OTB’s The A.W.A.R.D. Show

Handing grant-making power to the audience.

In the 1950s, composer John Cage won first prize on an Italian quiz show. The category was mushrooms, and among his diverse interests, Cage was an amateur mycologist. He used the money to help pay off a Volkswagen van, in which he and his partner, choreographer Merce Cunningham, toured the U.S. and Europe for several years with a collection of dancers, musicians, and visual artists. These tours were integral to the development of what became Cunningham's company—giving them a chance to explore alternatives to traditional theaters and experiment with different ways to construct a dance and organize a performance. It was a fruitful time. When Cunningham died earlier this year, you could still trace his work back to some of the innovations that came from those tours in the van.Which is to say you should never pass up money from an award show, no matter how odd the situation.At this week's A.W.A.R.D. Show at On the Boards, three groups of four choreographers will show their work over three nights. The competitors will be winnowed down to three for one more evening's performance, and the winner will take home $10,000. Earmarked for "the creation of a new dance work," it's enough to finance an important project.The concept comes from the Joyce Theater in New York, which is now taking it to other cities. The 12 competitors here, chosen by a national panel that included OtB director Lane Czaplinski, are a varied group—some with extensive experience, some newer to Seattle and to choreography. Mary Sheldon Scott and KT Niehoff have both already been produced by OtB, for instance, while the artists of Coriolis Dance Collective are gearing up for only their second self-produced concert next May.Finalists will be chosen each night by a post-performance audience vote. On the fourth and final night, the audience vote will be combined with the votes of a panel of mostly local choreographers and administrators. Two runners-up will get $1000 each.Each night will end with an audience Q&A and a conversation among the choreographers. That's not much different from standard Seattle programming—it's hard to find an event now that doesn't include some kind of post-show discussion—but the fact that the audience votes for their favorites right after this thoughtful exchange is a bizarre juxtaposition at best. The popularity contest seems somewhat at cross-purposes with the desire to create a dialogue between artists and audience.Some of the artists are less than comfortable participating in an avant-garde dance-off, so they are just trying to think of the event as a performance opportunity. Scott has had mixed feelings about the program since the beginning. "I'm competitive with myself, to be a better artist, but I am not competitive with my peer group. My first thought was to say no, but after talking to On the Boards, they said they wanted strong representation from the community. I applied to be supportive of On the Boards." For Natascha Greenwalt of Coriolis, the benefits outweigh the apprehension: "It's really exciting to get a chance to perform with companies that have been around for awhile," she says.Of course, dance companies are competing all the time—for grant money or a slot on a presenter's season, among other things. The process of elimination usually happens behind closed doors at booking conferences and arts-commission meetings. This time the audience is (mostly) in charge and voting in the open. Questioning the arts-selection apparatus seems to be in the air right now; Greg Lundgren handed out entirely chance-driven Arbitrary Art Grants as part of this year's Bumbershoot.In this case, everyone really is a winner. The participants in the A.W.A.R.D. Show are getting to practice their art one more time in front of an audience, with a presenter arranging the details and paying the bills. The cash prize may be a significant catch for one artist, but it's not the only award.skurtz@seattleweekly.comUPDATE: Sent early Monday afternoon: "On the Boards (OtB) is pleased to announce that choreographer Amelia Reeber is the winner of The A.W.A.R.D Show! 2009: Seattle. Amelia, who competed in a four-day event with 11 other participants, received a $10,000 cash award to use toward the creation of a new dance work. Two runners-up, Catherine Cabeen and Deborah Wolf, were each awarded $1,000."At the final, sold out performance on Dec 13, a panel of dancers, choreographers and art administrators–including Donald Byrd, Dayna Hanson, Kara O'Toole, and Linda Shelton–along with the audience chose the winner of the $10,000 award."

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