Friday, September 18, 2009

Review of A.W.A.R.D. Show Round One

First published in Edge Philadelphia:

The "art for art’s sake" crowd rarely likes to acknowledge the huge role that financial concerns play in the creation of new works. But two shows (among many) at this year’s Fringe Festival exposed the near-inseparable connection between money and art.

Indeed, when Headlong Dance Company choreographer Amy Smith hosted the first installment of the A.W.A.R.D. Show-a dance competition with a $10,000 prize-she opened the night with a complaint, telling the audience that "The idea of a competition for dance nauseates me a little".

I guess what worked for the Ancient Greeks doesn’t suit Smith’s sensibilities. But I can sympathize with her a bit. Four local choreographers competed in the AWARD show, and the evening structured three minute intervals between each of the four pieces, giving audience members time to reflect before voting. When the lights dimmed to commence the second piece (Jenn Rose’s "Way Up High"), the audience burst into exuberant, almost overwhelming applause merely on the mention of Rose’s name.

So much for the audience not turning the evening into a popularity contest (for those paying attention, Rose’s piece won the first evening’s audience vote count). I don’t know any of the four choreographers personally, and so I will say who I voted for, even if my vote doesn’t entirely reflect the merit of the piece they presented that evening.


Kate Watson-Wallace opened the evening with "dances for the recession," an excerpt from her recent Live Arts Festival full-length Store. Their heads wrapped in fabric, six dancers rose up out of piles of clothing, clutching paper bags in a consumerist post-apocalypse landscape. Small scenes played out; a couple fighting, a man stripping to reveal a dress worn underneath, then later ecstatically groping and caressing a broken television set. Her dancers sometimes moved rhythmically in unison, and an ominous sense pervaded the entire piece.

I had already seen Store earlier in the week, and found it hard to separate my experience of the full-length work from this excerpt, especially since I consider Store the best dance piece I’ve seen during the Festival. However, as an excerpt, "dances for the recession" failed in many ways that Store admirably succeeded. Without the abandoned warehouse setting, Watson-Wallace’s shorter version didn’t engender the same sense of desperation, isolation, and pathos in her characters, and couldn’t locate their activities within the same space of consumerist experience.

In short, it lacked a framework to both contextualize the mood of the piece and give it meaning. Still, for all its disembodied disconnect, I loved it.

Jenn Rose’s Oprahesque "Way Up High" blended tap and modern dance choreography in four women’s emotional struggles. Rose’s dancers started in a circle around four pair of shoes, and the mood and music (and Jessica Sentak’s excellent lighting) set a dark tone for the piece. As the women found strength and hope in each other, they donned their tap shoes, and moments of exuberance and joy began to pierce through their darkness.

Rose didn’t need to tell us afterward the meaning that her choreographic journey made readily apparent. While I found the first half overly neurotic, in both choreography and dancing, Way Up High showed the best execution of the evening.

Jumatatu Poe’s melodramatic "Alibi" played the evening’s best soundtrack, but I found his multimedia and videos unnecessary to what the piece clearly conveyed. The text and dancing capably told the story of a man who comes home to find a dead woman in his house, and the oft-frightening choreography showed the battle within one man between his innocent reason and guilty conscious. Throughout, dancer John Luna wracked his face to fashion the night’s best characterization.

Finally, Kathryn TeBordo’s "You Ain’t Gonna Get Glory If That’s What You Came Here For" blended spoken word poetry (text borrowed from Dorothea Lasky) and minimalist dance. While three dancers moved slowly about the floor, a man stood still at the back of the stage, loudly and monotonically blathering out lines like "Conceptual art is dead, representational art is also dead."

The delivery hit the piece’s humor, but I wondered what TeBordo intended as ironic, and what as mock-ironic. TeBordo set out to find "how small can movement be to still be dance, and still be seen," and her work, while enjoyable on one level, proved just how insular art can become when it only focuses on the medium and not the product. Like the famed paradoxes of Zeno, I could just as sophistically (and just as easily) ask "is the last flicker of a bonfire still part of the fire?" and the answer would only satisfy those with an iron already plunged into the flames.


If you want to know how I voted, re-read the order of the pieces as I described them. As for my comments on merit? Ultimately, my final vote reflects which choreographer I would rather see create new work with the $10,000. With money on the line, I’m going with who I can consistently count on to create new art. It’s not fair, and probably what artists hate the most about the free-market.

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