The Bessies Respond to Criticism
This morning, Lucy Sexton, who directs the Bessie Awards and organizes the Bessies Committee, issued a statement in response to Gia Kourlas’s harsh critique of the Bessie Award categories this year. In particular, Gia took issue with what we might call the “innovation” category, which used to be known as the “not-technically considered dance” category but appears to have been renamed the “at the performance end of the dance spectrum” category. Sexton’s response feels incomplete, to my read, as though it doesn’t actually manage to address anything, but does end with the utterly baffling statement that:
Our opportunity is to make clear to a non-dance-insider audience the wide spectrum of dance and performance work being considered. Making what The Bessies do more transparent and understandable to a wider audience is a step in our efforts to “make the world care about dance.”
On the face of it, I’m entirely sympathetic to Sexton’s statement of intent. But the idea that this is in any way a defense against Kourlas’s criticism is mind-boggling. Accused of marginalizing the work of substantial artists, Sexton is apparently saying that a category like “at the performance end of the dance spectrum” was in fact an attempt to make…whatever the hell something at the “performance end of the dance spectrum” is more “transparent and understandable.” I suggest that whoever concocted that phrase be forced to open up a dictionary and point to which parts of the definitions of those words somehow make it make sense.
Let’s be blunt: we’re all aware that categorization in this field is problematic at best and that boundaries are subject to change over time. There are many very smart people who grapple meaningfully with these sorts of issues, including some of those on the Bessies committee itself. But the Bessies categories are not representative of ambiguity. They, intentionally or not, make a statement, and the statement they’ve made is that artists like Sarah Michelson or Eleanor Bauer are insufficiently dance to be called dance without some further qualification.
What the Bessies have done in trying to cast such a wide net is to further muddy the waters even as they’re trying to recognize excellence. Categories represent harsh judgments about the work. If Bauer is in the category for innovation, then apparently Trajal Harrell, whatever his accomplishment, isn’t particularly boundary-pushing because he only received credit for the under-400-seat award. And how else am I to read that when Nrityagaram Dance Troupe is under the above-400-seat category, rather than the “work that stretches the boundaries of a traditional or culturally specific form”? Surely that implies that Nrityagaram is quality but deeply conservative, while Juan de Juan and Jason Samuels Smith are doing something far more impressive with tap and flamenco at the Lincoln Center? By that logic, the work being recognized in categories merely noting house-size is neither inherently innovative or pushing the boundaries of its own form. It’s good, but you know, conservative.
For Sexton to issue her letter without bothering to grapple with what a backhanded compliment these arbitrary categorizations offer is deeply insensitive and defensive. While almost everyone understands the challenges the committee faces in trying to recognize excellence across the broad part of the performance spectrum that we might call “dance,” it can’t simply avoid the problems that come up when you place artists into narrow categories without offering any sense of why or how or what methodology was used to decide that one sub-committee got to consider this artist while another did not.
The result of this mess is to make the field seem completely opaque and impenetrable, the polar opposite of Sexton’s stated goal. What does it do to the value of winning a Bessie Award if the recipient can’t even explain what he or she did to be eligible for which category it was won for–or indeed, what the category name even means?