Local Heroes

Dance congratulates itself for jobs well done

For 22 years, the handing out of the New York Dance & Performance Awards, a.k.a. the Bessies, has ushered in the Fall season. At the 2006 event, co-produced by Dance Theater Workshop, Danspace, and the Joyce Theater, the lobby of the Joyce buzzed with burning questions, like "How was your summer?." There were hugs to exchange, news to pass on, and babies to admire. Onstage, Cathy Edwards, Dance Theater Workshop's outgoing artistic director, welcomed her successor, Carla Peterson. Laurie Uprichard of Danspace mentioned some in the field who had died during the year: Katherine Dunham, Willie Ninja, and Carsin (Carol Bloom), a longtime volunteer usher at P.S. 122.

The small-scale Bessies ceremony isn't a red-carpet affair. But the crowd—mostly independent "downtown" artists—knows style, and voiced lusty approval when lighting designer Chloë Z Brown walked onstage to present the Visual Design awards wearing a red damask corset over her blouse and pants. We applauded host Stephen Petronio for changing into different, snazzy menswear for each appearance. We also appreciated the fact that he and his co-host, Bebe Miller, had worked up a rousing antiphonal speech that began "Hail, dance! Hail performance!" We know class when we see it too. Valda Setterfield graciously acknowledged not only Petronio and Miller, but hugged DTW's Sara Nash, who handed her the scroll honoring her five decades of inimitable performing. As surprised as most of the awardees, Setterfield made a witty and elegant speech, then waved the scroll, asking slyly, "Is there a check in here?" (There was, for $500. Big Apple Lights, Electronic Theatre Controls, and the Harkness Foundation contributed toward the cash awards.)

Because no nominees are announced, and few winners know in advance that they've won, we're spared the long lists of individuals that Oscar winners typically thank (my producer, my third cousin, my parakeet Snoozy . . . ). Expressions of astonishment and confusion are de rigeur (Jonathan Belcher, awarded a Bessie for lighting design: "Holy shit!" Composer Pete Drungle: "Wow! I just swallowed my gum!"). But all recipients exude wonder, gratitude, and happiness in every utterance, no matter how awkward the wording or choked-up the delivery. Douglas Dunn, sashaying on with Jane Comfort to present the Choreographer/Creator Awards, noted how society often keeps artists "at bay." Winning a Bessie affirms an artist's contribution; the whoops of peers and the effusive praise on the scroll can mean as much as the check furled inside it.

It was unusual—and gratifying—to hear choreographers acknowledge the funders, managers, and others who help make their dreams possible and goad them into keeping on with their work. It was also unusual that few references to politics cropped up at this year's Bessie event, although the ongoing war got a mention, and one winning choreographer, Jeremy Wade, currently working in Berlin, mentioned the burden of shame Americans abroad carry for Bushworld policies. In terms of arts politics, Petronio offered a angry rebuttal to the "rumor" that dance here is dying on the vine: "I believe that dance in New York is vital and alive, and if you don't believe that, you can kiss my ass." And the "powerful and diverse community," eloquently thanked and praised by choreography award winner Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, cheered for its own future.

Performances of works shown during the 2005-2006 season—an excerpt from Susan Marshall's Bessie-winning Cloudless, the male duet from Petronio's bud, and an excerpt from Neil Greenberg's The Disco Project—pointed up how richly a dance can embody the cooperation, commitment, and considerate behavior that might serve as a model for society at large.

2006 is the centennial of the late, beloved dance composition guru Bessie Schönberg, as Norton Owen reminded the audience. And there she was onscreen at the 1988 Bessies, joking about winning a special citation in an awards program named after her, and urging all young choreographers to be bold, to take chances. Bessie winner Wally Cardona remembered being at the Bessies for the first time that year and how her words stirred him. With luck, those words will continue to challenge dancemakers to venture out onto risky limbs.

Bessie Winners for 2005-2006

Choreographer/Creators: Wally Cardona for Everywhere; Miguel Gutierrez for Retrospective Exhibitionist and Difficult Bodies; Susan Marshall for Cloudless; Bebe Miller, Vita Berezina-Blackburn, Maya Ciarrocchi, Kathleen Fisher, Angie Hauser, Kathleen Hermesdorf, Darrell Jones, Albert Mathias, Michael Mazzola, Liz Prince, David Thomson, and Talvin Wilks for Landing/Place; Jennifer Monson for BIRD BRAIN; Jeremy Wade for Glory; Yasuko Yokoshi for What We When We; and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar for Walking with Pearl. . .Southern Diaries.

Installation & New Media: Verdensteatret for Concert for Greenland.

Performers: Shani Nwando Ikerioha Collins for her work with Ronald K. Brown/EVIDENCE, Roxane D'Orléans Juste for her work with the José Limón Dance Company, Hristoula Harakas for her performances in Maria Hassabi's trilogy (A Forest in Chelsea, Dead is Dead, and Still Smoking), Benoît Lachambre for his collaborative participation in Meg Stuart's FORGERIES, LOVE AND OTHER MATTERS, Ryutaro Mishima for his role in Yasuko Yokoshi's What We When We, Valda Setterfield for many memorable performances in dance and theater (especially in works by her husband, David Gordon), and Michael Trusnovec for his presence in the repertory of the Paul Taylor Dance Company.

Composers: Pete Drungle for The K Sound and Hahn Rowe for FORGERIES, LOVE AND OTHER MATTERS.

Visual Design: Jonathan Belcher for work with Jeremy Wade and Reggie Wilson, Lenore Doxsee for Retrospective Exhibitionist and Difficult Bodies, and Mikki Kunttu for work with Tero Saarinen and Akram Khan.

Special Citations: Olga Garay for her commitment to supporting dance during her tenure as Program Director for the Arts at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, and Dianne McIntyre for her "pioneering work with women, and with African American and American spiritual traditions in dance."

Susan E. Kennedy Award: Norma Munn, "in recognition for two decades of arts advocacy."

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