistic landscape that is continually evolving and expanding.

Artists and events nominated for awards reflect the aesthetic preferences of the committee members. Put more simply, awards tend to go to the work that members find valuable. The actual selection process consists of an annual weekend “retreat” when the committee convenes for 16 hours (two 8-hours days on a Saturday and Sunday) to discuss artists and events nominated for each category, followed by two rounds of voting. At the awards ceremony most nominees are named and these acknowledgements provide a glimpse into the complexity of the committee’s selections. As a hypothetical example, in a category such as “sound/music/text,” there may be poetry spoken during a dance/ theater performance, a musical work performed live by a jazz ensemble, text incorporated into a contemporary performance, and a score commissioned to accompany a dance. What criteria would allow any form of “excellence” to emerge from such disparate creations?

As Kaufman says, “The fact that those artists could all be clumped together in some ways marginalizes them, as if they are not deserving of their own categories. Perhaps what’s needed is a rethinking of the categories, and a distinct place for artists who integrate text/movement/performance like Joe Goode, Rosemary Hannon, Marc Bamuthi Joseph…”

Since it often happens that committee members have not seen all the work nominated, the member who nominates an artist or event can supply a two-minute video to share with the committee during the voting meeting and to provide longer samples of video on the Izzies private vimeo page. While this allowance takes advantage of the wealth of ways to document and disseminate performance today, it also shortchanges artists who are working with ideas and movement vocabularies that demand duration and patience. Works by Abby Crain or Jesse Hewit who develop investigatory events that can be indeterminate, delicate, intimate and unfamiliar have a difficult task when placed on screen alongside performances by San Francisco Ballet that are more spectacular, athletic or flashy. Kaufman adds, “A lot of artists cannot afford great video. I am talking multiple cameras, HD, well-edited. So by relying on video the committee is already favoring artists with more money or those who value that kind of documentation. Also, oftentimes, due to varying circumstances, we didn’t have video of a nominee’s performance. In this case, at the final voting meeting, we had to rely solely on the nominator’s advocacy of the work. And of course, the reputation of the nominee becomes a factor, how much I trust the nominator, etc. I found this very problematic: to vote on a piece that I hadn’t seen at all (not even on video). Of course, this is a difficult problem to fix. We can’t all see every performance. Nonetheless, I think it’s important for the public to understand that this is the process.” Adding to these financial inequities, discrepancies in artists’ resources also impacted the selection process, begging the question what criteria could be used to compare a choreographer operating on a budget of $5,000 annually and a ballet maker working with the SF Ballet, which has an annual budget of approximately $50 million?

Ideally, committee members aim to create consensus about the awards by speaking about the value of an artist’s approach and why their performance deserves to be acknowledged. But the massive spectrum of forms considered “dance”––“classical ballet,” “hula kahiko” and “contemporary, research-driven installation,” for example––requires that the committee accept that they will not all agree on what qualifies as its “excellent” manifestation.

In her article about the Izzies published by In Dance on the occasion of the awards’ 25th anniversary, Julie Potter wrote, “dialog and consensus at Izzies’ meetings remain key to making decisions about how to recognize the creative artistry that little consensus is possible within this format. I found the most interesting part of the committee’s work to be the conversations about our aesthetic preferences that did not attempt to sublimate these differences to a unified opinion. In each category committee members nominated people and events that inspired them and provoked their own reflections on dance and performance. It quickly became clear that what one committee member described as “innovative and ground-breaking” choreography was cliché and obvious to another. “The final voting meeting was really, for me, the best part about being on the Izzies,” says Kaufman. “To get to hash out everyone’s varying perspectives on dance, in depth over two days.”

As Michelle Lynch Reynolds, program director at Dancers’ Group, explains, “It’s very very challenging for a dance field that is as large and broad as it is in the Bay Area to form a selection committee that is representative, especially given the extraordinary cultural diversity in this area as well as the range of organizational sizes and capacities. In other words, how you define dance or artistry can be different even within the same form.”

Reynolds points to an essential limitation of the committee, namely the disadvantage of not being able to successfully face the challenge of appropriately representing the dance community, but there are additional factors that block artists’ access to awards.

Categories that separate dance from music from costume and lighting design re-inscribe an ethnocentric way of conceiving of performances as products of distinct and separate disciplines. Native American studies scholar and Indigenous contemporary dance practitioner Tria Andrews notes that Native choreographers have multiple ways of creating and conceiving of performances. To some a term like “costume” is insulting, because one way that mainstream narratives attempt to diminish the cultural significance of Native American ways of life is through language. To others “regalia” also obfuscates the continuity of Native customs into the present day—despite U.S. policies that outlawed Native American embodied practices, such as dance and games. Andrews adds, “The politics of Native American dance are extremely complex. Certainly, Native performers today are able to maintain their practices and processes while working within, negotiating, and informing modern constructs. At the same time, these paradigms, which are often influenced by Western worldviews, are not always the most appropriate ways to articulate our practices. Yet because of the ways that dominant discourses function, we are often forced to make legible our epistemologies through Western frameworks.”

The Izzies categories also skew towards an old-fashioned division of labor with “choreographer” separated from “ensemble” separated from “individual performance.” As I nominated artists and events that transgressed boundaries between performer/ choreographer/curator I found myself needing to explain political economies and structures of support that exist in 2014. If the awards attest to “celebrate” and to “foster,” aren’t the conditions within which artists live and work important to consider?

One of the biggest differences between the Bessies and Izzies is the demographic of the committee. As White mentioned in our phone conversation, the Bessies committee has typically consisted of dance writers, presenters and selected artists who were committed to engaging with a spectrum of work. Unlike the Izzies committee members, their careers required that they see a range of artistic approaches and productions, and speak articulately about aesthetic differences and directions. The Izzies committee is made up of many people who have careers that do not necessitate seeing a spectrum of dance performances. Although they are all enthusiastic about dance, most have a preference for a certain type of work and do not see a broad range of performances. Reynolds mentioned this limitation during our conversation as a disadvantage of the awards’ selection process. “Committee members self-select which shows they see, and on one hand that is respectful of committee members’ volunteer contribution of their time and effort. However, while I understand the drive behind it but, I fear that it only further compounds the challenge of establishing a diverse committee that has the expertise and experience to evaluate a range of aesthetics.” To broaden awareness of a range of artists, Kaufman suggests that committee members attend a certain number of performances at “The Garage, CounterPulse, YBCA, the Opera House, Z Space, Joe Goode Annex and ODC.” This may not solve the problem but at least it opens committee members to different aesthetics and approaches. “Another option,” says Kaufman, “would be to require committee members to see a range of productions that operate on varying budgets from a few hundred dollars to several hundred thousand.”

The Bessie awards recognize a range of aesthetics and trace their genesis to a conversation between White and Jeannie Irwin Linnes at JP Morgan. “She was a Contributions Officer at JPM,” White recalls. “I wanted both to get some money support and public recognition to deserving individual artists in the dance and performance fields operating under difficult financial conditions in the Reagan cultural era. This was about 30 years ago, probably 1983 or so, and I said, ‘You know what would really be interesting,’ and this was coming from thinking about the disposability of artists’ work coming up and going, ‘would be to highlight the outstanding creators, work and performers of a year gone by, and thereby provoke further attention to those artists, possibly resulting in the return of those works in further public performance.’ Meaning to find a way for the performance that typically occurs for 2 or 3 nights not to disappear into the abyss, but rather to rise again with a longer half-life. Out of that came the idea of an award and a ceremony. The Bessies were meant to ensure that we kept churning and recognizing new work.”

The Bessies award categories have shifted over the years, and now are divided into categories that consider productions according to the scale of the theater (smaller venues that seat 400 or fewer people and larger ones that accommodate more than 400 people). Other categories recognize outstanding productions, performers, music and sound design, and visual design.

Internationally, awards ceremonies for artists are increasingly popular. In Germany there is the Faust prize that was created less than a decade ago to call attention to the power and artistic charisma of theatrical events. This award recognizes artists whose work is groundbreaking for the German theater, and most of its recipients work within opera houses, state theaters and large capacity venues. In Austria, the Prix Jardin d’Europe is an award for younger international choreographers that are endowed with $10,000 euros (approximately $13,000 U.S.). It is distributed at the ImPulsTanz festival and will be supported by the Culture Programme of the European Union until 2018. A jury of three dance experts selects the winner from 8 productions. Additionally, an audience prize allows spectators to vote for their favorite performance online through a website––lifelongburning.eu–– where videos of nominated productions are uploaded.

While the focus of these prizes may be on recognizing risktaking and innovative practices, the Izzies tend to award more commonplace and long-standing approaches. Ballet and modern dancers figure heavily among recent awardees. The “Sustained Achievement” category honors longevity and perseverance in the field. While these are admirable traits, the emphasis seems to be more on rewarding sustainability than daring or exploration. The Izzies ceremony excels in calling attention to acclaimed artists, and tends to ignore practices that press against existing definitions of performance and choreography. In spite of the advantages to being a committee member, perks that include having an influence on who is honored as well as attending many shows during the year for free, it was difficult this year for the Izzies committee to attract a minimum of 15 members.

In spite of the challenges of its selection process, the Izzies provide valuable recognition for Bay Area artists. As Reynolds says, “I think the advantages of the awards ceremony is that it’s an opportunity for the dance community to come together and celebrate and acknowledge each others’ work, activities, forms and artistry.”

In fact such awards can be so influential that other awards ceremonies have emerged in recent years. Scholar/artist Keith Hennessy describes a “dance criticism website funded by Hellman (Voice of Dance) that started an award, and for a couple years they shared the Izzie evening… easy to do, like any corporate invasion, by sharing the cost of the awards evening with the always broke and begging Izzies committee. The shit of the award was that there was no jury or peer process to pick who got it. It was random and self-important bullshit despite the worthy people being awarded.”

Two years ago Jim Tobin of Bay Area Dance Watch started a ceremony called the LiveBlessay. For Hennessy such ceremonies “have basically tried to subvert the potential power of the Izzies by inventing their own awards as vanity projects with no selection process beyond one person’s taste and bank account.” For Reynolds, the existence of multiple awards ceremonies does not diffuse their power but rather speaks to the impossibility of one entity satisfying the entire Bay Area dance community.

Kaufman notes that today there are multiple ways in which the dance field relies on popularity, recognition and crowd-sourcing, not only through awards ceremonies, but also through platforms like Kickstarter and Luna Dance Institute’s ChoreoFund. “These models are starting to pervade the scene. Sometimes they are great grassroots, anti-institutional ways to fund projects and make things happen. Other times they cater to artists who have access to more money and more means. I think the Izzies’ mission is an admirable one – to honor and celebrate exceptional artists in the Bay Area. It’s just important to stay aware of how these awards decisions are made and what they mean for our communities, and to think about how they can evolve with the times.”

Kate Mattingly is a doctoral student in Performance Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.


Kate Mattingly is a doctoral candidate in Performance Studies at UC Berkeley.

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