Sunday, September 20, 2009

Across the Great Divide

I wish I’d eavesdropped more after the A.W.A.R.D. show finale. Passing a parked van with disappointed dancers returning home (not sure which group they were from), I overheard “All they did was….” And then I filled in the blank to form a picture through their eyes of Nichole Canuso’s winning contact duet. “All they did was” roll around, pull and push each other, find lifts and perches, look out with quizzical perplexity. What they didn’t do was power leaps, or turns, or high legs. Or high drama, or unison, or big full out expression to thumping music.

The A.W.A.R.D. show concluded as it began, with audience and dancers divided into camps depending on personal allegiance and dance orientation. I wish I could say it expanded people’s ideas about what dance is and can be. Having been at just two of the four nights, I can’t fully say. But my impression is that once all the butts were in the seats, this captive audience could have used more skillful ways to get thinking outside their respective boxes. On Wednesday, the lady behind me commented on Gabrielle Revlock’s arch and extremely virtuosic hula hoop marathon: “She’s just hula hooping, that’s not dance.” It seems to me that by pitting different styles against each other and not offering dialogue illuminating what’s there to be appreciated, the audience gets left exactly where it started. The choreographers did speak about their individual aims in the preliminaries. But these kinds of descriptions are frequently far removed from what’s actually onstage and don’t necessarily help a watcher know how to “read” a dance.

On TV, talent contests involve judges talking about why what they see is or isn’t strong. And that helps a viewer understand what to look for. Here the judges voted behind closed doors and were all of one stripe – NY “downtown.” Bigwigs, sure. But were they capable of fairly judging “show” dance or contemporary tap?

I was distressed that a process that was supposed to uncover the best young choreographers in Philly ended up with a finale that from a choreographic point of view was exceedingly weak. As a Philadelphia-based dance artist, I was embarrassed that our community should be represented by work that seemed so unworldly – caught in a time warp, and, at its worst, unschooled in effective composition.

Maybe I’m wrong in thinking that I appreciate dance that’s well done, no matter the style. Maybe dance has its inflexible territorial equivalent of red states and blue states, evangelical right versus liberal left. Would it help to agree on substantive criteria that would allow us to “fairly” assess merits across wide gulfs? Potential, Originality, Execution and Merit, the rubric suggested at the A.W.A.R.D. show, seems insufficient. Would rolling up the sleeves to look more deeply just drive audience away? It’s a delicate, ahem, dance. And how much of looking is going to be subjective and alchemical no matter what?

If the aims of the A.W.A.R.D. show are to develop an audience for dance, the most helpful gesture in that direction came from Lois Welk, head of DanceUSA/Philadelphia who offered to pay for the ticket of anyone in the finale audience who goes to see a dance group they haven’t seen before within the next 30 days. Now that’s a tantalizing goad to seeing, and hopefully appreciating, more dance!