A tribute to The Martha Graham Dance Company was an appropriate "cause celebre" to open the 16th "Bessies" award ceremony this year.
The Graham legacy, her body of work, and her company are in peril—close to irreversible extinction—and the dance community feels duty-bound to help. This was underscored in a remarkable way by the "Bessies" coordinators this year.
The now unemployed Graham dancers gathered in the wings, then moved to positions across the stage as the house lights dimmed. The movement patterns were structured more like a condensed Graham technique class than a piece of choreography, but the performance was a stunning testimonial to the loss of this great institution.
As the curtain slowly lowered on the dancers criss-crossing in familiar Graham diagonals, there was not a dry eye in the house. It was a memorable moment, a call to action, and set a truly dramatic tone for the awards themselves.
David Dorfman and David Neumann took over as masters of ceremonies.
Thank-yous delivered by David White, executive director of DTW, and Laurie Uprichard, executive director of Danspace Project at St. Mark's Church, included special attention to Time Out New York, Big Apple Lights, Electronic Theatrical Controls (ETC), and the Harkness Foundation for Dance for making possible the cash awards given to all the winners.
Visual Design Awards, presented by Michael Mazzola, went to Matayo Wumini Olaiya for her work with choreographers Ron Brown and Marlies Yearby; Paul Kaiser, Shelly Eshkar, Suzanne Gallo and Aaron Copp for their work with Merce Cunningham; Nadia Lauro for Jennifer Lacy's "$SHOT," and Atsushi Kiitagawara for Jiri Kylian's "One of a Kind" at the New York State Theater.
The Performance Installation and New Media Award went to Seiji Shimoda for his work as Curator of the Japanese Performance Art Festival at the Japan Society.
Composer Awards, presented by James Lo, went to Robert Een for Sustained Achievement, and to Jason Finkelman, Charles Cohen, and Geoff Gersh musicians of "Straylight" for their work on Cynthia Oliver's "SHEMAD."
A Special Citation, presented by choreographer Donald Byrd, went to The International Association of Blacks in Dance for continued service to the field.
Citations were also presented to Micki Wesson, for her personal commitment to the field, and to well-known dance critic, writer, and radio reviewer Francis Mason. Still deeply moved by the opening montage, Mason recalled how Graham had empowered her dancers in an extraordinary way.
"Her dancers took the stage even though Graham herself was not in the piece," he recalled, and closed his remarks with a fervent "We'll be back!"
This year's Performer Awards, presented by Hope Clark and Gerald Casel, were given to Peter Boal for Sustained Achievement with Molissa Fenley; Stacy Dawson for Big Dance Theater's "Another Telepathic Thing" at DTW; Carmen De Lavallade for Sustained Achieve-ment; Franci Huber for Sustained Achievement with the Paul Taylor Company; Gwen Welliver for Sustained Work with Varone and Dancers, and Greg Zuccolo for Sustained Work with Tere O'Connor.
The coveted Choreographer/ Creator Awards, presented by Tere O'Connor and Yvonne Rainer, were given to French-Canadian choreographer Marie Chouinard for "Les Solos 1978-1998" performed at The Joyce Theater; Sarah East Johnson for "Lava Love" at the Flea Theater; Stephen Koplowitz for Sustained Achievement; Inbal Pinto for "Wrapped" at The Kitchen; Yvonne Rainer for Sustained Achievement; Herbin 'Tamango' Van Cayseele for "Urban Tap" at The Kitchen; David Rousseve for "Love Songs" at BAM; Gus Golomons Jr. for Sustained Achievement including the concept for the Paradigm dance company, and Merian Soto for Sustained Achievement including "Asi se Balla Un Son" at Hostos and SummerStage.
Clearly, downtown dance continues to be a tight, loving community—always short on funding and venues, but never short on creativity. The dancers and the companies trudge along, supportive of each other's endeavors and celebratory at the recognition given each year by the "Bessies."
Perhaps Donlin Foreman, a former principal dancer of the Graham company, summed it up best: "You have to love this to do it the way it should be done!"