How OtB's A.W.A.R.D. Show is Democratizing Dance

Reality Programming America—or at least Seattle—is voting on which local dance company should win

COORDINATES
The A.W.A.R.D. Show
1/27–1/30, 8 p.m. Prices vary.
On the Boards, 100 W Roy St.
206.217.9888, ontheboards.org

We’re all familiar with the concept: Dancers compete before a live audience in hopes of earning enough votes to win a big cash prize. It certainly works for reality television, but isn’t it a little unseemly for Seattle’s esteemed dance community? Perhaps not, when the organizer is New York’s prestigious Joyce Theater.

Created in 2005, the A.W.A.R.D. Show (that’s Artists With Audiences Responding to Dance) pits 12 emerging dance companies against each other—each with 15 minutes to perform—over four consecutive evenings for a grand prize of $10,000 (two runners-up receive $1,000 each). The series has since expanded to six cities, and On the Boards is hosting the second Seattle edition this month.

Far less showy and sequined than TV fare, the program is serious about building conversation between performers and audiences. (Before voting each evening, audience members must engage in a moderated Q&A session with the choreographers.) It’s also serious about supporting contemporary dance: The prize money must be used for making new work. Nonetheless, last year’s A.W.A.R.D. Show sparked heated local discussions about whether the overall concept was good for the Seattle dance community.

“It seemed to me that many people, artists among them, just felt queasy about the whole idea,” says Seattle choreographer Amelia Reeber, who took home the grand prize last year for her funny, gestural exploration of home renovation shows. “I suspect some artists thought that if they [participated], they would be or appear to be compromising their integrity—playing to the crowd. Many artists weren’t comfortable competing with their peers in such an obvious way.” Olivier Wevers, a Pacific Northwest Ballet dancer who competed in the previous A.W.A.R.D. Show with his own dance company, Whim W’Him, and is back for another round, says the format can be uncomfortable for some artists because “it juxtaposes the need to say something creatively against the need to be appealing to a wide audience.”

On the Boards artistic director Lane Czaplinski, noting the packed house every night of the first run, says he was surprised there wasn’t more controversy about the premise. “We’re voting on art,” he says. “That’s not supposed to happen.” Of course, voting on art happens all the time—but usually by experts in the field determining who wins a grant or a performance slot.

Wevers argues that “making a panel of professionals or an audience choose a ‘winner’ is the same.” Even if the audience has never seen a dance performance outside of Dancing with the Stars? Can the untrained eye appreciate a less sparkly, more nuanced piece? “We are all humans with feelings, emotions, connections,” Wevers says. Crispin Spaeth, who will compete with a series of modern duets, agrees. “Insiders and experts can be as capricious as anyone,” she says. Reeber adds, “I think the audience is absolutely and innately qualified to assess a work. To assume it will be like a TV show—where whoever can ‘wow’ will win—assumes that your audience is not invested and not playing by the rules. What if instead the assumption is that they will make a choice [with] the criteria they are given?”

Audience members are indeed given a list of criteria, including: Did the work have a clear vision? Was the choreography engaging? Was the movement original? Did the piece evoke any emotions?  “We’re usually so artist-focused at On the Boards,” says Czaplinski. “This really turns the tables and gives the audience a role. It’s the idea of interactivity at an all-time high.” Especially true, given the dollar amount at stake.

Choreographer Zoe Scofield, a new participant this year with her company Zoe | Juniper, hopes the power viewers hold makes them more engaged. “I hope it helps move the audience past ‘I liked/didn’t like it’ and into participating with a discerning eye,” she says. But that same power has dancers like Scofield—whose work tends toward longer pieces with a slow build—pensive. “All dancers should consider their audience,” she says, “but I think I would be in trouble if I started to tailor my work to what I think people want to experience.”
Last year’s slate included ballet, avant-garde work and classic modern dance. Combined, the evenings presented a wide range of new dance that rang true to choreographers’ individual styles. Funny work tended to win votes, which could mean more humor on the bill this time. “I’ll be curious to see if this year they calibrate their work for an audience response,” says Czaplinski. At least one performer already has: Wevers admits, “I did submit a more humorous piece, knowing the audience responds well to laughter.”

 But while the dancers may choose segments most likely to play well under the time constraint, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re altering their artistic vision just to win votes. “We are always appealing to funders or audiences while trying to stay true to ourselves,” says Spaeth. The current lineup promises everything from burlesque to dance theater to avant-garde and cross-dressing hilarity—but what all of these dancers really want is the same thing: a chance to share their work. As Wevers says, “Whether you win or not, it’s a great showcase.”