As a co-founder and former producer of “The A.W.A.R.D. Show!,” Neta Pulvermacher has learned plenty about human nature. For example, if you dangle a $10,000 prize in front of cash-starved choreographers and empower an audience to help decide who should win said prize, “people get charged up.”
Also: “If you want people to pay attention to your art form, sometimes you have to create a winner and a loser,” she says.
Since launching the controversial yet successful dance event in 2005, the Israeli-born choreographer has watched her brainchild grow from a New York City happening into a national franchise produced by the Joyce Theater Foundation with support from the Boeing Co.. Coming to REDCAT Thursday through Sunday, “The A.W.A.R.D. Show!” (an acronym for Artists With Audiences Responding to Dance) channels the zeitgeist as defined by the Fox TV show “So You Think You Can Dance” and other competitive arenas where performing artists duke it out for fame and fortune. Specifically tailored for contemporary choreographers, the show-cum-contest grants $10,000 to a winner toward the creation of a new work and has stirred up some lively debates about the financing and subjectivity of evaluating the often underfunded medium of contemporary concert dance.
Initially, “I didn’t believe in competition per se when it came to art,” says Pulvermacher, who had been approached by investor Scott Kasen to create a contest for choreographers as a way of attracting new audiences and challenging notions of contemporary dance as esoteric and incomprehensible. “But then I thought about it and realized that everything in my field, with its limited resources, is a competition, so who are we fooling?” (The other co-creator was Marisa König Beatty.)
Since 2009, the New York City-based Joyce Theater has partnered with presenting institutions across the country to produce the show, and versions now exist in San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago and Philadelphia. At REDCAT, 12 choreographers, selected by a committee of executives from the different presenting venues, will present 15-minute dances in groups of four over the course of three consecutive evenings. A moderated post-show discussion will follow each series of performances, and then the audience votes for its favorite choreographer. The three finalists show their work again on the fourth night, and a panel of judges teams with the audience to determine the winner and two runners-up, each of whom receives $1,000.
For the Joyce Theater, one of the preeminent venues for contemporary dance in the United States, the show has been a win-win. “This has been a great way to bring in new audiences,” says Linda Shelton, executive director of the Joyce Theater. And for the choreographers, she says, “I think it’s a much more natural way for them to apply for funding. At least their work is getting seen by a lot more people than it would have on a panel behind closed doors.”
The REDCAT show attracted 41 Los Angeles-based applicants, and the selected 12 contestants encompass a particularly wide range of career experience, with some just out of school and others with lucrative international bookings under their belts. Participant Barak Marshall, for example, has toured widely in Europe and Israel and will present work at Royce Hall as part of UCLA Live this spring.
“This really points to a lack of funding for dance in L.A., which has put all of us in the same pool,” says Meg Wolfe, a participating choreographer and community organizer.
A co-editor of the dance journal Itch, Wolfe had concerns about the show’s possible polarizing effect on the local, close-knit contemporary dance community and decided to publish an issue exclusively devoted to the topic of competition. “Participating in this has really put this issue in our face,” she says.
While Wolfe admits to feeling conflicted about the show’s competitive structure, participating choreographer Bradley Michaud wholeheartedly embraces it. “Everyone is saying how this is the first time we’re competing against each other, but we’ve always been doing that,” says the former vice president of the Dance Resource Center of Greater Los Angeles. “The L.A. dance scene is incredibly competitive, but it’s always been hush-hush. I think it’s great that we’re playing this out in public.”
Besides the obvious $10,000 incentive, Michaud welcomes the opportunity to perform at REDCAT, one of the few venues in Los Angeles that presents dance. He points out that besides the annual “Celebrate Dance” showcase produced by Jamie Nichols, it’s rare for a singular Los Angeles dance event to feature a critical mass of local choreographers with diverse aesthetics and viewpoints.
(Also competing: Rachael Lincoln and Leslie Seiters; Arianne MacBean; Christine Suarez; Maria Gillespie; Pam Gonzales; Holly Johnston; Randé Dorn; Victoria Marks; and Karen Schaffman with Liam Clancy, Eric Geiger and Seiters.)
“These are all interesting artists worth seeing, and here’s a chance to experience them and enter into a conversation about how dance gets created and funded,” says George Lugg, REDCAT’s associate director. “I hope it leads to new ways of looking at work for audiences, and I hope the artists come away with interesting feedback and new perspectives on the audience.”
In the midst of rehearsals for her 15-minute dance, Wolfe has determined to “accept whatever happens. The truth is, we could all use some funding. So hooray for whoever gets it.”