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The Lester Horton Dance Awards Return, in Double Time

March 31, 2001|ELAINE DUTKA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Lester Horton Dance Awards are back. The 10th edition of the event, presented by the Dance Resource Center of Greater Los Angeles, will take place Sunday at North Hollywood's El Portal Center for the Arts.

Two sets of 15 awards--one set to acknowledge work from 1999 and the other covering 2000--will be handed out in an unusual double ceremony that makes up for the fact that the Hortons--the Southland's only comprehensive dance concert awards--were on hiatus last spring.

According to dance center President Denise Grande, the cancellation resulted from "a huge transition in leadership" in the organization two years ago. In early 1999, longtime President Serena Tripi left the group, and new board members were elected. The new administration wasn't "phasing out the Hortons," says Grande, who assumed her post in April 1999, "we were just figuring out our next step."

The awards came under particular scrutiny because of ongoing rumblings about the selection process.

"I did some homework, asking colleagues for observations," says Horton Awards chair Francisco Martinez, head of the Francisco Martinez Dancetheatre and a dance center board member for the past two years. "Half viewed the Hortons as an honor comparable to New York's Bessies or San Franciscos's Izzies. The others felt they were a waste of time--a popularity contest not based on art."

The concerns included a perceived lack of diversity in the awards categories and a seemingly haphazard voting process, Martinez says. Under that system, nominations were made on a form sent to everyone on the center's mailing list. After a committee toted up the results, winners were voted on by dues-paying members--more than 200 dancers, choreographers and dance aficionados.

Critics charged that the nomination process was open to too many nonexperts and that, for the final ballot, too few members voted. On top of that, they claimed, many voters hadn't seen the nominated works, and the results frequently seemed skewed.

Benita Bike, artistic director of Sunland's Benita Bike's DanceArt Company and a dance center board member from 1991 to 1993, has been vocal in her complaints.

"Very few of the ballots were returned," she says. "And, too often, the recipients were members of the board or related to them in some way."

The methodology was "diligent and honest," maintains Tripi, who is widely praised for founding the awards and sustaining them over the years.

"We didn't have hundreds of ballots every year, but there were enough to be significant," says Tripi, currently marketing director at Glendale's Alex Theatre. "Board members who were dancers or choreographers could compete but we never beefed them up. Much of the criticism came from people whose egos were bruised because they never won or got nominated."

Some of the dissatisfaction was easy to address. For the 1999 and 2000 awards, three categories were added to the Hortons to distinguish between Western and non-Western dance forms.

Martinez's committee also added categories for production of festivals or series and for service to the field. Finally, it revised the sustained achievement category, replacing it with a lifetime achievement award that requires 25 years of experience.

Because methodology problems have taken longer to crack, 1999 and 2000 winners were selected by the old voting system, with one significant change. To maximize the chance that a vote would be "informed," says Martinez, the center screened videotapes of the nominated works for its members.

Next year, a new system will be in place. In January, the dance center established a 20-person nominating committee made up of members of the greater L.A. dance community--writers, teachers, presenters, unaffiliated choreographers--no dance center board members allowed. Under the new rules, a dance company or performer must notify the committee three weeks in advance if it wants its work considered. Generally three to five committee members will show up. The committee also keeps a calendar of local dance events, viewing as much as possible on its own.

At year's end, committee members will meet to select nominees; those with conflicts of interest must recuse themselves. Ballots will then go out to the dance center's membership, and video screenings will be held.

The DRC has also taken steps to embellish the awards' public profile. Sunday's ceremony will be a black-tie, stand-alone event rather than a prelude to an unrelated dance concert, as in the recent past. And the award itself has had a face lift--it's a newly designed plaque engraved with a 1951 Horton drawing of his ballet "Salome."

*

The 1999 and 2000 Lester Horton Dance Awards, 5 p.m., Sunday, El Portal Center for the Arts, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. (310) 573-7755.

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