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Dance competition gets audience involved

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin, Seeing Things

Staff Writer
Austin 360

A curious thing happens when you collectively give an audience $1,000 and ask them to award to it to the best of three modern short ballets.

They take the task seriously. They pay close attention.

On the Long Center for the Performing Arts' stage starting Friday, Ballet Austin presents "New American Talent/Dance," its fourth biennial choreographic competition that awards more than $24,000 in prizes. A panel of national dance experts grants the biggest awards (first prize is $6,000, second is $5,000 and third is $4,000). And then after each of this weekend's three performances, the audience is invited to text their votes, with the winner receiving $1,000.

"New American Talent/Dance" provides three emerging choreographers from around the country with a residency at Ballet Austin during which they have full use of the company's professional dancers and production facilities and the invitation to create a new short work, about 20 minutes in length. The competition stands as a unique model in the dance world in part because the amount of prize money outshines other prizes available to young choreographers.

The finalists this year are Gregory Dolbashian, Loni Landon and Bradley Shelver, all currently based in New York.

Completely coincidentally, Ballet Austin first presented "New American Talent" in 2006 just as the Fox television series "So You Think You Can Dance" was capturing millions of viewers who tuned in to watch — and to vote for — young dancers compete in a variety of styles.

That coincidence isn't lost on Stephen Mills, Ballet Austin's artistic director. And no, he doesn't mind a light-hearted comparison between the audience voting element of "New American Talent/Dance" and "So You Think You Can Dance."

"I hate the idea that there's high art and low art," he says. "I love it when you can take a pop culture phenomenon and somehow link it with an art form. That doesn't diminish the art form, in my mind."

Mills and other Ballet Austin leaders conceived of an audience vote as a way to spark interest in new choreography.

"Incubating new work is the first line of our mission statement," he says. "But I think that too often when people go to the theater or a museum it's really easy to have a passive experience. It's not a common practice to think critically about the art you're seeing and then put it into words and debate it."

But if you give an audience $1,000 to award, suddenly they take that task of watching the dance and thinking about it very seriously.

Mills says that when he and other Ballet Austin staff wander the lobby at intermission during a "New American Talent/Dance," the chatter overheard is about the dance everyone just saw together, not the usual casual chit-chat

"People are clearly really looking at the work itself," Mills says. "And by having three very different choreographers present their work, (‘New American Talent/Dance') gives people the opportunity to make their own decision about what they like about a particular choreographer's work."

And empowering an audience's decision-making is indispensable for an art form that often defies ordinary language and frequently remains outside the realm of even the most culturally focused conversation.

Other dance experts concur that there's at least some value to having millions of television viewers tune into a dance competition show.

Holly Williams, who is head of the dance program at the University of Texas, said that though much of the commentary featured on television dance shows is thin, it nevertheless can be some kind of starting point for further conversation.

"Dance is a kinesthetic language. It's a feeling or visual impression. It's a challenge for people to know what to say about dance. And in (their) best light, (shows like "So You Think You Can Dance") at least start to give people some language about what they're seeing."

Mills says that while "So You Think You Can Dance" isn't necessarily appointment television for him, he has nevertheless tuned in plenty of times.

And that the show spotlights the role of a choreographers is a positive thing, as well, Mills says.

"It brings the concept of a dancemaker into the arena. Most people see dancers on a stage after the choreographer's creative process is finished. How would you know it takes a choreographer hours of time, toiling away offstage to create what you see on stage?"

"And any time you get a bunch of people dancing on television, I think it's great."

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699