Making their first appearance at the Skirball Center on Washington Square, the New York Dance and Performance Awards, known as the Bessies, delighted from the top of Monday night’s 33rd annual ceremony, when executive director Lucy Sexton herded the nominees onto the stage and announced that they’d each receive a $500 check from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. The cash couldn’t have been more welcome. But the real rush to the evening’s bloodstream came from the fact that at least twenty of the forty nominated artists and events, and ultimately nine of the sixteen winners (several involving multiple artists), were people of color, and that their friends and families turned out in full force to celebrate them. On top of that, the evening’s hosts, American Ballet Theatre’s James Whiteside and the pop artist Shernita Anderson, rocked a succession of increasingly fabulous outfits.
Jerron Herman, an African-American dancer and playwright who has hemiplegia cerebral palsy , captured the mood: At the lectern, he murmured, “Hashtag BessiesSoBlack,” a rejoinder to the 2016 Academy Awards, which had been dubbed #OscarsSoWhite on social media. And later on, the huge, all-woman ensemble of the skeleton architecture, or future of our worlds, curated by Outstanding Service to the Field awardee (and longtime Voice writer) Eva Yaa Asantewaa and honored as an Outstanding Production, knelt onstage and raised their fists, acknowledging — and triumphantly pushing past — the general level of discriminatory insult directed toward them throughout their lives. Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, like Yaa Asantewaa a forty-year veteran of the city’s dance scene, was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award and muttered that she’d need another prize before she was done. (She performed part of her own Bitter Tongue at the ceremony.) Also staged were an excerpt from Trisha Brown’s Groove and Countermove and a live musical tribute to Baba Chuck Davis. The young choreographer to my left called it a “Black Girl kind of magical” evening.
Recipients of this year’s Bessies included, in addition to those mentioned above, Outstanding Productions by Art Bridgman and Myrna Packer (Voyeur); Antony Hamilton (Meeting); Ligia Lewis (Minor Matter); Taylor Mac (A 24-Decade History of Popular Music); and Abdel Salaam (Healing Sevens). Variations on Themes From Lost and Found: Scenes From a Life and Other Works by John Bernd earned an Outstanding Revival award for Ishmael Houston-Jones, Miguel Gutierrez, Nick Hallett, and Jennifer Monson.
Outstanding Performer prizes went to PeiJu Chien-Pott, Anna Schön, and Daalmah Taalib-Din. Alisdair MacIndoe’s percussion score for Meeting won for Outstanding Musical Composition, and the whole crew of Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History also took the prize for Outstanding Visual Design. Will Rawls won the Outstanding Emerging Choreographer Award, and Abby Zbikowski received the Juried Bessie Award, which includes touring opportunities across New York state. The entire roster of nominees and winners can be found here.