The A.W.A.R.D. Show series of competitive dance performances has returned to six U.S. cities, in yet another marketing attempt to rescue dance from the margins of American culture. The series was presented in Philadelphia last week by Dance Affiliates and New York's Joyce Theater, and supported by the local dance establishment.
Over the course of three evenings of performances, a dozen local choreographers competed for a $10,000 first prize and two runner-up prizes of $1,000 each. Thus the nine other participants were to receive nada for their substantial rehearsal and performance efforts. (A scion of our military-industrial complex, Boeing Aircraft, offered up the limited prize money.)
Since its inception in 2005, the A.W.A.R.D. series (its punctuated title is a marketing mystery invention) has become institutionalized. In pursuit of its high-minded goals— attracting and engaging audiences— it employs mass media and marketing strategies. Audiences "participate" by voting on performances, ostensibly using analytic criteria provided on cards distributed to any audience member paying the $18 ticket price. My misgivings—widely shared in the dance community— about the adverse effects of injecting a monetary competitive and ultimately alienating model into this art form were expressed in BSR two years ago. (Click here.)
These concerns are equally valid today, notwithstanding the pre-finalist performance insistence of Randy Swartz of Dance Affiliates that the whole event was really a warm, cozy, community-enhancing experience for all the dancers. The dancers I interviewed afterward suggested anything but.
The effort to illuminate the performances fell flat when the four judges came on stage at the conclusion to discuss their general criteria but were directed by the moderator not to speak critically about any of the finalists' performances they had just voted upon.
(The four judges also apparently engaged in no discussion among themselves before voting— a strange phenomenon, given that their deadlocked 2-2 vote, announced to the audience, bespoke the value of their having shared and tested their conflicting judgments with each other before voting.)
The $10,000 prize went to the Pennsylvania Ballet's respected veteran, Meredith Rainey, who, with a sterling partner in Sun-Mi Cho, performed a compelling duet of an anguished relationship punctuated to the clashing, periodic percussion within David Lang's music. Their 2007 work, from This is It/It is This, maintained an unabated intensity of emotional and physical contact between Rainey and Cho that embodied a doomed togetherness.
Their size differences, unchanging facial expressions and employment of movement across the entire stage— including hanging from an iron pole in a wing— all pushed their drama into the melodramatic. Although their modern ballet movement invention was limited, their execution was clear and focused, well defining a shared, anguished psychological state.
Spoofing the competition
But for refreshing originality, brilliance in conception and raunchy entertaining fun, my winner in the entire series was Gabrielle Revlock's I made this for you. Instead of pulling an earlier piece out of repertory, Revlock, with her co-choreographer Nicole Bindler and a large, boisterous family from the Philadelphia contemporary dance community, created a new event-specific work that courageously seized on and skewered the contradictions of the dance competition series itself. Finally, after six years, dancers responded to the manipulations of the A.W.A.R.D. Show with an intelligent take-off delivered through dance.
In this jumble of a performance, Bindler came on stage to interrupt an initial duet by Revlock and Kristel Baldoz, containing quizzical, repeated head turns and clunky but precision-timed falls. Together, Revlock and Bindler interrogated the dance just performed (an "experimental judgment day dance") and asked what is dance (a five-letter word, "j-u-d-g-e").
The spoken and danced satire in I made this for you extended to the history of dance competitions in the '30s (remember They Shoot Horses, Don't They?). If the work contained its share of flat lines, that's in itself an argument for saying more through movement and less in text.
Revlock and Bindler spoofed A.W.A.R.D.'s audience participation voting gimmick, by having the audience vote on whether they wanted to see Revlock do her Yoga dance, or Bindler make out on stage with an audience member. To the sweet crooning of "Trouble Every Day," the ballad sung by the Tindersticks, the audience got both: Revlock, with Sean Rosswell, created a strikingly balletic Yoga duet with Sanskrit signage for the uninformed couch potato set; and Bindler, joined by a chosen male audience attendee, shed clothing and smooched it up, assisted by "French Kissing" signage for the uninitiated.
Like a well-designed manic comedy, the piece gained velocity as the identical twin brothers, Gregory and Stephen Holt, kicked off a twinning vaudevillian duet to klezmer music from Electric Simcha as well as a live trombonist, Dan Blacksberg, playing in the audience. The spirited and wild finale became a multi-ringed, Felliniesque circus of the breadth of contemporary dance styles and improvisation movement. The work ended with an endearingly cheesy shower of balloons and counterfeit money.
Survival of the fittest
It is a real pleasure to see artists like Revlock and Bindler using humor and irony so effectively— qualities too often absent in contemporary art. This rich imagination is evident in Revlock's other recent collaborative work, such as the Hulachess duet video of Jennifer Shahade, shortlisted in the Guggenheim Museum international art video competition, or in her website video spoofs of popular music (click here).
More potent than the introductory platitudes about generating community and togetherness was the joyful manifestation of real community in this Revlock-Bindler work. In stark contrast to the social Darwinist "survival of the fittest" ethos of the competition, I made this for you brought together two dozen disparate dancers from across the local dance scene. In their joyful company, awards become distracting irrelevancies.
Prelude to a wedding
The third finalist of the series was the choreographer TYGER-B, whose work, Autobiography/Chapter 38, offered an ensemble of younger dancers rushing through an assemblage of precision cartwheels and extensions, supplemented by cameo appearances by the break-dance virtuoso soloists Ron Wood and Vince Johnson. These were presented as the pre-ceremony entertainment before a wedding, an event of more significance for its creator than for the viewing audience in Philadelphia.♦
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