Aside from the start of a new season, each September, at least around these parts, two prestigious awards are announced (and I’m not talking Metro DC Dance Awards, as coveted as they may be among some DC-regional dance artists). The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts announces who it will honor this month and the innovation-seeking MacArthur Foundation, usually sometime in September, announces its picks for the prestigious "genius" grants it bestows on the unsuspecting but deserving. Both the Honors and the MacArthurs have had a significant history of honoring dance artists. From Balanchine to Graham, Cunningham to Taylor, our most illustrious dancemakers have sat beribboned in the Presidential box of the Opera House for the nationally televised tribute to high culture, while the MacArthur has usually sought younger, more iconoclastic innovators, like Mark Morris, Bill T. Jones, and, last year, Shen Wei.
While the Kennedy Center’s Honor marks an outstanding lifetime of contributing to the performing arts, the MacArthur’s grant is a bit different, seeking out a broad swath of artists, scientists, thinkers and doers. MacArthur gives its money with no strings attached to individuals who have a unique perspective, make an amazing discovery or illuminate an idea that changes our perspective or manner of doing someting in some way great or small. The MacArthurs, then, essentially represent why, spanning two-plus centuries the great American democratic project and output has been, for the most part, such a success. Great Americans in art, science, government, education, and other fields make lasting contributions when they “think different” and "do different." (Sure, I may sound like an NEA commercial on PBS, but that's what has made Americans truly the most innovative and sought-after experts in a wide range of fields.) MacArthurs recognize thinking outside the box, solving problems, putting forth solutions to dire situations in health, welfare, genetics, the environment and MacArthurs recognize artistic innovations in music, literature, art, dance, theater and film. The MacArthurs do something else, too: encourage cross-pollination as recipients of the awards meet regularly. If you take a look at the illustrious list of recipients, dating back to 1981, it truly does represent the best and brightest minds of the latter half of the 20th century, America’s century, if you will. I’m not sure there are specific works, projects or discoveries netted from these exchanges among fellows, but when our nation’s best and brightest gather, there’s bound to be interchange. There are mathematicians who charged ahead to solve the unsolvable, computer scientists who broke new ground, or invent unsolved equations, painters or quilters, sculptors or writers who color outside the lines and beyond the traditional page.
You know the drill if you’ve read this year's MacArthur recipient bios, which can be found here. You see a name, an age, a city and a field and acknowledge that, hey, you’ve never heard of this person. But then you read what they’ve accomplished and realize, wow, this is something I’ve never even thought could be important. Yet with its uber secretive panel of judges and nominators spread around the country, each year the MacArthur foundation uncovers another class of America’s best and brightest, East and West coast educated, young or experienced, representing a diversity of fields and endeavors, the awards are always a surprise. And often, too, they reap rewards in years to come.
Just look at those in the dance world who have received a MacArthur in past years: Jeralyn Blunden, choreographer; Trisha Brown, choreographer; Martha Clarke, director/choreographer; Merce Cunningham, choreographer; Bill T. Jones, dancer/choreographer; Liz Lerman, choreographer; Susan Marshall, choreographer; Arthur Mitchell, choreographer; Meredith Monk, composer/performance artist; Mark Morris, dancer/choreographer; Eiko and Koma, dancer/choreographers; Yvonne Rainer, choreographer/filmmaker; Elizabeth Streb, dancer/choreographer; Paul Taylor, choreographer; Twyla Tharp, dancer/choreographer; and Shen Wei, choreographer/visual artist.
This year but one artist received recognition who has an affiliation with dance: the great lighting designer Jennifer Tipton. At 71, she is among the oldest in this year’s MacArthur class. Her work has changed how we see and envision dance and theater. She has shed beautiful, bountiful and evocative light on countless choreographic and theatrical masterpieces throughout a career in which she has illuminated the world's great stages. Rare, in fact, is a major company or choreographer who has not worked with Tipton over the years. She's simply the best. One among her many memorable works I recall vividly: the heavenly rays of light that illuminate Tharp’s In the Upper Room, providing greater substance for the dancers to break forth in escalating whirls of momentum. It's beautific, golden, poetic in its glimmering beacons washing over the dancers and the stage.
In perusing the MacArthur dance fellows, I wonder if there are other working dance artists out there who have been slighted this year. We seem, in the field as a whole, to have settled into a holding pattern. The trend isn't toward innovation as much as it is toward reinvention -- a remnant of the effect of post-modernism on a new, differently trained generation of dance artists. We have in our midst, of course, a small but still vibrant handful of our 20th-century masters, still at work, still productive (Taylor and Cunningham being the most prominent) after all these years. The field’s next generation of groundbreakers –- the Tharps, the Morrises, Joneses and Marshalls –- have reached mid-career and continue, too, to contribute and create. So the outstanding question, then, is: who’s next in dance? Are there dance artists out there who are making work that is profound enough, cutting edge enough, important enough, meaningful enough to merit MacArthur recognition in the next few years? What do you think?
In the meantime, kudos to the Kennedy Center on its selection of great iconoclast and cross-pollinator Twyla Tharp as its dance honoree this year. I’m not going to complain about the other artists in this year’s cohort, but Tharp has been my choice for the honor for a number of years. (Kudos to the Ken Cen powers who listened to me -- wink, wink.)
Now it’s your turn. Who’s out there making groundbreaking work in the field, but flying low under the radar? Whose lifelong body of work deserves national recognition for lifetime achievement? Comment below if you have thoughts.