So You Think You Can Win

Audience-judged dance competitions a matter of opinion.

“Who doesn’t want $10,000?” pondered Oakland choreographer Katie Faulkner, artistic director of Little Seismic Dance Company. That was her loot for winning this January’s A.W.A.R.D. Show in San Francisco, a dance competition in which the field is narrowed by audience vote. “It’s enabled me to be really ambitious and stretch my imagination.” Exposure to new audiences didn’t hurt, either.

So dancing away with the cash is all good, right? Maybe not. “I have a hard time with the idea of dance, and the art of performing dance, in a competition format,” she said. “I was very tenuous about entering into something that was going to be divisive. And is the fact that it’s liked in this immediate, visceral, ‘I’m going to cast my vote for it now’ way, is that necessarily the same thing as it being a work of quality?”

Half a dozen cities host an A.W.A.R.D. Show (the acronym stands for Artists With Audiences Responding to Dance), and critics and dancers alike echo Faulkner’s view, describing it as “a popularity contest” that could alienate artists, who supplement minimal funding with generous mutual encouragement.

“If the protocol is not carefully framed, then whoever has the most friends can win,” said Joan Lazarus, who produces San Francisco’s annual Bang for the Buck competition. “And that doesn’t feel so good to me. But you know what? That happens sometimes. This thing that we have with fair/not fair, I got over a long time ago, because I just don’t think of the universe that way.”

Curated by ODC, the A.W.A.R.D. Show entails applications, rehearsals, audience feedback, and expert judges. Bang for the Buck, on the other hand, is utterly democratic: The only requirement is to enroll via e-mail by noon the day before. “They want to compete, I let them compete,” Lazarus said. “And the dancing is just mind-blowing. You’re watching the best dancers in the whole Bay just blow it out for a whole minute. They dance, the audience votes, and then I hand somebody a thousand bucks.”

San Francisco’s Adam Peterson competed in the A.W.A.R.D. Show and won 2010’s Bang for the Buck. His take on audience-judged competitions is a bit different. “It was a great experience, and it was another venue in which I could show an audience what I’m passionate about,” he said. “What I felt with each of the competitions was that it really brought together an already strong arts community.”

Ultimately, in spite of her misgivings, Faulkner too was pleased “to see how genuinely happy people were for me, and how supportive everybody was of each other,” she said. “And I’m very grateful.”

Cast your vote on Monday, July 25, when Bang for the Buck happens at Z Space (450 Florida St., San Francisco). 7 p.m., $10. 866-558-4253 or


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