Mary Grace McNally's "Not for Picking" (Rachel Papo for Dance Teacher)

What's better than a competition that gives promising choreographers a whole bunch of funding? How about a competition that also puts on a must-see show as part of the process? That's the genius model of the Capezio A.C.E. Awards. Every year since 2009, the contest has brought upwards of a dozen finalists, selected from a pool of hundreds of applicants, to present their choreography in a fabulous showcase at the Dance Teacher Summit. On Saturday night, we got to see the work of no fewer than 21(!) talented finalists in this year's performance.

The judging panel—whose task we did not envy—featured boldface names Mia Michaels, Tyce Diorio, Tessandra Chavez, and Dance Magazine Editor in Chief Jennifer Stahl. Who'd they select for the top prizes? The winners are...

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Peter Chu, the amazing dancer/choreographer first noticed in Crystal Pite's company Kidd Pivot, is teaming up with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago for an adventure in immersive installations. Back at the 2010 Dance Teacher Summit, when his piece This Thought exploded across the stage, he rightfully won the Capezio A.C.E. Award Competition for choreography. I was so dazzled by his dancers hurling themselves in jagged stop-start patterns that I wrote about him for our "Taking Off" cover feature on new choreographers in 2011.

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Sometimes, the greatest perks of my job pop up unexpectedly. Like getting to sit next to Desmond Richardson all night, listening to him ooh, ahh and moan over beautiful choreography.

We both sat on the judges' panel for the 2016 Capezio A.C.E. Awards this Saturday, along with Benoit Swan-Pouffer, Mia Michaels, Ray Leeper and Warren Carlyle. This annual choreography competition, presented as part of our sister publication's Dance Teacher Summit event, is produced by Break the Floor and sponsored by Capezio. The winner gets $15,000 and their own evening-length show in Los Angeles. The judges also choose a runner-up to receive a $5,000 and a second runner-up to receive $3,000 for a shared show.

Martha Nichols, photo via Instagram: "Still trying to wrap my brain around this moment. God is SO good! ???? #Tilted #AceAwards2016"

First place went to choreographer Martha Nichols for Tilted. All the judges agreed: We loved the infectious energy of everything about this piece, from the bold, lime green statement costumes to the movement's popping musicality. But perhaps most impressive was the way Nichols showed off her dancers' individual strengths—and how the dancers responded by performing with total commitment to her vision.

First runner-up was Dignity by Kat Harpootlian. We loved the sharp storytelling and funny characters in this little gem. Personally, I hope Harpootlian expands it into something longer! It was so rich, with intriguing, quirky little details like a character who couldn't stop sneezing.

Kate Harpootlain's Dignity, photo by Rachel Papo

Second runner-up ended up being a tie:

Tawnya Kuzia and her cast, photo by Rachel Papo

One went to Tawnya Kuzia's A Quiet Darkness, which used no overhead stage lights, relying instead on handheld flashlights manipulated by the dancers themselves to illuminate their bodies. No, it's not a completely new concept, but it was done more deftly than any of the judges had ever seen.

Long Train Running, photo by Rachel Papo

The other second runner up was Mark Osborn and Justin Myles' Long Train Running, one of three tap pieces—more tap than ever at the A.C.E. Awards. To be perfectly honest, the closing tap number by Nick Young used more sophisticated rhythms. But what grabbed us about Long Train Running was its crowd-pleasing quality of pure joy. The dancers were having so much fun, we couldn't help but smile right along with them.

And the sexy ballroom number by Eugene Katsevman, Norma De La Guadalajara, won the unofficial award for provoking the most "Mmnn"s of out Desmond Richardson. Some might argue that's the greatest prize of all.

The winner: Kirsten Russell's Islands

There was major talent on display last night at the 2015 Capezio A.C.E. Awards here at the Dance Teacher Summit in Long Beach, California. Seventeen choreographers offered up works of contemporary dance, tap, musical theater, hip hop and everything in between for the chance to win up to $15,000 and their own fully-produced show. I was on the judging panel along with Mia Michaels, Ray Leeper and Julie McDonald of McDonald Selznick Associates. Although we only had a few minutes to come to an agreement on the winners after the performances, I think we were all excited about the promise of the pieces we chose.

1. The winner was Kirsten Russell for her contemporary piece, Islands. Mia put it best during our discussion backstage: This movement was by far the most original, with phrases and ways of using the body that we haven't seen before. Personally, I also loved the dynamic use of musicality, and how Russell found surprising ways to play with counterpoint between individual dancers and larger groups.


First runner up: Andrew Winghart's Heed the Call

2. First runner up was Heed the Call by Andrew Winghart, an intense, hard-driving number to a score that sounded like Middle Eastern-influenced hip hop. Winghart's sophisticated use of group structure convinced the panel that this is a choreographer who could successfully create a complex evening-length work that would hold an audience's interest for more than 60 minutes. His skillful choreography made us feel a sense of trust in where he was taking us.


Second runner up was a split. Here's Marinda Davis' Give.Me.Love.

3. Second runner up was split between Cat Cogliandro's Ripe & Run and Marinda Davis' Give.Me.Love. Cogliandro (standing on the left in the photo) impressed the judges with her theatricality and musicality, while Davis (on the right) won us over with her piece's happy, effervescent energy that seemed to explode out of the dancers.

Congrats to all the winners!


All photos by Joe Toreno.


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