Broadway steps it up with rebirth of Astaire Awards
The return of the Astaire Awards: Back in 1982, when the great Fred Astaire was still with us (he died in 1987), the Astaire Awards were established by the Anglo-American Contemporary Dance Foundation with Fred A.'s blessing to recognize outstanding achievement in dance on Broadway each season. The awards were given in the name of Fred and his sister Adele, who had danced together in 10 Broadway musicals from 1917-31 with such titles as "Lady Be Good," "Funny Face" and "The Band Wagon." (Adele broke up the act in 1932 when she married a titled Brit and became Lady Cavendish; Fred did one more one Main Stem musical without his sister, then moved on to Hollywood and began his iconic film career in 1933, first dancing not with Ginger Rogers but with the musically challenged Joan Crawford in one segment in a mammoth MGMer titled "Dancing Lady." After that, Adele never returned to the limelight; brother Fred never really left it.) In the '80s, once the Astaire Awards became part of the theater landscape, the winners included such talented terpsichoreans as Gregory Hines, Chita Rivera, Bebe Neuwirth, Tommy Tune, Savion Glover, Ann Reinking, Ann Miller and Donna McKechnie, with nods also going to such choreographers as Michael Bennett, Bob Fosse, Susan Stroman, Jerome Robbins, Peter Martins and George Balanchine. In 1991, the Theatre Development Fund began administering these awards, but by the mid-2000s they had inexplicably been allowed to fall by the wayside. So the good news is that after a three-year hiatus, the Astaire Awards are back, now officially known as the Fred & Adele Astaire Awards and under the watchful eye (and thanks to the hard work) of Jennifer Dumas, executive producer of the Auditory Oral School of New York, and Patricia Watts, who'll be producing a gala F&AA awards show June 2 at the Grand Ballroom of the Manhattan Center Studios. Fred Astaire's daughter Ava Astaire McKenzie and her husband, Richard McKenzie, will be honorary chairs of the event, with Ava presenting the awards. This new incarnation boasts five categories: best Broadway male dancer, Broadway female dancer, Broadway choreography, film choreography and a lifetime achievement award. The winners in those first four categories will be announced in May; Tune will be the recipient of the group's 2008 lifetime award. Among those on the nominating committee are former New York Times chief dance critic Anna Kisselgoff, Dance magazine's editor in chief Wendy Perron and columnist Sylviane Gold, New York Post chief theater and dance critic Clive Barnes, Newsday's chief theater critic Linda Winer and the New York City Ballet's Damian Woetzel. The chairman emeritus of the nominating committee is Douglas Watt, the former senior drama critic at the New York Daily News. With the country so alive with dance fever and with "laying-down-the-leather" being a major factor in about 13 Broadway musicals that have opened since those former Astaire Awards were given out — including the brand-new "Passing Strange" and "In the Heights," plus four more on their way in — the judges of this particular award edition will have a rich and full platter from which to choose. High time, too, that Broadway's great dancers again receive some added palm-beating for what they have contributed. Mr. A. would be very pleased.