The Bessies Come to Lincoln Center

The 39th Annual New York Dance and Performance Awards honored O’Shae Sibley, the Black gay man and dancer recently killed while vogueing with his friends at a Brooklyn gas station.

The sky was a cool dusty gray on the evening of the 39th Annual New York Dance and Performance Awards, but the forecasted rain held out and the seats were full of excited, stylishly-dressed movers and shakers.

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Fredrick Earl Mosley’s ‘Diversity of Dance’. Courtesy of the New York Dance and Performance Awards / AK47 Division

The awards, known as “The Bessies” in honor of dance teacher Bessie Schönberg, were established in 1984 by David R. White at Dance Theater Workshop. For almost forty years, The Bessies have recognized “outstanding and groundbreaking creative work” in choreography, performance, music composition, visual design, legacy and service to the field of dance by independent dance artists and organizations.

For the first time ever, the ceremony took place at Damrosch Park as part of Lincoln Center’s Summer for the City. Performances presented in New York City between June 1 of 2022, and March 31 of 2023 were eligible for award consideration, and the nominees were chosen by a Selection Committee made up of artists, presenters, producers and writers.

The evening opened with Fredrick Earl Mosley’s Unbroken, performed by his company Diversity of Dance. The young dancers ran up the aisles and all around the stage while Lady Gaga told us she was born this way. The crowd loved it.

Then we met the event’s hosts: the acclaimed queer DJ/music/fashion duo (and real-life married couple) The Illustrious Blacks, self-proclaimed “Afro-Electro-Disco-Space-Punks”. Manchildblack and Monstah Black were dressed in matching “futuristic Little Lord Fauntleroy” outfits that were truly amazing.

The Illustrious Blacks at The Bessies. Courtesy of the New York Dance and Performance Awards / Yekaterina Gyado

After introducing themselves and cracking a few jokes, they asked the audience to stand up and dance to Beyonce’s “Break My Soul” in honor of O’Shae Sibley, the Black gay man and dancer who was recently killed after vogueing with his friends at a Brooklyn gas station. It was a moving tribute to another life taken too early.

Dancing in honor of O’Shae Sibley. Courtesy of the New York Dance and Performance Awards / AK47 Division

In a series of remarks from NYC dance and cultural leaders, Deputy Commissioner of NYC’s Department of Cultural Affairs Alton Murray pointed out that tourists aren’t coming to New York to visit the trading floor of the Stock Exchange or see the Yankees and the Mets lose more games. “They’re coming for the arts. They’re coming for dance.” No one there could argue with that.

Other performances included Brooklyn-based AbunDance Academy of the ArtsAfro-Acro and an excerpt from Princess Lockeroo’s The Fabulous Waack Dancers Big Show (which was, indeed, fabulous).

Dance Theatre of Harlem performed Orange, a duet by Stanton Welch, in honor of the 2023 Award for Lifetime Achievement in Dance recipient Virginia Johnson. Johnson was a founding member and principal dancer with DTH before becoming its Artistic Director. She is also the founder and former Editor-in-Chief of Pointe Magazine.

Lifetime Achievement in Dance Awardee Virginia Johnson. Courtesy of the New York Dance and Performance Awards / AK47 Division

The 2023 Award for Outstanding Service to the Field of Dance recipient was the Founder and Executive Director of Ladies of Hip-Hop, Michele Byrd-McPhee. And the 2023 Bessies Juried Award (selected by the 2023 Bessie Jury luciana achugar, Ayodele Casel and Kyle Marshall) went to classical Indian and Kathak dancer Barkha Patel.

Service to the Field of Dance Awardee Michele Byrd-McPhee. Courtesy the New York Dance and Performance Awards / Photo: Yekaterina Gyadu

Award presenters included notable members of the dance and performance community including Tyler AshleyClifton Brown, Porshia A. Derival, George FaisonErin FogertyDyane Harvey SalaamKarisma Jay, Gian Marco Riccardo Lo Forte, Abdel Salaam, Paz Tanjuaquio and Ms Vee.

To honor those who had passed away since the last Bessie Awards Ceremony, the audience was asked to shine the lights from our phones while names were read aloud: Darius Barnes, David Gordon, Dexter T. Jones, Edwin “Edy” Lopez, Everett Quinton, Jennifer Muller, Jordan Neely, Lynn Seymour, Micki Wesson, Neil Chrisman Pierre Lacote, O’Shea Sibley, Ralph Lee, Robert Gottlieb, Scott Johnson, Stephanie Bissonnette, Stuart Hodes, Tina Ramirez and Valda Setterfield.

Princess Lockeroo’s The Fabulous Waack Dancers. Courtesy of the New York Dance and Performance Awards / AK47 Division

In her closing remarks, Executive Director of The Bessies Heather Robles ended with a call to action. “The world needs artists. It needs you. Keep going.”

They did keep going. The event—one of the most inclusive I have ever been to—continued at The Bessie Awards Silent Disco After-Party with DJ Sabine Blaizin on Lincoln Center’s Josie Robertson Plaza.

But let me give you what you came for. The recipients of the 2023 New York Dance and Performance Awards are as follows:

Outstanding Sound Design or Music Composition 

Charles Turner and Sean Mason for LaTasha Barnes presents The Jazz Continuum by LaTasha Barnes at The Joyce Theater

Outstanding Breakout Choreographer 

Symara Johnson

George Faison with Breakout Choreographer Awardee Symara Johnson. Courtesy the New York Dance and Performance Awards / Photo: Yekaterina Gyadu

Outstanding Visual Design 

Tina Tzoka & Loukas Bakas (Set Design)

Stephanos Droussiotis (Lighting Design)

Nektarios Dionysatos (Sculptures and Special Constructions)

Dimitris Korres (Mechanical Inventions) for Transverse Orientation by Dimitris Papaioannou at the Brooklyn Academy of Music

Outstanding Revival

In The Upper Room (1986/2022) by Twyla Tharp at New York City Center

Outstanding Performer

bouey in A Message from Mx. Black Copperby j. bouey at Movement Research at the Judson Church

Amanda Castro in Ayodele Casel: Chasing Magic by Ayodele Casel at The Joyce Theater

Joyce Edwards in Grace, The Equality of Night and Day and Open Door by Ronald K. Brown at The Joyce Theater

Albert Silindokuhle Ibokwe Khoza in And so you see… our honorable blue sky and ever enduring sun… can only be consumed slice by slice… by Robyn Orlin at New York Live Arts

Outstanding Choreographer/Creator

LaTasha Barnes for LaTasha Barnes presents The Jazz Continuum at The Joyce Theater

Dormeshia for Dormeshia Tap Collective: Rhythm Is Life at The Joyce Theater

Benjamin Akio Kimitch for Tiger Hands at The Shed

Omari Wiles for New York Is Burning at Works & Process at The Guggenheim

The Bessies Come to Lincoln Center