Sarah Kaufman’s nods for Kennedy Center Honors


Liza Minnelli in "Cabaret." (Courtesy of ABC)

The recipients of this year’s Kennedy Center Honors won’t be announced until later this summer or early fall — indeed, the deliberations for who will be named are still ongoing. With that in mind, our critics weigh in with their own recommendations for who they think are most deserving of this prestigious acknowledgment of artistic achievement in the performing arts.

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Mikhail Baryshnikov, Twyla Tharp, Paul Taylor, Chita Rivera — so many deserving artists of national prominence in the American dance arena have been honored by the Kennedy Center. With few exceptions (for starters, Gregory Hines and Gwen Verdon, both of whom died without the honors), the center’s recognition of dancers has been admirably thorough, encompassing performers and choreographers in ballet, tap, modern dance, musical theater and Hollywood’s Golden Age.

But given the dearth of movie musicals and dancing film stars, the lack of big-name hoofers on Broadway, the limited supply of game-changing innovators and the likely extinction of the single-choreographer dance company — given, in other words, the shifting, unsteady landscape in dance — spotlighting American artists in the field with an international profile and the wide-ranging influence of previous honorees is a bit tricky. (Call me a chest-thumper, but I feel strongly that the honors from a presidential memorial should celebrate American artists, or of those who have rooted their careers here.)

Celebrations ought to be in store, then, for these three luminaries — and a bonus all-arounder — who have it all.

Rita Moreno

Her steely, poignant and hip-swinging Anita outshone Natalie Wood’s Maria in the 1961 film of “West Side Story” — the role for which Moreno became the first Hispanic woman to win an Oscar. Hollywood may have set limits for this Puerto Rican dancer-singer-actress, but Moreno didn’t accept them. She went on to become one of very few performing artists to score all four major showbiz awards: Along with the Oscar, Moreno has a Tony, a Grammy and two Emmys. At 79, her sass and class are undiminished; in September she’ll open a new solo show based on her wide-ranging career. Younger Latinas such as Jennifer Lopez and Rosie Perez owe something to Moreno’s trailblazing path to stardom. Few can match her versatility.

Mark Morris

No choreographer is as inventive as Morris, nor as flexible, with his fluency in ballet as well as in his own brand of muscular, springy, musically astute modern dance. Morris has always balanced high-art sophistication (he insists on live musical accompaniment) with lowbrow humanism (toy pianos, 1960s suburbia, tacky Western wear). In other words, he embraces it all, and that’s the great glory of his work. No wonder the Mark Morris Dance Group just celebrated its 30th anniversary — an enormous achievement in the ephemeral and underfunded modern-dance world.

Ann Reinking

Which do you think of first — the furious motion of her world-class legs, or the time-freezing halt of her gaze? As a performer in Bob Fosse’s “Dancin’ ” and “Chicago,” as well as in “A Chorus Line,” Reinking possessed effortless electricity; she earned three Tony nominations. But it was when she turned to choreography that she finally won the award — for her work on the 1996 version of “Chicago,” which turned it into Broadway’s longest-running musical revival and an important showcase for countless other dancer-actors. Reinking also strutted through Fosse’s biopic “All That Jazz,” as the smoldering paramour to his alter ego. There, as in all her roles, she delivered on her mentor’s advice: Make love to the audience.

Bonus! Liza Minnelli: Best pedigree in the biz, and she has put it to splendid use. What capacity of performance does she lack? The charismatic if over-adorable Minnelli joins Moreno in scoring the four biggest entertainment awards, with an Oscar (for “Cabaret”), an Emmy, a Grammy and three Tonys. She was recently granted France’s Legion of Honor. (Fun fact: She also has a local connection. At 19, she made her nightclub debut at the Shoreham Hotel, the venue that also incubated the Mamas and the Papas.) With those pipes and her perky camera presence, she’s not best known for dancing, but she has logged plenty of time in fishnets.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, black boxes, folding chairs and dive bars, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it.
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