November 23, 2010 6:28 pm

The A.W.A.R.D. Show!, Joyce SoHo, New York

Imagine So You Think You Can Dance without the flashing lights, screaming fans and millions of TV viewers, and voilà: The A.W.A.R.D. (Artists With Audiences Responding to Dance) Show!, where not the dancer but modern dance is the star.

The show’s aim is true: the top vote-getter of the 12 finalists gleaned from some 200 entries wins $10,000, a fortune in this cash-starved field. And since it began in 2005, the contest has caught on, with editions in Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle.

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So I wish this self-described “experiment in democratic ideals” did not suffer from democratic realities as well, such as the sound-bite mentality. The three dances voted on to the final night existed in a vacuum, where world and dance history have no place. The popular vote dredged up that hoary notion of modern dance as purveyor of timeless psychological truths, decked out in allegory.

Choreographer-dancer Yin Yue’s Torn combined in a single figure martial arts heroine and swamp princess. Satoshi Haga’s Thread, in which two dancers kept their fingertips touching, veered from movement exercise to arid symbol, with urgency and rich suggestion blessedly intervening between those poles. Only choreographer Helen Simoneau’s robotic solo was consistently layered. Playing with the history of dolls in dance – The Nutcracker, Coppélia – she moved with a strangely sensual stiffness.

And, reader, she won – though if it had been up to the hoi polloi rather than the four expert panellists brought in for the last night, who knows?

Maybe the problem isn’t democracy but the balance of powers. The executive branch – the artist – needs beefing up. We were asked to evaluate the dances according to a single set of dotty questions, but any work worth its salt proposes its own, so why not let the choreographer tell us what he thinks they are? They may not save the dance, but they’ll help us understand it. And why limit the pieces to 12 minutes, too long for a study and too short for much else? Finally, how about diluting the influence of friends and family by increasing the number of shows or the size of the venue?

There is something worth saving here, besides $10,000. Each night I saw the audience, charged with evaluating its experience, find enchantment in the most basic choreographic moves – a discovery worth many a mediocre dance. (

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