Dance.Eats.Money. - Ishmael Houston-Jones on The A.W.A.R.D. Show

Originally written for Issue 2 of the Salt Lake City journal LEARNING TO loveDANCEmore: MANIFESTO.

Dance. Eats. Money.
by Ishmael Houston-Jones

“Imagine So You Think You Can Dance without the flashing lights, screaming fans and millions of TV viewers, and voilà: The A.W.A.R.D. (Artists With Audiences Responding to Dance) Show,” wrote Apollinaire Scherr in the Financial Times. From the first time I heard about the A.W.A.R.D. Show I have been uneasy with the idea. A young choreographer whom I had mentored called me one afternoon and asked if I were free that evening. He had purchased tickets to something called the Award Show being held at the Joyce SoHo in New York and one person for whom he’d bought a ticket couldn’t attend. Not knowing what it was, I said I’d go. When I got there it was clear that I had been invited expressly to vote for his piece. This illustrates just one of the flaws I see in the concept of the A.W.A.R.D. Show and its Salt Lake City spin-off, Sugar Show.

First, anything that gets money into the pockets of dance makers so that they can create their art cannot be dismissed as a bad thing at the outset, right? Then, why does the notion of these shows leave me with such mixed feelings? Obviously the concept chafes against my latent socialistic principles of equitable distribution of the goods. But other means of funding artists such as grants and fellowships are not 100% impartial and unbiased. However I’ve sat on many choreographers’ panels for both foundations and government agencies, and I’ve always observed an almost neurotic need for them to be fair at every step of the processes. And although the audience of voters at the Sugar / A.W.A.R.D. Shows is given P.O.E.M., (Potential, Originality, Execution, Merit), as criteria, it’s hard to believe that most people will come to the show and not vote for either their friends or for those choreographers whose work is most aligned with their own aesthetics. Over the years I’ve been solicited to come and “vote for my piece” by more than one fretful choreographer.

But assuming that people are able to put their familial and artistic allegiances aside, there is another issue – does one’s immediate visceral response to work always point to work that is good? From my own experience I would have to say probably not. Often the better work is the work I didn’t get instantaneously; work that I had to go home and actually think about; debate with my friends; let it hit me days/weeks/months after. Work that entertains me right away can be superficially funny or poignant, but it can be just that – superficial. I admit that I can be incredibly shallow and sucked in by cheap sentiment. In another art form, Latter Days, a 2003 tearjerker movie about a relationship between a closeted Mormon missionary and his openly gay neighbor made me well up and reach for the tissues. Clearly it could win my vote in some indie film Award-type Show. But is this great, or even good, filmmaking? I don’t think so.

Last fall I attended the A.W.A.R.D. Show in NYC with Lindsey Drury who had competed with the SLC originated improv group GoGoVertigoat; they had been eliminated on a previous evening. We had our little pencils and were to help choose a $10,000 winner from among 3 very similar, well-executed pieces. It seemed so arbitrary that one piece got the big prize, the other two got one thousand dollars apiece, and the nine “losers” from the preliminary nights got zilch. The work that won, a piece by Helen Simoneau, was a finely crafted solo for the choreographer; I’ve seen other work by Helen so I know she has choreographic chops. But was this quiet unassuming solo really worth 10 times more cash than the other two pieces? I can’t honestly find the justification. It would have been just as fair, and more honest, to draw her name from a fish bowl and admit that the Show was the Lottery that it is. Paradoxically, in my opinion, one advantage the SLC Sugar Show has over the other A.W.A.R.D. Shows is that it bestows a lot less money to the “winning work.” But it also gives technical support toward mounting a performance of the piece. So the disparity between “winner” and “losers” isn’t so great and the “winner” definitely gets a show out of the deal.

Another complaint I have with the Artists With Audiences Responding to Dance Show concept is the basic disingenuousness that feedback is the rationale for its existence. All the advertisements and the preshow lecture stressed the value of the audience feedback ad nauseum. We were told how much our thoughts and opinions meant to the choreographers in the development of their work. Now, I curate a works-in-progress series in NYC, (DraftWork at Danspace Project), and there is a talkback session after work is shown there, so it is my turn to be a little hypocritical and admit that I think that this form of feedback is of little value to most choreographers. As a choreographer myself I’ve found this to be true. (I think of DraftWork as an audience education activity.) This was borne out by the panel of experts the night I attended the A.W.A.R.D. Show. As much as the moderator tried to get them to say the opposite, the four panelists were pretty much in agreement that there first needs to be trust built between a critic and an artist before the artist can accept feedback. The artist needs to know the critic’s prejudices and preferences. Getting indiscriminate comments, (positive, negative, or neutral), from random strangers immediately after performing must be taken with a gargantuan grain of salt. This was most strongly voiced by panelist Kate Weare, A.W.A.R.D. Show winner, 2007. The value of performing work-in-progress before a public is simply “performing work-in-progress before a public;” a good artist can take the temperature of the room and feel if the piece is effective or not. This is the usefulness of series like Mudson/Judson; there is no public feedback, just the act of dancing in front of an interested audience. But I can’t see how when performing knowing that you are being judged, and there is a large amount of cash at the end of that judgment, cannot muddy both one’s artistic intent and the point of view of those judging.

In a mini-manifesto Lindsey Drury warns against:

The problem with teaching artists to please.
The problem with teaching audiences to be pleased.
The problem with the tyranny of liking.

A final flaw, but a significant one, is the potential for these kinds of competitions to have a negative impact on the fragile ecology of a dance community. In a field where there are far too few resources compared to the need, do we really want to institutionalize a Darwinist environment in which choreographers are pitted against choreographers in a gladiatorial fight to the finish? An environment where the audience is subtly encouraged to respond more like the fans at a Utah Jazz game than supporters of an art form? In our post post-show emails Lindsey wrote to me, “If (the audience gets) what they want – and the A.W.A.R.D. Show seeks to do just that – dance will end up resembling a floral arrangement; it will be unobtrusive and frictionless.”

The late choreographer Arnie Zane once said, “Dance eats money.” So what to do with the thousands of dollars that organizers in several cities across the country have raised to support the work of (winning) choreographers? Surely I don’t think that that money should not go to deserving artists. Of course not. But in my world-view, I favor a more equitable sharing of funds. If, for example, in the NYC show could the allocation of the $12K have been 6 to the “winner” and 3 each to the other finalists? But this would still leave the “losers” with nothing which Claudia Lo Roco in the NY Times reminds us is the “ugly downside to this contest, especially given that dancers and choreographers are rarely adequately compensated for their labor…” Perhaps the Sugar Show model could be used and improved upon so that more than one “winning” piece could get full production and administrative support. Maybe we need to think of more and better paradigms. Dance provocateur Keith Hennessy posits:

“Do we make our own celebrity judge events that mimic - however poorly - the televised spectacle with its star making machinery or do we queer the forms to privilege creation, community, collaboration, and long term sustainability of the dance ecologies?”

One existing new model is SQUART – short for Spontaneous Queer Art. It takes place in the San Francisco Bay Area and was originally conceived by Laura Arrignton out of the desire “to foster community and to create work without preciousness.” SQUART’s format is simple— people who have RSVPed show up at 6 pm and split into four teams; they are given a list of criteria or themes and two hours to make a piece. The four teams create new works from 6 – 8 pm; their process of creation is transparent to the audience, meaning the public is invited to come early and watch them compose their pieces. At 8 pm whatever has been produced is performed. There aren't directors / choreographers / performers in delineated roles; the performers don’t even know who they'll be working with until they get to the theater that night. A panel of judges then comments on the work. There’s a $200 prize for the winning team. According to the event website “It’s usually incredible, creative, inspiring, fun, and always bizarre.” Admission at the door is typically $5 – $20, sliding scale. The idea of a competition is still present, but it’s the act of creation that is forefront. It happens several times a year so the wealth gets spread. But Laura admits that, “big problems are ones of resources. The Award Shows are built around heaping resources on a singular spot, and not just $, but (the idea of) ‘bests’ … work gets boring when everything is structured towards being the best... I'd imagine if SQUART had $10,000 attached to it, it would quickly turn into something that resembles the A.W.A.R.D. Show.”

What other examples can we imagine? I just feel in my gut, that emulating So You Think You Can Dance, America’s Best Dance Crew, Dance Your Ass Off, etc. is not the healthiest path for our community to take.

Ishmael Houston-Jones is a dancer, teacher, and writer whose intensely physical improvisations have been a staple of New York's contemporary dance scene for over three decades.