The Bessies at the Apollo Theater

New York City’s dance luminaries, rising stars, and fans were out in full force at the fabled Apollo Theater in Harlem on the evening of Monday, October 7th 2013 to attend the 29th annual Bessies Awards. The ceremony, named for contemporary dance legend Bessie Schonberg and produced in partnership with Dance/NYC, recognizes established as well as upcoming artists who have made outstanding contributions to the many disciplines of the liveliest art in the Dance Mecca of the World.


Former Merce Cunningham dancer Gus Solomons jr. and former American Ballet Theatre principal Martine Van Hamel were the thoroughly delightful co-hosts. Gus and Martine also performed Paul Taylor’s Duet”, a work that has not been seen since 1957 and which simply requires the pair to strike a pose and remain motionless in silence for four minutes. The effect was oddly powerful, a kind of evocation of the enduring professional stage presence of these two dance greats. Kudos to the audience members, all of whom remained quiet and seemingly awed for the duration of the piece rather than reacting as though it were a joke or perhaps a mistake on the part of the sound crew. Given the fact that many of the attendees were wildly enthusiastic young people who later whooped and whistled for their favorites on the nominees lists, the respect they showed for “Duet” was testimony to the admirably high level of knowledge and sophistication the New York dance scene possesses.


One highlight of the event was the touching moment when dance historian Lynn Garafola presented the Service to the Field Award to another noted dance historian, Nancy Reynolds. Nancy spoke eloquently of her passion for the Interpreters Archive that she conceived and continues to direct. The project is a video series in which dancers who originated roles in Balanchine ballets pass on their knowledge to the dancers of today. She said the work shows that “artistry remains even after dancers leave the stage”, an uplifting reminder of the lasting value of those in a field with a fleeting confluence of physical prowess and artistic maturity.


Another unforgettable moment happened when Bessies Director Lucy Sexton brought the audience’s attention to a screen where the names of those being honored In Memorium were projected. The list included Frederick Franklin, David Howard, Maria Tallchief, Matt Mattox, and Jean-Léon Destiné, among others. A spontaneous standing ovation was a well-deserved tribute.


On a much lighter note, the youthful performers who graced the stage during the event were evidence of the first rate dancing that NYC’s new generation is capable of delivering. Especially compelling was “Torchsong #1”, choreographed and performed by 2013 Juried Bessie Award winner Darrell Jones. Also intriguing was the show’s opener, “It Happened It Had Happened It Is Happening It Will Happen”, choreographed for three dancers by 2013 Bessie Award for Outstanding Emerging Choreographer winner Joanna Kotze. The Paul Taylor 2 troupe, in his 3 Epitaphs, was superb as well. Taylor received the 2012 Bessie Award for Lifetime Achievement in Dance.


This year, that award went to jazz icon Luigi. The original Singular Sensation, Donna McKechnie, presented the plaque with charm and obvious affection. Luigi, in a wheelchair situated on house right near the orchestra section, sported his famous “5, 6, 7, 8” lapel pin and smiled broadly to acknowledge the thunderous applause when a spotlight shone on him.


After that fitting finale, the exuberant crowd filed out of the theater, with its gorgeous crimson and gold Belle-Époque décor, and headed for a free afterparty at the Alhambra Ballroom that held the promise of refreshments and, of course, dancing. A storm that had threatened to drench the theatergoers had blown over, as if in acknowledgement of the joyous tradition in which the New York dance community commends its own.


If you’re in NYC next fall, be sure to get tickets to the 2014 Bessies. In the meantime, you can join the NY Dance and Performance League and become part of The Bessies process. League members are invited to participate in annual discussions on the awards and they nominate people to serve on the Bessie Selection Committee. Members are invited to the annual press conference announcing the nominations, and can buy tickets to the ceremony at the Apollo before sales open to the public. The Bessies need your voice and your vision. Annual dues are $10, though if you can contribute a greater amount, the support is much appreciated.


Here is the full list of the 2013 winners:


Outstanding Production: Michael Keegan-Dolan’s Rian for Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre at Lincoln Center’s White Lights Festival, for a dance of life-affirming joy that featured an extraordinary group of dancers from Nigeria, Indonesia and Europe.


Also for Outstanding Production: Joanna Haigood’s Paseo at Dancing in the Streets & Casita Maria Center for Arts, for taking the audience on a celebratory passage through Bronx cultural life set to the Latin beats that originated in these neighborhoods.


Also for Outstanding Production: Zach Morris, Tom Pearson and Jennine Willett’s Then She Fell for Third Rail Projects at Arts@Rennaissance and Kingsland Ward at St. Johns, for using dance and fractured text to create a dreamscape as compelling and disorienting as Alice in Wonderland’s original journey.


Also for Outstanding Production: Liz Santoro’s Watch It at Museum of Arts and Design, for blurring art and life by placing the audience in a space from which they viewed New York street life, choreography by chance and choice.


Outstanding Revival: Bill T. Jones’ D-Man in the Waters for the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company at the Joyce Theater for returning to a work of great joy born of a time of great loss and bringing its fierce fight for life to a new generation.


Outstanding Performance: Sebastien Ramirez and Honji Wang in their duet AP15 at the Breakin’ Convention at the Apollo Theater. This electric duet, rooted in hip hop, explored the space between the lover and the loved with delicacy, passion and agility.


Also for Outstanding Performance: Charles “Lil Buck” Riley and Ron “Prime Tyme” Myles at Poisson Rouge. This duo inhabited the space where street styles become stage artistry, catching rhythms with intricate footwork, slides, toe stands, rippling torsos and sudden freezes.


Also for Outstanding Performance: Jaro Vinarsky in Pavel Palissimo’s Bastard at La MaMa Moves! Dance Festival. A coiled bolt of energy capable of captivating stillness and explosive physicality, he made every moment harrowing, sharp and urgent.


Also for Outstanding Performance: Herman Cornejo of American Ballet Theater. He combines an astonishing technical ability with an unaffected purity of movement in the works of choreographers Alexei Ratmansky, Mark Morris and Twyla Tharp.


Also for Oustanding Performance: Shantala Shivalingappa for her Shiva Ganga, for embodying the god Shiva and the spirit of the River Ganges in one riveting performance, a vibrant athletic battle of life force.


Outstanding Sound Design: Ant Hampton and Tim Etchells for The Quiet Volume at Performance Space 122 and PEN World Voices Festival. For their use of intimately whispered text in a work in libraries across the city and for a score which heightened the experience in a space at once public and private.


Outstanding Visual Design: Fleur Elise Noble for her 2 Dimensional Life of Her at Under the Radar Festival at the Public Theater. She used detailed projections onto simple paper cut-outs to create a complex, playful, visually compelling world.

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