Today, black women like Okwui Okpokwasili and Nora Chipaumire are dominating the New York City downtown scene with tenacity and genius. Just this summer, Okpokwasili's solo performance Bronx Gothic was featured in Andrew Rossi's documentary by the same name, and Chipaumire premiered #PUNK as part of the French Institute Alliance Française's Crossing the Line Festival.
In celebration of these trailblazers, we're highlighting some of the influential black women who came before them, and have been changing the game in the downtown dance scene for almost four decades. They continue to thrive and survive, although in the case of Cummings, posthumously. As young dancemakers, we have to know the shoulders on which we stand.
Les Escailles de la Memoire, co-choreographed by Zollar, PC Jack Vartoogian for BAM
The Bessies Committee announced its choice of two bodacious women to receive awards for Lifetime Achievement and Outstanding Service to the Field: Jawole Willa Jo Zollar for the first, and Eva Yaa Asantewaa for the second. Because both women stand at the intersection of dance and social justice, one feels that the Bessies (the New York Dance and Performance Awards) is making a statement in these highly polarized times.
"I love awards," declared the inimitable Judith Jamison last night at the Bessies. "But then I've had a lot of practice." Presenting alongside Amar Ramasar—who couldn't help giggling at her—Jamison lit up the entire theater with her enthusiasm.
Awards are always great when they're going to the people you love and admire most. And last night's New York Dance and Performance Awards, known as the Bessies (after beloved composition teacher/mentor Bessie Schonberg), felt like a parade of Dance Magazine favorites.
The first award of the night went to Molly Lieber, who was on our March cover as one of New York City's most successful freelancers in the experimental dance scene. (The DM staff fell for her at our cover shoot when she endearingly got so into improvising that she kept forgetting to face the camera.)
The other Outstanding Performer awards went to tapper Kazunori Kumagi, b-girl Ephrat Asherie (who we recently chatted with in this Choreography in Focus video) and Ailey's Jamar Roberts, who was on our December 2013 cover with fellow company member Rachael McLaren.
One of the night's biggest applauses erupted when Ralph Lemon's Scaffold Room won for Outstanding Production. Lemon recently made the dance world proud when he received a National Medal of Arts from President Obama. (Read his reaction to that honor here.)
DCDC in Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder, photo by Yi-Chun Wu
With the election only three weeks away, its little surprise that politics made its way to the stage, mostly in cheeky references by host Adrienne Truscott. But powerful performances also spoke for themselves. Outstanding Emerging Choreographer Joya Powell (whom we profiled last April) presented her company Movement of the People in a work highlighting different races' reactions to the Black Lives Matter movement. And Donald McKayle's iconic chain gang piece Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder, which won Outstanding Revival, was given a moving performance by the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company.
Joya Powell's Song and Dance You, photo by AK47 Division
Judith Jamison wrapped up the night by encouraging the audience to not shy away from politics or challenging works that highlight it: "Tell the truth, that's what we do as artists: We tell the truth. And that's all."
Storyboard P. Courtesy Akintola Hanif, still from Black Magic
Last week, the New York Dance and Performance “Bessie” Awards (known as the Bessies), announced the nominees for its prestigious 2015 Emerging Choreographer award. Troy Schumacher, Moriah Evans, Storyboard P and Yves Laris Cohen, a diverse group of young dancemakers, were each deservedly nominated for the title. Though the Bessies won’t be taking place until October 19th, the committee announced yesterday that Storyboard P, a hip hop, modern and jazz fusion artist and imaginative storyteller, has been given the award. A jury of three – Susan Marshall, Reggie Wilson and Shen Wei – chose Pavel Zuštiak to receive the Juried Bessie Award, which recognizes an innovative and exciting choreographer and provides them with touring and residency opportunities outside of New York.
(L to R): Matthew Rogers, Jaro Viňarský, and Pavel Zuštiak of Palissimo in Zuštiak’s Endangered Pieces. Photo: Yi-Chun Wu, Courtesy Dance Beat
Nominees for Outstanding Production and Outstanding Performer – the most populated Bessie categories – are listed below. As is tradition, productions and dancers with little stylistic overlap compete within the same category. How do we compare Soledad Barrio’s fierce and heartfelt flamenco stories with Michelle Dorrance’s inventive tap rhythms or Justin Peck’s playful pas de deux? Melissa Toogood’s performance with Juan Ogalla’s? Robert Fairchild with Lil Buck? Of course, it is an honor to be nominated (as they say) and The Bessies aren’t the be-all end-all on the best productions and performances of the year. Still, The Bessies never fail to both delight me as I am reminded of the incredible diversity that the New York City dance world offers, and confound me as I wonder if these categories, these divisions between winners and losers, are an appropriate way to recognize the gems of our dance community.