Sweeping conclusions about the state of performance in the era of American Idol have at this point all had their day in the sun. According to some, the integrity of the form is irreparably damaged: Put audiences put in charge of art and watch mediocrity rule. Others claim it's had no effect at all, that successes continue to be as unpredictable as ever despite an increased visibility of and ceremony surrounding their creation. Let's also note that few from either camp are saying the process and the argument aren't entertaining. Regardless, it's a format that's apparently here to stay and one that's being translated into nearly every vocation imaginable. Surely we're only months away from the premieres of America's Next Top Trial Lawyer or So You Think You Can Pedicure.
Outside the tailor-made arenas of ballroom dancing and flashy, commercial solo performance, dance hasn't been affected by this paradigm shift. If anything, the success of Dancing With The Stars and its ilk has instigated a bit of a reversal of the high- and low-cultural merge that's defined art of all kinds for the last 50 years. Choreographers and performers are self-segregating into those looking for a break via television and people who couldn't give a damn. Three years ago, though, a program was born that not only introduced friendly competition and cash prizes to the concert dance realm, but did so in a way that preempted the concerns of those who would choose obscurity over even a whiff of selling out.
Israeli-born choreographer Neta Pulvermacher ( pictured ) , briefly based out of Chicago, and the SoHo annex of revered New York City dance venue the Joyce Theater held the first A.W.A.R.D. Show! in 2006, inviting companies to compete in three heats for a $10,000 grant for new work. Growing larger and more visible each year, Pulvermacher's brainchild hit the mother lode this spring when it was announced that the Boeing Company was going to underwrite the expansion of The A.W.A.R.D. Show! into Seattle, Philadelphia and Chicago ( financier Scott G. Kasen will continue to provide the purse for New York's competition ) .
Key to its success is the idea that the audience-vote mechanism for advancing art isn't inherently compromising at all. The acronym-loving Pulvermacher ( the competition's name stands for Artists With Audiences Responding to Dance ) came up with four things voters would be instructed to take into account: Potential, Originality, Execution and Merit ( POEM ) , noting that "the way an audience views a work when it is empowered to vote is extremely different" than in a more traditionally-passive theater setting. Even to its most avid fans, dance can be oblique and hard to read. Pulvermacher elaborates: "The idea is that, by declaring out loud and upfront that audiences for The A.W.A.R.D. Show! are charged with the rights and the responsibility to make qualitative choices about what they see, the selection process becomes transparent and hopefully encourages honesty. Then, the audience and artists can get on with the task of really looking at the work before them for what it is and to try and see it deeply. For me, The A.W.A.R.D. Show! is about freedom—the freedom to see, respond, imagine, dream, create, make or even fail, and the freedom to speak your mind and heart."
With applications due barely a month after Boeing's grant was announced, Chicago's hopefuls had little time to prepare. The inaugural crop of contenders, though, are an impressively-varied collection of artists: Hubbard Street alumnus Francisco Aviña works in Mexico City, Las Vegas and Los Angeles as often as he does here, while Archana Kumar, who recently relocated from Seattle, uses Bharatanatyam ( a classical Indian dance form ) in tandem with improvisation and Western modern dance technique. Established companies jumped at the opportunity as well, including Lucky Plush Productions, The Seldoms and Molly Shanahan/Mad Shak, as did upstarts like Rachel Bunting, Lizzie MacKenzie and Jessica Miller Tomlinson. Each of the the three programs will produce one winner; a fourth show brings them back and ends with two receiving one thousand dollars each and one netting the ten grand.
A panel of judges retains a good chunk of the final decision, but every participant will walk away with the kind of direct feedback and honest criticism only anonymity can provide. One of "the best features" of the series, Pulvermacher says, is the frank responses audience members write with their votes, which the choreographers get to take with them back to the studio whether they're victorious or not. She says people are "much more honest" in writing and that one of the main goals of The A.W.A.R.D. Show!—true discussion leading to more rigorous and vital work—is ensured by this unusual porousness between artists and observers.
Campaigning has already begun in earnest: Participating companies have been flooding their mailing lists with calls for votes and demonstrations of support. It will have to come down to what goes onstage, though, not only because of the overall quality of the 12 aspirants' work and talent but because the bills pit apples against oranges.
The A.W.A.R.D. Show! takes place June 24-28 at the Dance Center at Columbia College, 1306 S. Michigan,. at 8 p.m.; tickets are $15 each. More information is available online at www.colum.edu/dance_center.