Philadelphia's 2009 Live Arts Festival went out on a limb with its four evenings of dance contest presentations, pitting 12 choreographers against each other for a final round, where the winner was awarded $10,000 (via the Boeing Company) and two finalists $1,000 each. The end result was a well-deserved award to Nichole Canuso, who presented a well-crafted duet in tandem with her dance partner David Brick.
Their fusion of improvisation and set choreography spoke well of the sort of contemporary dance being generated in Philadelphia these days. But the pathway to this result raised major questions about the propriety of dance competitions in a Live Arts Festival.
Having earlier seen and reviewed, in this very same festival, Kill Me Now, Melanie Stewart's sharp spoof of dance competitions and reality TV shows, I approached the first three nights of preliminary rounds with some real skepticism. How, I worried, would a competitive popularity contest affect a dance community valued for its collegiality and its pursuit of new quality contemporary work?
Verdict by cheering section
My fears were compounded on at least two nights, when an audience sound meter would have sufficed to determine the winners: Jenn Rose's Way Up High, the work of her Loose Screws contemporary tap company, and Braham Logan Crane's Ghost of Things to Come. Before these groups even came on to perform, the volume of their audience cheering sections prematurely determined the result.
Rose explained the intent of her work following the performance, in a convoluted narrative that revealed only that her dance missed the mark of her own intentions. Crane's work gathered formulaic, jazz-modern choreography onto the stage, with pumped-up music worthy of an Indiana Jones movie. The Rose and Crane dancers nevertheless gave it their all. (An observer must always feel for dancers trapped within clichéd and tired choreography.)
The best of intentions
The Festival, and the Joyce Theater originators who conceived this A.W.A.R.D. Show idea, did harbor good intentions about audience development and consciousness-raising. No doubt these performances pulled in audiences— especially very young people— who otherwise would never see some of the fine talent emerging in Philadelphia's contemporary dance scene. But they may have departed as confounded and alienated as when they entered, especially after the final round, when the judges were not present to explain why they chose Canuso and Brick over other equally popular competitors.
The Arts Bank setting offered a showcase for inventive, engaging younger choreographers and dancers, who ordinarily show their work in smaller venues like the Community Education Center, Mascher Cooperative space, or the Susan Hess Studio. It was a delight to consider their impact upon the groupies of Jenn Rose and Braham Logan Crane. These distinct worlds of dance rarely intersect, and this series possessed the unrealized potential for doing some needed bridging and dialogue.
Festival newcomers who stood out in this unorthodox series included Gabrielle Revlock, performing a smart and beguiling new work, Indivisibility, with a hula hoop and accompanied on stage by violist Jacob Mitas; Kathryn TeBordo who set a poem by Dorothea Lasky to a dance that, in its fractured, minimal movement performed by Brandon Beston, Devynn Emory and Michele Tantoco, humorously manifested the poem's laconic rhythms and images; Jen McGinn, presenting Both Members of a Grecian Couple, which conflated onto the same stage the classical coolness of ballet with the passionate abandon of folk dance; and Jumatatu Poe, whose Alibi constituted a serious effort to realize, through dance and video, a narrative of false accusation, guilt and memory.
But the A.W.A.R.D. Show attempted more, trying to give the audience (via short handouts) jurying criteria for visual analysis and judgment (e.g., "potential; originality; execution; and merit"). All moderators were scripted to ask audience members to vote after some contemplation, and to vote not just for friends or dancers they knew. An abbreviated Q. and A. session followed each preliminary evening's performance, which might well have contributed to a more informative vote— but, alas, the voting was undertaken before these sessions.
One last lapse
The final round on Saturday (Sept. 19) was not determined by the masses, as the audience had but one vote of five votes this time; the other four votes were cast by judges from Dance Theater Workshop and the Joyce Theater of New York. They arrived at the right judgment, in my opinion, but without expressing any rationale— a lapse that detracted from the legitimacy of the final award and missed a rare opportunity to communicate visual analysis insights to a larger audience.
In comparing the Canuso and Brick duet of the final round with their earlier preliminary round performance, the second time around seemed somewhat less improvisatory and more set dramatically than the more buoyant and less theatrical version they presented in the first round. Maybe the pressure of a financial competition added unnecessary stress to the already pressured lives of performing artists.
The A.W.A.R.D. Show was a work in progress that warrants its own judging, by participants and commentators alike.