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Doris Duke Foundation announces major increase in cash prizes to dance, jazz and theater artists

Tap dancer Ayodele Casel, trumpeter Chief Xian aTunde Adjuah among 10th anniversary class of winners

Tap dancer Ayodele Casel was driving when she got the call. A representative from the Doris Duke Foundation was on the line to inform her she was one of six artists in the newest class of Doris Duke Artists and, in honor of the 10th anniversary of the award, the prize had been doubled to $550,000. Casel had to slow down.

“A community of people put me up for it. I couldn’t believe it, it was just so beautiful,” she said.

The awards program, which focuses on contemporary dance, jazz and theater, announced this year’s winners Monday evening in a ceremony at Lincoln Center in New York. Along with Casel, they are: composer and trumpeter Chief Xian aTunde Adjuah, director Charlotte Brathwaite, composer and vocalist Somi Kakoma, choreographer and performer Rosy Simas, and playwright and performer Kristina Wong. This cohort reflects a focus on cross-disciplinary performance and a commitment to advocacy as part of their creative practices.

“This award is the pinnacle of this type of energy that’s intentional about changing the world for the better,” said Adjuah. “I was grinning ear to ear [upon receiving the news] because I would be tethered to that energy.”

Previously, the unrestricted individual grant was $275,000. The foundation also announced it was giving an additional $20,000 to each of the previous winners of the prize. The foundation also announced it has set aside $30 million from its endowment to lock in the increased amount for future awardees.

“What a decade of this award has revealed to us is that if you trust extraordinary artists and give them the conditions to thrive, they will go beyond the boundaries and expectations that you or anyone else could set for them,” said Maurine Knighton, chief program officer at the Doris Duke Foundation. “They will open doors to worlds previously unimagined and unlock new levels of creativity.”

Receiving a monetary award this large can be life-changing, the honorees said.

“By the grace of the universe, I’ve survived and managed to create my work — at times it’s felt like I’ve done so against all the odds,” said Brathwaite. “This award opens up space to take a deep breath and say to myself, ‘Hey, sis, you’ve endured, and you’ve done some pretty remarkable things while enduring, so how will you celebrate this thing called life?’ It lets me exhale into gratitude for a future which is more certain, and ground myself in dreaming, which is impossible to do when you’re just trying to make it safely through to the next project, the next opportunity, and sometimes just the next day.”

For Adjuah — who owns a record label and develops new musical instruments, along with making music and touring — the money is an opportunity to reprioritize.

“It takes you out of a space where you’re scratching your head and trying to figure out how to get everything done,” said Adjuah. “Sometimes because of the larger environment, and trying to keep a business thriving, you have to be more practical in what it is that you are you’re doing. What I love so much about this award is that it allows artists to take more care of what it is that they love.”

Inherent in the grant is the promise of increasing audiences through new networks, formats, and venues.

“I am quite sure that I’m not even privy to all of the ways that this is going to expand and bless my life,” said Casel, who looks forward to meeting with a financial planner for the first time. “But I know I want more than seven nights for a show. I want to expand the stage, and I am thinking about television, film, and [working with] brands. There was a time when there was not a performer that did not tap dance. And I don’t even think we’ve scratched the surface of all the ways that media can interact with it.”

There are already positive ripples. Adjuah will hold a series of free concerts beginning Feb. 25 at the Aileen Getty Plaza at The Geffen Contemporary MOCA in Los Angeles, with more dates in other cities to follow.

“I’ve spent so many years of touring in great jazz halls where it’s $65-$120 per ticket,” said Adjuah. “This puts us in a position where I can say: Anyone in Los Angeles that wants to come hear stretch music can come down and we will accommodate you. It gives us the ability to pay it forward.”

Candice Thompson is a writer and dance critic living in Brooklyn.