In Defense of the SAGE Dance Awards, by Caroline Palmer
When I first read dance writer Camille LeFevre's recent article on mnartists.org entitled "2008 Sage Awards (More Insidery Than Ever)," about the SAGE Awards, I was tempted to view it as simply a personal commentary on the dance community from someone who has been documenting it for many years. After further consideration, however, I feel compelled to write a response. The following is my own viewpoint; I do not represent the SAGE Awards administrators or panelists.
In the interest of full disclosure, I have served on the SAGE panel for the past two years and just rotated off. I provided the introduction at the recent awards program and helped create the marketing campaign. I also received $250 as an honorarium for serving on the panel. Membership on the panel is confidential during service although I'll admit, regrettably, that I've let my affiliation slip to some, including to Camille. Finally, I have engaged in many conversations with Camille over the years as fellow dance writers. It's a healthy, spirited, private discourse among colleagues. I'd like to make public this particular topic, however, in the spirit of respectful professional dialogue, because Camille has made some strong allegations in her article and seems to be inviting discussion.
I'm admitting all of my biases up front because they are relevant to the points I'm about to make. I think that overall the SAGE Awards are good for the dance community and I participated in the nominating process that Camille challenges in her article, so it's no surprise that I will defend it here. I also believe the process is reasonably fair considering that it is based completely on the opinions of individuals (artists, administrators, educators, writers) who hold very different ideas about what dance is and what deserves recognition.
Everyone comes to the table with diverse aesthetic preferences based on many factors including creative outlook, worldview, and career background. I'll give you mine: I worked for several years in New York City and Minneapolis as an arts administrator before becoming a lawyer. I was employed by performance spaces and artists who some may characterize as having a "downtown" or "experimental" perspective, for lack of better terms. And while I enjoy watching and supporting all kinds of dance, I admit that I am drawn in by work that pushes traditional artistic conventions, challenges social norms and addresses the cultural context in which its made. Be that as it may, I, like other SAGE panelists, made an honest effort to see as broad a variety of work as possible.
Despite my support for the SAGE Awards, I think it is appropriate to question the nomination process, as Camille sets out to do. It's a valid endeavor based on her role as a journalist and a former SAGE panel member - and after all, who doesn't wonder how such decisions are made behind closed doors and in the dead of night? (This year's panel deliberated for seven hours, until 1 a.m.). We all certainly engage in similar speculation when it comes to other awards. I am troubled, however, by some of Camille's analysis and conclusions.
Camille's concerns are focused specifically on the Performance and Performer categories. She decides to "connect the dots" and concludes that the nominees all either have an affiliation with SAGE Award founder and administrator, choreographer Stuart Pimsler, or fall into a specific "postmodern, or post-postmodern, or experimental, or movement-based (or work without much movement whose creator has connections to the Minneapolis postmodern scene) - let's just call the whole shooting match 'pomo' for brevity." To be clear, Pimsler, as well as any SAGE panel members who have work under consideration or feel the potential for any conflict of interest, leave the room during the discussion.
Further Pimsler, along with co-administrator Dana Kassel (Program Manager at the Southern Theater), do not participate in the nomination discussion. I'm sure at times they must sit in silence aching to throw in an opinion but they don't.
As for connecting the dots - the dance community is just not big enough to make this a meaningful argument. Many dancers are members of multiple companies - they rightfully want to perform as much as possible and choreographers rightfully want to employ the dancers who best interpret their work. And yes, some are members of Stuart Pimsler's company but Pimsler is not the Twin Cities version of Kevin Bacon. I could play the same game with practically any other local choreographer. So what is the solution? Ban anyone who has ever danced with Pimsler from receiving a SAGE Award? Ban anyone who has every danced with anyone who has ever danced with Pimsler? Should Pimsler's company never receive an award, as it did this year, just because he runs the show? If we keep going down this route no one's getting any recognition. If that's the outcome some would like to see, so be it, but I think local dance has a low enough profile as it is, which is confounding because this community is respected nationally.
While I can't comment on the content of panelist deliberations, I can say that nominations are made because someone's work made a positive impression on at least some of the panelists who saw the work (it was rare when everyone was in full agreement). There are going to be cases in which performers and choreographers are honored more than once over the years. Do we just ignore good work and say you've already received your props so make room for others? Let's not pretend that award giving is democratic - the subjective nature dictates otherwise. I don't think anyone should be penalized for consistently good work.
Further, by emphasizing that the Momentum Series is for emerging artists and referring later to "artistic mainstays," Camille seems to be implying that only seasoned artists should be considered for the performance and performer awards. I've heard this argument at times in the funding community as well, and while I think certainly there are many veteran dancers who should be, and often are, nominated for an award, I'm ultimately more concerned about the qualitative impact of the work than whether the artist started out yesterday or fifty years ago. The SAGE Awards do include a special citation and educator awards that tend to skew toward people with more time on this planet but even in these cases merit remains a decisive factor.
Finally, Camille's catchphrase "pomo" is not helpful. I will admit to resorting to an easy term like "postmodern" when describing work. In a lot of ways, however, I think we've gone beyond characterization for dance with exceptions for the basic broad technique values that fall under the headings of ballet, modern, jazz, tap, etc. As is the case for many other art forms, dance is continually evolving and it's often difficult and downright reductive to casually sum up one person's efforts with a single word based on academic points along the continuum of dance history. Are we in an era when definitions don't matter anymore? Is it up to each individual artist to define her work? I'm not sure where this all leads, but let's try not to pigeonhole anyone, least of all artists, and I think that writers have a responsibility to keep up with the evolution.
The SAGE Awards aren't perfect. They have only been around a few years and are a work in progress. For that reason, I think that it is important for dialogue around the awards to continue, and surely will as a new group of panelists convenes this year.
Here are the recipients of the 2008 SAGE Awards:
Mary Ellen Childs--music score for Wreck
Kenna Sarge--film in Technicolor Blues and The Foundation
Holiday House II--The Body Cartography Project
Premium White Morsels--Mad King Thomas
Ways to Be Hold--Stuart Pimsler Dance & Theater
Laurie Van Wieren