The Bessies are back!

January 10, 2010

Film has the Oscars, theater has the Tonys, and dance has the Bessies!

The New York Dance and Performance Awards—more commonly known as the Bessies in honor of pioneering choreographer and teacher, Bessie Schonberg—have been honoring stand-out members of NYC’s dance community since the first awards were granted in 1984. Last year, for the first time since their inception, the Bessies took a break. But this fall the Bessies will return, with a new partnership, a more prominent web presence, and an eye toward the ever-changing dance landscape in NYC.

The Bessies recognize achievment in all facets of dance production, from choreography to performance, visual design to sound composition. Initially, the awards were produced by Dance Theater Workshop and more recently Danspace Project and The Joyce Theater joined the production team. Now, Dance/NYC will enter the mix as an additional partner. In particular, the Bessies will have a homepage on the Dance/NYC website, which is scheduled to launch March 15.

At a press conference this morning, Michelle Burkhart, director of Dance/NYC, said “We are very proud and excited to be the new home of the Bessie awards.” She explained that the Bessies’ website will be a place where dancers and choreographers will be able to get information about the awards, “so that it’s a more transparent process.” Burkhart also described other proposed ideas for the site, like videos of dance works and perhaps even an online re-broadcast of the annual awards ceremony.

Dance/NYC is a branch of the national organization, Dance/USA, which Burkhart described as a “neutral repository for dance information.” According to Burkhart, the Dance/NYC website gets 20,000 visits a month and half a million visits each year.


Notable individuals from NYC’s dance community also spoke about the importance of the Bessies. Postmodern choreographer and performer Gus Solomons jr, who was a member of the first Bessie awards committee said, “It was never less than crystal clear to me that what we were doing was vital for our community.”


He also quoted from a recent New York Times article by Alastair Macaulay in which the critic discussed the dance scene of recent decades. “…amid a field too large for anyone to keep complete track of it — I sense that too little of late has amounted to anything historic,” Macaulay wrote. The crowd booed somewhat playfully.

Solomons quashed Macaulay’s assertion, remarking that when Mark Morris won a Bessie in 1984 for “Season,” he was an “impertinent” 28-year-old. (Morris won another Bessie in 1990 for “Dido and Aeneus” and one more in 2007 for “Mozart Dances.”) And in the same article, Macauley counted Morris as one of the past decade’s most important choreographers. Solomans, who teaches at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, said, “There are plenty of young dancemakers who in time may prove to be historically important.”

Perhaps the most eloquent words of the morning came from choreographer, performer, and two-time Bessie-award winner Elizabeth Streb. She talked about the reason for the 2009 hiatus explaining that, “the community-at-large decided that the system needed to be examined. The landscape has changed…it’s more decentralized and vital and viral.” In response, she said, the awards will “cast a wider and more eccentric net. We have adjusted our compasses.”

There were few (if any) answers provided about how the awards will accomplish this; rather, Streb said that the press conference was held to assure people that the Bessies weren’t going to disappear. To that we say, Welcome back Bessies!