Monday’s Bessie Awards—much altered in format and relocated to the Apollo Theater—provided quite a fascinating evening on many counts. It was great to see throngs of Downtown dance luminaries and presenters lining up to go inside that legendary, way-uptown venue, and to observe the likes of ballet’s Wendy Whelan, Marcelo Gomes and Christopher Wheeldon in the same setting as Neil Greenberg, Tere O’Connor and Annie-B Parson. The intermingling of very different artistic sensibilities clearly sparked something in Whelan; when she accepted her Bessie for Sustained Achievement in Performance, this very busy, ultra-modern ballerina made an offer to the choreographers in the house: “I really want to explore more of the downtown world—so call me!”
With new categories and, for the first time, nominations announced in advance, the 2011 Bessies (officially known as the New York Dance and Performance Awards) really went all over the map. It wasn’t just about downtown (winning performances that had been presented at such stalwart venues as Danspace, P.S. 122 and Dance Theater Workshop) meeting uptown (the robustly enthusiastic Violeta Galagarza, influential teacher and founder of KR3Ts in Spanish Harlem, who won a Special Achievement Award); these Bessies acknowledged Brooklyn and Queens (The Chocolate Factory), as well.
The evening got off to a joyful start when about two dozen terrific students from the Harlem School of the Arts performed a playful, sassy opening number choreographed by former Ailey dancer Aubrey Lynch, who directs the school’s dance program. Unlike previous Bessies ceremonies, that was it for performances—unless you count host Bebe Neuwirth demonstrating a bit of the Coppelia Czardas she learned from ballet legend Frederic Franklin decades ago as a regional ballet company member. But many of the presenters and recipients were entertaining enough to make up for lack of performances—and at two hours plus, the intermissionless event was long enough.
Franklin, at 97 the living embodiment of many decades of seminal ballet history, was honored for his “outstanding service to the field of dance.” Doubtless he was the evening’s oldest winner; perhaps its youngest was Caleb Teicher, who won for Outstanding Individual Performance for his “utterly relaxed but beautifully integrated” tap dancing in works by Michelle Dorrance and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards. The other Outstanding Individual Performance awardee was American Ballet Theatre principal Marcelo Gomes.
Beth Gill was the evening’s big winner; she was named Outstanding Emerging Choreographer and was also given the newly created Juried Bessie Award, selected by a panel of three eminent choreographers (David Gordon, Elizabeth Streb and Ralph Lemon) charged to “decide on a single work or a choreographer that they feel exhibits some of the most interesting and exciting ideas happening in dance in New York City today.” In addition, Jon Moniaci won a Bessie for Outstanding Sound Design for his contribution to Gill’s Electric Midwife.
Rashaun Mitchell of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company won for Sustained Achievement in performance. He thanked the late choreographer “for believing in me and allowing me to be myself.” Walter Dunderhill won the Bessie for Outstanding Visual Design.
The new, somewhat cumbersome Bessie categories for productions resulted in awards to ABT’s production of Alexei Ratmansky’s Bright Stream (work performed in a venue seating over 400), Them by Ishmael Houston-Jones, Chris Cochrane and Dennis Cooper (work performed in a venue of fewer than 400 seats), two works by Michelle Dorrance (“work that stretches the boundaries of a traditional or culturally specific form”) and Karinne Keithley’s Montgomery Park, or Opulence, for work on the outskirts of, and influencing, the dance community.
Kudos to Neuwirth, the dance world’s hostess with the mostess—she was also wonderful hosting last summer’s Fire Island Dance Festival—who truly understands the essence of dance and can appreciate all dancers with warmth and generosity. She looked glam in a tiny, flouncy black dress; 15 years after she wowed us in Chicago, she looked ready to launch into “All That Jazz.”