On Thursday September 17, 2020 I attended a press webinar presentation of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation’s (DDCF) announcement of their 2020 Artists Awards and was pleased to see that half of the recipients are dance artists.  Three of the eight recipients of this $250,000 unrestricted award are from California, and that two of those are based in Los Angeles. Ana María Alvarez (Los Angeles) and Sean Dorsey (San Francisco) received the award in the category of Dance, and Michael John Garcés (Los Angeles) for Theater. The other two artists who received the award for their impact on dance are Rennie Harris (Philadelphia)  and Pam Tanowitz (New York City).

The Doris Duke Artists awards are always an honor because the recipients are nominated by their peers, but in this time of Covid, when their entire seasonal income has simply vanished, it must be especially gratifying. It was also pleasing to find out that the artists receive an additional $25,000 that is dedicated to encouraging savings for retirement, bringing the total of the award to $275,000. This money is available to the artists to use for “important life needs” that will help them continue to thrive. According to their press release, since 2012 the DDCF has awarded approximately $10.5 million to 38 artists in the field of dance.

Pam Tanowitz Dance in Four Quartets - Photo by Maria Baranova

Pam Tanowitz Dance in Four Quartets – Photo by Maria Baranova

Doris Duke (1912-1993) was the only child of James Buchanan Duke, a founder of the American Tobacco Company and Duke Energy Company, and his second wife, Nanaline Holt Inman Duke. Her father died when she was only 12 years old, and the heiress of half of her family’s fortune. Duke used her wealth to travel, enjoy and support the arts, historical preservation, environmental conservation, preservation of wildlife and ornamental horticulture. Duke was not just a supporter of the arts. She studied jazz at the famed Jazz Loft in NYC, was a jazz pianist and composer, and studied with the legendary modern dance choreographer and teacher Martha Graham.

The current President and CEO of DDCF, Ed Henry, performed with the New York City-based companies of Dan Wagoner and Viola Farber, served in the Artists-in-Schools program and participated as a peer reviewer for federal, state and local funding organizations.

“The work of this year’s Doris Duke Artist Award recipients is profoundly inspiring and brings vibrancy, insight, gravity and light to the world,” said Ed Henry. “We believe that the arts are critically important to the well-being of our nation, and at the heart of the arts is the individual artist. We take great pride in supporting these outstanding artists as they continue to develop and share their talent.”

Rennie Harris Puremovement – Rennie Harris Funkedified – Photo courtesy of the Ford Theatres

“The 2020 class of Doris Duke Artists consists of an extraordinary set of creative visionaries, and we are thrilled to award them with this support,” said Maurine Knighton, program director for the arts at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. “Each of them has earned this well-deserved recognition, as attested to by a body of their peers through an incredibly rigorous nomination and review process. Our intent for this award has always been to enable its recipients to invest in their own well-being in ways that create the right conditions for them to continue to flourish and do their best work. Amid a year like no other in recent memory, the importance of this aim should be readily apparent to all.”

The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation designed the Artist Awards to “invest in exemplary individual artists in contemporary dance, jazz and theater work who have demonstrated their artistic vitality and ongoing commitment to their field”. It is also intended as an investment in artists’ potential, not as a lifetime achievement award. Including the 2020 recipients, since 2012 the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation has awarded nearly $33.5 million to 122 notable and deserving artists.


Ana Maria Alvarez The Haitian Fascination Cecile McLorin Salvant Dael Orlandersmith Michael John Garcés Pam Tanowitz by George Etheredge Rennie Harris by Osamu Inoue SeanDorsey_PhotoByLydiaDaniller
Pam Tanowitz - Photo by George Etheredge, courtesy of The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation

Focusing its support on contemporary dance, jazz and theater artists, and the organizations that support and present them, the mission of DDCF is “to improve the quality of people’s lives through grants supporting the performing arts, environmental conservation, medical research and child well-being, and through preservation of the cultural and environmental legacy of Doris Duke’s properties. In 2015, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) awarded the foundation with a 2014 National Medal of Arts.

Each of the eight artists were introduced separately and each had a chance to thank the foundation, their creative teams, families and their supporters. I will focus here on the three artists from California, Ana Maria Alvarez (Los Angeles) and Sean Dorsey (San Francisco) who received the award in the discipline of Dance, and Michael John Garcés (Los Angeles) who received it in the discipline of Theater.

“I’m extremely honored to be a 2020 Doris Duke Artist and in company with such prolific politically engaged artists who all have made major contributions to the field both collectively and individually. To say that I’m grateful doesn’t do justice. The renewed hope that this award has given me is just immense and immeasurable,” Alvarez said. She went on to thank her family, her team, community leaders and her teachers for all that they have supported, pushed and inspired her over the years. Alvarez also talked about the collaboration process that is at the core of her work. “I don’t see this award as just for me, but I feel that this award is an acknowledgement of this truth that art is collaborative, art is about the community and art is about the collective.”

Alvarez expressed how receiving the award felt like a beacon of light during this time of global pandemic and injustice toward people of color, especially black and brown people, escalating and becoming more visible. She used a phrase that I have heard her say several times before, that she wanted to continue putting ‘movement into the movement’. A phrase that speaks to her continuing social activism.

“I am so, so honored to be amongst this incredible group of artists. I am so beyond grateful to receive this award,” Dorsey said. “When I have the chance to speak in public or in the community, I often like to begin by saying I Love Being Transgender.” Dorsey explained that he says this because it is true and that transgender and non-conforming communities do not get to hear those words echoed back at them very often. Dorsey said that it was clear that years ago he would not have even been able to dream of receiving such an award as this one. “Twenty years ago, when I began making work in San Francisco, almost nobody was funding transgender artists or putting us onstage. We were told that we did not belong or have a place in dance. So, for twenty years I have passionate about making dances that are created in deep relationship with transgender and queer communities bringing our voices and our histories to the stage.”

Dorsey’s message continued to be passionate and inspiring as he spoke to the history of those who came before him in dance and the “transcestors” whose shoulders he stands upon. “This award is powerful fuel for all of us to continue the community revolutions that we are engaged in this moment fighting white supremacy, anti-blackness, ablism, trans-phobia, misogyny, xenophobia, and state sanctioned violence while uplifting the bodies, stories, dance, music and artistry of our communities.”

“I would like to start by expressing a deep, deep appreciation to the Doris Duke Foundation for this support and recognition for the vision to celebrates war that challenges assumptions and questions the centrality of a privileged narrative of that assumption,” Garcés said. “Theater, a lot like dance and jazz, is an extremely collaborative form in which we make things that are unexpectedly subversive of our own expectations through the process of collective creation, and which hopefully also subvert our audiences’ assumption about each other and to see each other in our humanness.” He went on to thank his creative team and the community around him that continue to support them to continue making theater because they recognize the importance of having a voice in today’s narrative.

A little about each of the California artists:

Ana María Alvarez is a prolific choreographer, skilled dancer, masterful teaching artist and movement activist who has achieved multiple accolades for her dynamic works. Her thesis work exploring the abstraction of Latin dance, specifically salsa dancing, as a way to express social resistance as related to the U.S. immigration battle became the impetus for founding CONTRA-TIEMPO/Urban Latin Dance Theater in 2005 in Los Angeles. Click here to read Alvarez’s full bio.

Contra-Tiempo/Urban Latin Dance Theater - Photo courtesy of the company.

Contra-Tiempo/Urban Latin Dance Theater – Photo courtesy of the company.

Sean Dorsey is an award-winning San Francisco-based choreographer, dancer and writer recognized as the first acclaimed transgender modern dance choreographer in the U.S. Dorsey’s dances are powerful explorations of human experience that are a fusion of full-throttle dance, luscious partnering, intimate storytelling and theater. Click here to read Dorsey’s full bio.

Sean Dorsey Dance - Boys In Trouble - Photo by Kegan Marling

Sean Dorsey Dance – Boys In Trouble – Photo by Kegan Marling

Michael John Garcés is a Cuban-American playwright and director whose work elevates both community and professional theater to new heights. Since 2006, he has been the artistic director of Cornerstone Theater Company, a community-engaged ensemble in Los Angeles, for which he has written and directed many plays. Click here to read Garcés’ full bio.

The three recipients of the 2020 Doris Duke Artists Award not mentioned above are Drummer and Composer Andrew Cyrille (Montclair, N.J.); Composer, Vocalist and Visual Artist Cécile McLorin Salvant (New York City); and Playwright Dael Orlandersmith (New York City). Congratulations to all eight artists.

The webinar concluded with a Q&A session.

For more information about the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, click HERE.

Written by Jeff Slayton for LA Dance Chronicle.

Featured image: California artists and recipients of the 2020 Doris Duke Artists Awards –  Left to right: Ana Maria Alvarez, Sean Dorsey, Michael John Garcés – Photos courtesy of DDCF, collage by LADC.