The dance community will come together tonight for the seemingly controversial 4th annual Sage Awards. I have had the pleasure of being a part of the Sages in many permutations. The first year, I wasn’t really paying attention. I was under a rock. The second year, I attended the festivities at the bidding of my colleague, Kristin Van Loon, who invited me to pre-Sage cocktails (Who in their right mind would pass up a drink and eat spread anyway?) The third year, I was on the Sage Award panel, I performed in the show and I actually was awarded, which really meant something to me, but that’s another story. This year, in exchange for a ticket, I am blogging about the Sages. I really wanted to volunteer in some way, as I did last year. (For the 07 party at the Ritz, I picked up and delivered nearly 100 loaves of bread and 10 butter cream frosted cakes donated by Wuollet’s Bakery located in some crazy dale-like suburb. It must have cost me 30 dollars in gas just to find the place.)
Before I articulate my own feelings about the Sage awards and ponder its public perception, I feel it necessary to address Camille LeFevre’s critique of the Sages, its nominees, panel and administrators in her piece “DANCE: 2008 Sage Awards (More Insidery Than Ever)” posted on MN Artists.org two days ago. The panel this year, I surmise, took this task seriously. As on any panel, there are compromises and little heartbreaks. I can imagine that some panelists didn’t really connect with any of the work presented this season, and on the other hand, I’m sure for some, the earth shook. And I’m sure there was at least one dead beat, (the person who couldn’t really participate because they didn’t make it to very many shows). One thing that is certain is that a majority of the people on the panel took the time and energy to discuss and share their feelings. And of course, those feelings are based on a subjective notion of what they consider special, earth-moving, intelligent, experimental, and/or plain old, pretty. Words like post-modern don’t enter their heads, I imagine. They are connecting to the work they see and advocate or critique it from their hearts or brains. They site details to back up their position. They don’t use “ post-modern,” or “ modern” as terms to define the work.
Post-modern dance is not a viable category anymore, and is as cliché and undefined and lazy as the moniker modern dance. By using this term, you incite debate about dance history, undermine the earnest efforts of the artists, and in this case, critique the panelists of the Sage Awards in a vague way. I would even venture to say that dance writing in this town, could use a little more straight up academic, scholarly, empirical thinking and research, especially if you are going to use historically heavy terms like Post-Modern. My other piece of advice is… talk to Sage herself about the implications of Post-Modern. She has been in the thick of it with her own work and her work with Bill T Jones/Arnie Zane Company. Did you happen to see Jerome Bel last season? His critique of performance and dance is foregrounded in his work. What is wrong with wanting to reject what is known about our field, and then see what is left in the imprint? Huh? There is a boatload of magic that can come from this earnest pursuit, just as there is magic in the pursuit of crafted, highly formal, choreographed works like my favorite dance of all time, “Rain” by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. (Now you can admonish me for using the word “formal” without elaborate definition.) All of these artists I’ve mentioned are alive and still making a wide variety of dances. I guess all of their work (and the work of the Sage nominees for that matter) would fall under the category of Contemporary dance.
On another note, I think it is a disservice to the nominated artists (and the work of the panel) to lump them together in such a reckless way. Yes, Anna Shogren performed in Justin Jones’ work, and was also nominated for a Sage Award. (This is a small town. The dancer/choreographer overlap has been happening everywhere, for years. Look at the illustrious work of Galen Truer. He works for himself, Mad King Thomas, Mathew J’s Arena, Live Action Set, Wil Swanson and probably more. Is this a form of nepotism? or does the boy just like to move? What about Eric Boone or Kristin Van Loon? Both have been self-proclaimed dance sluts.)
Anna’s performing is extraordinary and her artistry is critical, challenging and understated and dare I say, sometimes sarcastic. Her work, “La Brea”, her third major dance production that I know of, is very different than Justin’s “Pinhead.” Jones’s work was chock full of energetic choreography drawn from his personal foray into brotherhood, childhood and coming of age, as well as his personal experience with dancing. The movement may not have been drawn from a modern (I’m thinking Graham or even Cunningham) or ballet (I’m thinking Balanchine) tradition, but it came from a desire to explore something extremely physical and to express it with his body. Why is that so unworthy? Why does that not provoke thought or feeling? Is it because it does not posses the linear verticality, the extensions, or pointed toes of ballet? And lastly, why, as an artist, would you want to be derivative, to do something that has been done so well before, like Cunningham’s abstract, form- based choreography delivered in the structure of chance operations?
I think it’s best for everyone-dancers, choreographers, panelists and critics alike-if we admit that we have preferences and make unexamined assumptions based on those preferences. I remember Camille’s article “Beauty is Back” in the Star Tribune, that applauded the arrival of TU Dance to the stages of Minneapolis. I too am glad they are here. However, with her article, the writing was on the wall. Some people are uncomfortable being challenged. Some people want to sit back and enjoy the ride. Some people want to see beautiful movement. ( I confess that I don’t know what this means.)
As a viewer and critic of dance myself, I want to ask the right questions. I am not in the self-righteous position to ask, “Is this really dance?” That is granted, even if the work is loaded with theatrical devices or behavioral expressions. The artist decides. (It’s kind of like sexuality. If I say I’m gay, then I’m gay. You’re not going to debate it even if I look like a corporate, purse-swinging, pump wearing, black Chanel suite-wearing executive. Sure, I might be able to pass, but believe me I’m still gay.) I also take for granted that the artist has worked hard on their show. If I really want to get something out of the experience, then I ask myself “what is being explored? what can I learn about this dance? what can I learn about the body? how do I feel? and what is their point of view? and what kinds of expressions are they using to get their point across?” Of course, my own personal subjective preference will shape this experience. I will try harder for some artists than for others to sort this out, depending purely on my mood. (The thing I hate most is when I expect a certain kind of work from an artist before I even see their work. If you’re an artist, know that when I come to your show, I work hard to leave this at the door.)
As far as the Sages are concerned, we, the greater community, won’t agree, thankfully. It is evident that some will want “Wreck” to receive a nomination, and maybe others will want “Pamela,” by Emily Johnson, Jessica Cressey and Hannah Kramer to receive an award. What is important, I think, is to acknowledge that all of the people on the panel have had their own ideal candidates and ultimately had to compromise to find a common ground. This process has it’s own flaws, and I believe is continually being shaped and fine-tuned by the panelists themselves. The Sages, like other things in life, are in process. What’s fun about this is that we, the spectators still get to participate–be part of the conversation. We get to make our own lists and see if we align or run astray of the panel’s findings. We can have our own private debates about what we have found to be extraordinary in the field this past year. We can come together and drink and celebrate each other. I think the panelists and administrators have to do the hard work and perhaps bear the brunt of a disgruntled artist/critic or two.
The Sage Awards is not a Minnesota-nice kind of affair. Everyone cannot win. In fact, yes, sometimes, people are nominated twice, (Laura Selle and Olive and Otto of Body Cartography fame). In fact, Anna Shogren was nominated for best Dancer/performer last year. I still say she was robbed. But is it possible, that these artists rose to the top on their own? Why is that out of the question? Why is it a case of nepotism? Laura Selle is one of the best dancers in town. She works with at least 5 companies that I can think of. The girl definitely loves to move and does it well.
I think it is fine to be biased. I think it’s necessary to own it, is all. That’s what makes this town what it is. And that is what propels artists into making work. Let’s be glad that we get to cultivate our own imaginations. Let’s be glad that we have one. It’s funny, when people ask me about Minneapolis as a dance community, I usually say it’s a pretty traditional, straight ahead kind of community, with an underbelly to die for.
I have much more to say about the Sages awards. But I am going to post this now, and leave further ruminations for part II, after this special and deliciously controversial event. Now, it’s time to get dressed. I hope to see you there, in your Chanel suit.