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Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Bessies Return to BAM on Oct 18!

Pam Tanowitz's Heaven on One's Head.
Photo: Christopher Duggan
After 25 years, the Bessie Awards return to BAM this fall! The ceremony celebrating the New York Dance and Performance Awards, named in honor of legendary teacher and dance advocate Bessie Schönberg, takes place in the Howard Gilman Opera House on Tuesday, Oct 18 at 7:30pm.

What are now known simply as the Bessies were founded in 1983 by David White, then executive director/producer of Dance Theater Workshop, and originator of the short, densely-packed award citations that encapsulate each artist or show’s essential qualities. More importantly, White established the basic structure for nominating and selecting recipients. While it has evolved over the years, most notably since Lucy Sexton became producer in 2010 (and subsequently executive director), the ultimate process remains true—to honor outstanding creative work in the field.

Sexton said, “For me, personally, the Bessies returning to BAM Howard Gilman Opera House is meaningful since it is where my dance group received our Bessie in the early days of the awards. It also feels meaningful to be coming to Brooklyn where so many of the current generation of dancers live.”
Joya Powell.
Photo: Candace Powell Tabbs
Awardees in 2015 ranged from tapper Michelle Dorrance to performance artist Roger Guenveur Smith; hosts Carmelita Tropicana and Jock Soto reflect the breadth of the field, from experimental to classical ballet. The selection committee currently numbers around 40, comprising artists, producers, writers, and scholars from the dance and performance world. The general public is encouraged to participate in the process by becoming a member of the New York Dance and Performance League, which convenes annually to discuss vital issues related to the awards, as well as to identify potential candidates for the selection committee.

A few 2016 awards have been announced. Drum roll, please!
  • Juried Bessie Award: Pam Tanowitz (includes support for touring outside of NYC)
  • Outstanding Emerging Choreographer: Joya Powell 
  • Outstanding Revival: Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder, choreographed by Donald McKayle and produced by Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance 
  • Lifetime Achievement: Brenda Bufalino 
  • Outstanding Service to the Field: Jerome Robbins Dance Division, NY Public Library for the Performing Arts; and Alex Smith, Executive Chairman, Thelma Hill Performing Arts Center
The Bessies ceremony—always attended by glittering luminaries in the field—is full of surprises and engaging performances. This year’s will include a tap tribute to legendary tapper Bufalino, one by Joya Powell (Outstanding Emerging Choreographer), as well as the powerful Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder by the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company.

Donald McKayle's Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder, performed by Dayton Contemporary Dance Company.
Photo: Paul B. Goode
BAM audiences may be familiar with a couple of this year’s nominees from the 2015 Next Wave season: for Outstanding Production, Souleymane Badolo's Yimbégré at the BAM Fisher, and for Outstanding Music Composition/Sound Design, the Turkish ensemble Utstatshakirt Plus for the music for Sean Curran’s Dream’d in a Dream at the Harvey.

Coincidentally, Lucy Sexton’s performance group DANCENOISE won a Bessie in 1989 for its performance of All the Rage at PS 122, remounted at the Whitney Museum in 2015. She recalls the awards ceremony:

“In 1989 I was 29 years old and the world was imploding. My friend Anne Iobst and I had been performing in nightclubs and small stages with our dance/performance group DANCENOISE for six years—while waiting tables and tending bars in some those same cafes and nightclubs! That fall we got a welcome surprise: David White asked DANCENOISE to perform at the Bessies. So we found ourselves on the glorious BAM Opera House stage stripping off our shirts, covering ourselves in blood, and doing our version of Dirty Dancing with a bunch of gay boys and some Statues of Liberty. As the song says, "We had the time of our lives."

“A few minutes later we were presented with a Bessie Award. I will never forget standing on that stage with Anne and getting to thank all the people who had danced with us, hired us, supported us, and given us the courage to keep going. My mind was blown; our work had begun. I also have intense memories of dancing at the afterparty in the Lepercq Space with all of these dance legends and thinking I'd died and gone to heaven.”

Susan Yung is senior editorial manager at BAM, and was a Bessies selection committee member for many years.

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