Dance Magazine Awards Honoring Rennie Harris, Diana Vishneva, Linda Celeste Sims & Marika Molnar

Have you ever taken a moment to marvel at the concept of an art museum? Each room is filled with works of art that have a rich history, bring different feelings to fruition, have the ability to transport you back in time or expose you to a concept you never knew existed. With a mere twelve steps, you can exit the Renaissance and enter the age of Impression. As museum patrons, how fortunate are we to have this all housed under one roof? It’s really quite astounding! This same awe and disbelief is the only way I can explain the 2017 Dance Magazine Awards.

Frederic M. Seegal, CEO, Dance Media;  Honoree Marika Molnar, Westside Dance Physical Therapy;  Honoree Rennie Harris, Rennie Harris Puremovement;  Jennifer Stahl, Dance Magazine; Joan Finkelstein, The Harkness Foundation.  Photo by Christopher Duggan

The ceremony took place on December 4th at the Ailey CitiGroup Theater in New York City and honored four individuals who have made a significant impact on the world of dance. Rennie Harris, Marika Molnar, Linda Celeste Sims, and Diana Vishneva were this year’s recipients. One by one, we were taken through the careers of four diverse professionals with heartfelt speeches and moving performances. Just like the works in an art museum, each honoree brought a unique history and feeling to the stage, sharing work that deserves to be celebrated for years to come.

The prestigious Dance Magazine Awards began in 1954 and has honored a revered list of artists. Agnes de Mille, Martha Graham, George Balanchine, Jack Cole, Bob Fosse, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Merce Cunningham, Julie Kent, Tiler Peck, Luigi, and Misty Copeland just to name a few! When I asked Jennifer Stahl, the editor-in-chief of Dance Magazine, how the awardees are chosen, she said the selection committee discusses the nominees and looks at “who has made an impact that can’t be ignored”. The awardees go beyond dancers, often including doctors and organizations that support the arts. Jennifer said, “We try to look…at all the different genres of dance, but also look beyond the stage at the people who support dancers and choreographers, the people who…make this amazing field the thing that it is.”

This year was special because Dance Magazine partnered with the Harkness Foundation for Dance. The proceeds from tickets will be used to create the Harkness Promise Award. Joan Finkelstein, executive director of the Harkness Foundation, explained that this award will give budding and promising artistic voices the funds, space, and mentorship to create their work. This partnership gave the night a beautiful “circle of life” touch, recognizing the work of living legends with the desire to catapult new artists into their careers.

The evening began with a warm welcome from the CEO of Dance Media, Frederic M. Seegal and editor-in-chief of Dance Magazine, Jennifer Stahl. Wendy Perron, editor-at-large of Dance Magazine, spoke of the honorees with extreme eloquence and care as the award ceremony commenced.

Honoree Linda Celeste Sims, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater; Performer Tiler Peck, New York City Ballet Principal Dancer

Rennie Harris, the founder of Rennie Harris Puremovement was the first honoree of the night. Harris founded his company in 1992, specializing in the ability to bring hip-hop dance and culture from the street to the stage. Harris’ achievements are plentiful, recognizing his work as a choreographer, director, and educator. The audience was treated to two performances from his company. The term “synchronized individuality” came to mind. His dancers were one with the music, yet they executed the complex footwork with their own flare. Doubt & Dolo, a solo Rennie choreographed in honor of his late mother, left the audience stunned. The marriage of Smokie Nolful’s soulful voice and break dancing was unlike anything I’d ever seen. My heart was moved by head spins and air flares. Brenda Dixon Gottschild presented Rennie Harris with his award, and Harris could not have been more gracious in his acceptance speech. Pausing occasionally to let the tears subside, Harris thanked many and softly said, “It’s nice to know someone is watching.”

The next honoree of the evening was principal ballerina, Diana Vishneva. Until recently, Vishneva was a principal with American Ballet Theatre before retiring earlier this year. She is back home in Russia dancing with the Mariinsky Ballet and recently finished up the 5th anniversary of her CONTEXT Festival. Due to health reasons, she was not able to fly over for the awards ceremony, but the celebration continued! We saw a video of her final days at ABT documented by The New Yorker, and listened to charming and captivating anecdotes from ABT principal dancer and former Dance Magazine Award recipient, Marcelo Gomes. He spoke about Diana’s ability to captivate an audience with her stillness. He spoke with reverence to her artistry and work ethic. In Diana’s video message, she shared, “ My feet danced me away from New York, but my heart stayed.” How lucky we New Yorkers were to witness her career while we could.

Marika Molnar, physical therapist for the New York City Ballet since 1980 and founder of West Side Physical Therapy, was the next guest of honor. Marika is the reason we are able to enjoy so many of our favorite ballerinas. She has helped thousands of artists maintain their physical prowess so they can share their stories onstage night after night. One of Marika’s most noteable patients is New York City Ballet principal and 2016 Dance Magazine Award recipient, Tiler Peck. As per the request of Marika, Tiler performed an exquisite, self-choreographed contemporary pointe solo to a song that was sung live by Marika’s daughter, Veronica Jokel. When I spoke with Tiler about Marika’s award she said, “I really couldn’t think of a more deserving person. I’m really glad the Dance Magazine Awards committee gave it to a physical therapist. Half of us wouldn’t be dancing if it wasn’t for her!” When Tiler spoke of the serious back injury that first brought her to Marika when she was 18, she said, “I didn’t know if I would be able to do arabesque again, it was a really serious thing. So to have somebody who really took me under her wing…I really felt like she cared every step of the way.” Gratitude flowed from Tiler as she spoke of Marika, and it flowed from Marika as she spoke and accepted her award.

The final awardee of the evening was Linda Celeste Sims, a dancer of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater since 1996. She commanded the stage in an excerpt from Alvin Ailey’s Cry and earned a standing ovation from all. Her performance was transcendent. We forgot where we were for those four minutes and were transported to the world of Ms. Sims. After her performance, Robert Battle and Judith Jamison took the stage to speak of Linda’s phenomenal career. With wit and awe, Jamison spoke of the leader Linda is within the company and the focus she has in regards to her craft. Battle made the audience laugh and smile with an anecdote about the meal Sims cooked for Thanksgiving dinner, comparing the labor and love she put into the meal to the work she does on the stage. Linda accepted the award with the most beautiful combination of confidence and humility. She thanked her parents for their sacrifices over the years. She also thanked her husband, Glenn Allen Sims, for his endless love and support. The two met when Glenn joined the company a year after Linda and have done countless performances together around the world. Her passion filled the room, and it was abundantly clear why she was chosen for the honor.

As the show ended and the house lights came on, I couldn’t help but marvel at my company. I was sitting in the presence of the dance world’s most elite innovators, studio owners, company directors, and performers. Standing ovations from adoring fans is wonderful, but to see the honoree’s peers rise to their feet after each performance was outstanding. I believe this turnout and support speaks volumes about the 2017 Dance Magazine Award recipients. Just as an art museum is the home to historical art, the CitiGroup Theater was home to a historical performance and ceremony last Monday.

Veronika Jokel performs her pop song Tides accompanied by dancer Tiler Peck. Photo by Christopher Duggan

Madison Embrey is a Michigan native that moved to NYC in 2010. After completing her BFA in Commercial Dance from Pace University in downtown Manhattan, she toured the United States and Europe with a live-action stunt show called Marvel Universe Live! Madison is the 2017 recipient of the Lorna Strassler Award for Student Excellence awarded by The School at Jacob’s Pillow. Pursuing her dance career in NYC, she can most often be seen with a smile on her face and a coffee in hand. You can follow Madison on Instagram at @madisonembrey.

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