Why is there no Oscar for best choreography?
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Why is there no Oscar for best choreography?
Oscar statues outside the Dolby Theater during preparations for the 95th Academy Awards in Los Angeles, Friday, March 10, 2023. After decades of lobbying from the casting field, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is adding its first new award category since 2001. (Todd Heisler/The New York Times)

by Margaret Fuhrer

NEW YORK, NY.- If you’ve watched this year’s Oscar-nominated films — actually, if you’ve been in a movie theater at all recently — you’ve almost certainly seen the work of a choreographer.

Some of the most prominent dances have earned critical praise: Constanza Macras’ delightfully unhinged duet for “Poor Things.” Justin Peck’s ardent dream ballet for “Maestro.” Fatima Robinson’s showstopping love letters to Black social dance for “The Color Purple.” Jennifer White and Lisa Welham’s fizzily heroic numbers for “Barbie.”

Other choreographers contributed in quieter, though no less essential, ways. Nobody would call the “Killers of the Flower Moon” fire scene — in which workers stoke a hellish blaze as part of an insurance fraud scheme — a dance number. But choreographer Michael Arnold shaped the actors’ demonic movements for maximum biblical effect.

Collectively, the films above earned 37 Oscar nominations. None of their choreographers will be honored, or likely even mentioned, at the Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday.

Why isn’t there an Oscar for best choreography? It’s a question people in the dance world have been asking for decades.

And there’s no satisfying answer.

Imaginative, world-expanding dance helped make Hollywood what it is, defining the movie musicals of its golden age. So many classic movies live and breathe through their dance numbers, marvels of choreographic wit and technical ingenuity. Today’s film choreographers also shape far more than steps, creating scenes that propel plot in ways that dialogue can’t. It makes sense that dance scenes frequently go viral: Good film choreography can capture, succinctly and with striking clarity, the essence of a character, relationship or problem.

“A well-choreographed movie scene can have a huge cultural impact,” said Kathryn Burns, a film and television choreographer. “That deserves recognition.”

While outstanding choreography in television, theater and music videos is recognized — by the Emmy Awards, the Tonys and MTV Video Music Awards — movie dance essentially goes unheralded at the major awards ceremonies. The Oscars omission carries a special sting: The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which presents the Academy Awards, used to celebrate choreography. From 1936 to 1938, the Oscar ceremony included an award for best dance direction.

Over the years, various artists and allies have unsuccessfully campaigned for a best choreography category. One hurdle: Choreographers are significantly underrepresented in the academy. As of early 2023, it counted just one choreographer among its 10,000-plus members, Vincent Paterson, known for his work on “Evita” and “The Birdcage.”

Then came a breakthrough. Last year, the academy announced the creation of its new Production and Technology branch, the first to explicitly include choreographers. At least on paper, it should help more dance artists become members, potentially creating inside support for the establishment of a regular choreography award. Robinson was invited to join the new branch last June.

Choreographers also now have an organization to lobby on their behalf, the recently formed Choreographers Guild, for which Burns serves as president. In November, she and other members of the guild met with academy representatives to discuss the new branch and the issue of choreographer representation. Both parties described the meeting as positive.

These are all just baby steps toward the establishment of a best choreography category. And on the long list of issues dance artists face — from improper crediting to inadequate compensation — you might assume awards recognition ranks relatively low. (Worrying about an Oscar? In this economy?)

But Paterson said the powerful symbolism of an Academy Award could help film-industry choreographers achieve their more practical goals.

“It comes down to legitimacy,” Paterson said. “To give us an award would be to recognize us as equal to the other creative people we rub elbows with on film sets. An Oscar-winning choreographer is going to get a different kind of respect.”

Film choreography emerged as a distinct art in the 1930s, when Hollywood started churning out musicals. Spectacular dance routines became a major selling point for audiences, and studios fought over the highest-profile dance directors: Busby Berkeley, Seymour Felix, Hermes Pan. As they devised and coached elaborate scenes, dance directors — the term “choreographer” would become more common later — helped create some of the techniques of modern filmmaking, choreographing the movements of the camera along with the dancers.

The success of dance-forward musical films prompted the young academy to introduce a best dance direction category, beginning with films released in 1935; the first prize went to Dave Gould (1936) and later ones to Felix (1937) and Pan (1938). But the award was discontinued, and the reasons remain murky.

In his book “Film Choreographers and Dance Directors” (1997), writer Larry Billman suggested that the mighty directors’ union objected to the term “dance director,” seeing these increasingly influential artists as potential threats to their power. “They refused to accept that audiences had come to see a film because of its dances,” Billman wrote.

Without a union of their own, dance directors weren’t able to fight back. The dance direction category was suspended just as Hollywood entered its most prolific musicals era. In the decades since, the academy has offered four honorary awards for excellence in choreography, to Gene Kelly (1952), Jerome Robbins (1962), Onna White (1969) and Michael Kidd (1997).

Shortly after receiving his award, Robbins sent a strongly worded letter to the academy’s board of governors, demanding the establishment of a best choreography category. The academy “has been negligent,” he wrote. “An industry which honors its technicians must also acknowledge all of the artists whose contributions have helped make the American cinema’s reputation.”

In her polite but firm response, Margaret Herrick, the academy’s executive director, said there simply wasn’t enough dance happening on film to merit a regular award. It’s an argument that choreographers still hear. It’s also a misperception, said Claire Ross, a dance artist and the founder of the social platform Credit the Creator, which celebrates screen choreographers.

The problem, Ross said, is not a lack of dance, but a lack of awareness. “Since not every film needs a choreographer, choreographers aren’t consistently on set,” she said. “So the industry doesn’t have a consistent language about what our job is and how we do our job.”

That’s particularly frustrating because film choreographers can shape so many aspects of production. Burns said she’s often asked to turn a one-line prompt — “And then they dance” — into a fully fleshed-out scene. “It’s like being in a writer’s room with one writer,” she said.

Choreographers coordinate with casting directors and stunt teams, advise on camera angles, and train and coach nervous actors. Robinson noted that on the film “Save the Last Dance,” her duties even extended to wardrobe styling: In the now-famous club scene, “Julia Stiles would never have had that head wrap on if it wasn’t for me.”

When the academy revealed last spring that it would be including choreographers in its new Production and Technology branch, Paterson felt a surge of hope. “Initially it seemed, truly for the first time, like real forward progression,” he said. Perhaps now more choreographers would be able to join the academy, lending their voices to the call for a regular award.

Then came creeping dismay. The new branch essentially functions as a catchall for the disparate artists and technicians previously orphaned as “members at large”: script supervisors, colorists, line producers. Most of these workers have no involvement with dance. That’s a problem for choreographers hoping to join the academy. Each prospective member must be sponsored by two members of the branch to which they seek admission, and each academy member may sponsor only one candidate a year.

“To ask a colorist or a post-op music supervisor what a choreographer does is absolutely absurd,” Paterson said. “How can choreographers be expected to get sponsors?”

Additionally, while directors need two film credits, and actors three, to join their academy branches, the Production and Technology branch requires eight credits. Bob Fosse (seven credits), Agnes de Mille (five) and Robbins (five) wouldn’t have qualified.

Last year, Robinson was able to secure her academy spot with sponsorship from Paterson and a colorist who happens to be a friend. Veteran choreographer Mandy Moore wasn’t so lucky.

Moore, whose “La La Land” choreography inspired a 2017 campaign to award her an honorary Oscar, would seem a shoo-in for academy membership. But while Robinson sponsored Moore’s candidacy during the most recent membership review, Paterson had already agreed to sponsor another choreographer — and Moore couldn’t get anyone else in the Production and Technology branch to sign on.

“I’ve got the clout, I’ve got 15 or 16 credits,” Moore said, “I have all the things the academy says I need. And I still couldn’t do it.”

Moore, by the way, is creating multiple dance numbers for this year’s Oscar ceremony. “Never a choreographer honored, always a choreographer hired,” Burns said.

Moore plans to seek sponsorship again next round. And the cause isn’t hopeless. Paterson and dance agent Julie McDonald, who have led the recent pushes for a choreography Oscar, said the academy seems receptive to feedback. The Production and Technology branch’s admission criteria might evolve over time.

Change of any kind tends to take a while at the large, bureaucratic and conservative Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. A proposal for an annual choreography award would have to go through the Production and Technology branch’s executive committee, then to the awards committee, and finally to the board of governors for approval. The recently announced Oscar for casting direction was the academy’s first new award in more than 20 years.

Even those eager to get more choreographers into the academy aren’t sure an annual best choreography Oscar is an attainable goal. “I understand that we have to zoom out and see us as the industry sees us,” Moore said. “Yes, there are plenty of films with dance coming out. Is there enough with Oscar-worthy dance to sustain an annual category? I don’t know.”

Moore, Burns and Ross all suggested more frequent honorary Oscars for choreography as a likelier option.

“Whatever it is, we deserve something,” Burns said. “People remember things because of either awards or lawsuits. Can dance get more of the awards side?”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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