The 21st New York Dance and Performance Awards, familiarly known as the Bessies after influential composition teacher Bessie Schönberg made its loopy way across the Joyce stage, alternately bemoaning the ragged state of arts funding (and much else) in the country and celebrating community here and around the world. Jointly produced by Dance Theater Workshop, Danspace Project, and the Joyce, it kicked off with word that the National Performance Network staff, based in New Orleans, was safe and meeting over the weekend in Miami. Presenter Ishmael Houston Jones, looking avuncular in a gray beard and saluting this annual “back-to-school celebration of ourselves,” wore a shirt that had belonged to the late John Bernd, one of the community’s early AIDS casualties, who died in 1988.
There were, oddly, empty seats in the house, most of them up close. ‘Twas a pity, because the ceremony’s Hunk of the Year role, a Vanna White–like position usually held by a good-looking male dancer, was filled by Jonah Bokaer, a member of the Merce Cunningham troupe who’s been taking his clothes off at various theaters all summer; at the Joyce he wore a gold vest and trousers as he distributed checks and proclamations to the winners.
Hosts Carmen de Lavallade and Gus Solomons jr of Paradigm, soigné senior citizens sporting outfits older than most of the artists in the house, were a benign and upright presence, as was their colleague, 67-year-old Dudley Williams. Recently retired from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, where he danced since 1962, Williams received a “performer” award, a category accompanied by a $500 check, and confessed at the after-party that he’d really rather still be dancing. Other performers honored included Molly Hickok, Jennifer Nugent, Okwui Okpokwasili, June Omura, and Chris Yon. Highlights of the evening were excerpts from pieces by David Neumann (in which Yon soloed), Ralph Lemon (featuring Okpokwasili), and Tere O’Connor; a stranger trio of works could hardly be imagined, reminding us that dance here still walks the cutting edge.
A startling proportion of the winners hailed from other continents and other states: Jérôme Bel, who received a choreographer-creator award for his friendly show at Dance Theater Workshop, returned his $1,000 honorarium for redistribution because he knows the funding situation here, and we know the funding situation in his native France. Another choreography award went to the marvelous interdisciplinary and collaborative Tense Dave, by Australia’s Chunky Move (directed by Gideon Obarzanek, choreographed by him and Lucy Guerin). San Francisco’s Alonzo King was honored in this category, for sustained achievement; other winners were Cynthia Hopkins (for Accidental Nostalgia), Ralph Lemon (for The Geography Trilogy), Tere O’Connor (for Frozen Mommy), Basil Twist (for Dogugaeshi), Meredith Monk (for sustained achievement, on the occasion of her 40th anniversary), and Christopher Williams (for Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins). The Time Out New York Audience Award went to Neil Greenberg for Partial View; he bemusedly noted that one of his students told him she’d heard lots of people didn’t like his work. Many of the winners thanked their current and future spouses; Greenberg saluted his “homosexual lover” and announced that they’d marry in New York as soon as they possibly could.
Composer Jonathan Bepler, who created the “music-scape” for John Jasperse’s California, had a flat on the way in to accept his award, turning up later in shorts and bare feet to observe, flirtatiously, that dancers are “hot,” and that he likes collaborating with them because, like him, they don’t always know what they’re doing. Techie Janet Clancy, a rigger who’s worked for years with Sarah East Johnson and other artists, missed her moment because she was on a ladder supporting Ruth Maleczech in another theater. She dashed in late to receive a special citation for her backstage expertise. Other special citations went to H.T. Chen and Dian Dong for decades of service to the Chinatown community, and to Carla Peterson, executive director of Movement Research.
Lighting designer Ken Tabachnick was honored for more than 20 years of collaboration with Stephen Petronio, and Chlo Z. Brown and Michael Levine won for visual design, she for her work with Amanda Loulaki and he for the astonishingly realistic “café-torium” that housed the National Ballet of Canada’s production of The Contract at BAM. The Susan E. Kennedy Award, presented annually to an arts manager, went to Jim Staley of Roulette Intermedium, a downtown experimental-music venue.