No Shortage of Geniuses for the MacArthur Fellows Program

by Steven Woodruff

Kyle Abraham

Kyle Abraham

Twenty four new recipients for MacArthur Fellowships were announced today. They include two from the dance world, Alexei Ratmansky, the resident choreographer for American Ballet Theater and a former artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet, and Kyle Abraham, a young, freelance dancemaker who also directs his own company, Abraham. In. Motion. Both have worked extensively with major ballet and contemporary dance companies in the U.S. and abroad. Abraham’s work, Another Night, with music by Dizzy Gillespie, was seen most recently in Los Angeles in the 2013 repertory programs by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. He was the 2012 Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award winner. Alexei Ratmansky’s choreography for The Bright Stream, Firebird, and Chamber Symphony (one work from the Shostakovich Trilogy) has been presented in Los Angeles on touring programs with ABT.

Since the awards originated in 1981, it has never been awarded solely for dancing. Past winners in dance, such as Twyla Tharp, Bill T. Jones, Jeraldyne Blunden, and Trisha Brown, like Mr. Abraham, have usually been recognized as choreographers and dancers, or coupled with another related discipline such as film making. When Jacques d’Amboise, the legendary dancer of New York City Ballet, was awarded the fellowship in 1990 it was for his groundbreaking work as a dance educator in encouraging young dancers through his National Dance Institute, which he founded in 1976. The award, as the MacArthur’s note, is not based on past achievement, but awarded more as “an investment in a person’s originality, insight, and potential”.

Alexei Ratmansky

Alexei Ratmansky

Merce Cunningham was the first choreographer to receive a MacArthur Fellowship 1985. Peter Sellars was the first working in theater and opera to win the award in 1983. He went on to collaborate  with choreographer Mark Morris, a 1991 awardee, on the John Adams opera, Nixon in China, which premiered in 1987. Sellars was an early experimenter with opera. I saw his production of Haydn’s Crusades era opera, Armida, which was set in Vietnam, on a stage filled with jeeps,  helicopters, and girls in susie wong dresses. That investment in “originality” went on to pay off handsomely in his version of Handel’s baroque grand opus, Orlando, an opera which was set in outer space.

The award is a truly eclectic one, having gone to an assortment of composers, scientists, activists, visual artists, historians and writers, but also geriatricians, a blacksmith, a trombonist, a rural doctor, an arachnologist, a mime, a weaver, and a cattle rancher. Each awardee must be a United States citizen  or resident, and receives $625,000 as a no strings attached prize. They are selected without application by an anonymous panel.

The last dancer/choreographer to receive the award was Shen Wei in 2007. His works, Re-(Parts I, II, III) and Connect Transfer, both for Shen Wei Dance Arts, have been seen here in Los Angeles.  For Connect Transfer at Disney Hall, the dancers, slathered in paint, created a giant painting on a portable canvas. Ratmansky will, no doubt, be back with new works for ATB, but in the meantime, you can see Kyle Abraham’s work, Kollide, in the BODYTRAFFIC concert scheduled for October 11th and 12th at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica. It will be part of a repertory program with two other works. Jacques d’Amboise will be honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award as part of the Dance Under the Stars Festival for choreography this November in Palm Desert, California.

( A version of this article also appeared on DancePlug. The hyperlinks will  connect you with some of my reviews on DanceChannelTV, SeeDance, and DancePlug)

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