Downtown Dance and Performance Awards Celebrate 20 Years

"Plus ça change . . . " The 20th anniversary of the "Bessies," a/k/a the New York Dance and Performance Awards, reiterated familiar themes, unwelcome and welcome: Times are tough for downtown dance, but we're still here. And so we were—a meeting-greeting horde of us crammed into the Joyce, where the first Bessies were presented in 1984, in honor of Bessie Schönberg (still living at the time), the legendary dance composition teacher and guru to countless choreographers.

Laurie Uprichard, executive director of Danspace (with Dance Theater Workshop and the Joyce Theater the event's co-producer) reminded us of Schönberg's exhortation to dancemakers at an earlier Bessie ceremony to be fearless artistically, to dare to stride out on high limbs. And DTW's artistic director, Cathy Edwards, modestly quoted Mother Teresa in explaining the role of presenting organizations: "We don't do great things. We do only small things with great love," adding to the gathered field, "You do the great things."

David White's long and fertile tenure as DTW's artistic director still colors the Bessies. Not until the end of the evening did someone (David Gordon) remark on what many of us had been noticing: White went west, but his prose style lingers on in the elaborate hyper-poetry of the citations concocted by the hardworking Bessie committee members. It was left to Gordon, onstage with his wife, Valda Setterfield, to hand out the Choreographer/Creator Awards, to tell us, "You must vote!" In view of the looming election, David White probably would have started the evening off with that.

Much of what took place at the Joyce could have been predicted. Setterfield was gracious and wore a snazzy outfit, even though, groused her husband, they'd driven all the way down from Kaatsbaan to get there, whereas some recipients couldn't seem to make it to the Joyce (William Forsythe from Germany, Jonathan Burrows from England, Ohad Naharin from Israel, Sasha Pepelyaev and Peeter Jalakas of Van Kraal from Estonia). Some awardees were stunned, teary, speechless, grateful. Liz Berger, receiving an award for her dance advocacy in the halls of municipal government, said, "This is one of those died-and-gone-to-heaven moments." Some spoke elegantly and from the heart, like the beautiful Mary Anthony, who, at 88, still inspires the lucky dancers who take her classes. Others said they couldn't think of a thing to say, but said it anyway. Some cracked good jokes.

Christophe Draeger, accepting an award for his stage-filling set design for Miguel Gutierrez's damnation road, said he wasn't a set designer, he was an artist, and when Gutierrez told him he should come to the Bessies he was out casing a junkyard. Philip Hamilton, receiving a Composer Award for his powerful scores for at least seven choreographers, recalled the moment he was struck by the possible joys of composing for choreography: He was drumming his fingers (or maybe it was a pencil) on a seat during a school bus ride to junior high, "and all the girls got up and danced." Mark Russell—no longer, alas, the director of P.S.122—received an award for his artistic vision; present only as a voice (I think it was supposed to be a video), he told us he'd had "one of the easiest and best jobs in New York," and asked us to join him in clapping for all who'd ever had anything to do with his estimable organization. We obliged with fervor.

Holley Farmer, honored for sustained achievement in the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, walked onstage in her leotard, ready to perform in the upcoming Cunningham MinEvent, noting, "I don't usually warm up this way." She thanked her parents for not letting her take dance lessons until she could drive, and dedicated her award to the four bright new dancers in the company. Lisa Viola, one of Paul Taylor's finest, choked up, all but speechless. Taylor, she said, "has been speaking for me for years." Then she said, "I need a beer." Arcell Cabuag, honored as a performer, had been lured to the Joyce thinking he was going to be performing with Ronald K. Brown's company; he'd wondered for a while why there was no time allotted to run through the dance.

Sometimes in the past, hosts have scattered mini-performances throughout the evening. This year, the hearty voice of the unseen Larry Goldhuber introduced the various presenters. However, two sets of presenters gave surprise performances—both of them memorable. Visual Design Award presenters Roma Flowers and Philip W. Sandström paraded soberly back and forth across the stage, into a center spot, and eventually down the aisles, where they released a storm of color samples of lighting gel; all the while, the stage was a feast of changing lights. Sara Rudner and Seán Curran, enlisted to present the Performer Awards, arrived at the podium mildly out of breath after a playful bout of improvising with enough rich dancing in it to fuel an evening. Unlikely partners, they riffed wonderfully off each other, Rudner sometimes watching Curran as if he were an intriguing specimen from another culture, and Curran, amazingly, able to follow Rudner through her second run of a phrase, after only watching the first one. Six dancers (including Bessie winner Christine McMillan) performed eye-catching excerpts from Ben Munisteri's 2004 Turbine Mines, and six stellar members of Cunningham's company (including Farmer) performed a MinEvent tailored for the occasion. Cunningham had asked them to limp off afterward, and some of them did.

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