“This year we have a ‘shock’ winner,” said John Ashford, chairman of the Place prize for choreography, referring to Adam Linder, who has just been awarded the £25,000 prize for his piece Foie Gras. Ashford elaborated: at 25, Linder is considerably younger and more inexperienced than the four other finalists.
That would explain surprise, not shock. But there’s more to the story than that.
I doubt anyone was more shocked than Linder himself. On each of the 10 evenings of the Place prize finals, the audience votes for their favourite – and Linder and his co-performer started making jokes about going for a Eurovision-style “nul points” (though in the event, they didn’t always come last). The audience top vote, on the other hand, was unequivocal: Dam Van Huynh’s Collision, which won the £1,000 audience prize on all ten nights.
Critics had different opinions about who should win, but – judging from both reviews and conversations with colleagues – there was a blanket consensus on who really shouldn’t: (1) Linder and (2) Van Huynh. Even so, we could understand why Van Huyhn’s flashy piece got the popular vote. What never crossed our minds was that Linder’s would bag the top spot.
That was down to the judges. The panel always includes one dance expert who’s not UK-based (this year it was Kenneth Kvarnström, from Sweden). The other four – following a deliberate policy of opening up the sometimes very insider-ish world of dance to others – are practitioners from outside dance. This year, they were architect John Pawson, poet Lemn Sissay, gallery curator Kathleen Soriano, and events producer Jenny Waldman.
There’s no published judge’s report, and so we don’t know how they reached a decision. Furthermore, other than the prize being for “choreography”, there are no specific guidelines or evaluation criteria, either for entrants or for judges. And perhaps that’s appropriate for a contemporary art prize, allowing goalposts to be moved depending on what comes up.
But forget goalposts – what field were they playing on? According to Waldman, speaking on behalf of the panel, Linder’s piece showed the most “potential”. What does that mean? That it had the most room for improvement? It aimed furthest even though it fell shortest? Or that its stated theme – “a critique of modern behaviours of mass consumption” – had a lot of potential in it? And besides, should you really judge a piece on some notional “potential” – however you construe that – rather than actual presentation?
Linder is a great dancer. So is his partner Lorena Randi. Some of his moves were very inventive. He’s certainly bold. And who knows, maybe he’ll go on to produce something amazing and unexpected; I don’t see how you could tell one way or the other from his Place prize entry.
I must, though, at least be open to the idea that dance audiences and critics may be blind to qualities that others see.
But whatever the whys and wherefores of the award, the story behind it revealed one striking, even shocking pattern, as John Ashford pointed out to me – the stark divergence of opinion between three key groups of people: the dance audience, the dance critics and the mostly non-dance judges. Ashford then gently reminded me that at the time of the first Place prize in 2004 I’d wished the competition were “hotter” – and wondered if I might now like to eat my words …