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Despite an arts season drastically reduced by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Canadian Theatre Critics Association was still able to present its 2020 Nathan Cohen Awards for excellence in critical writing.

Long-time Toronto-based dance critic Deirdre Kelly won the Outstanding Review award for “Danse Macabre: Three Works by the National Ballet of Canada” – a review of one of the classical dance company’s final performances in Toronto before the lockdowns in early March. Her review was published on March 19, 2020, by the indie digital arts publication Critics At Large.

The Outstanding Critical Essay award went to Vancouver-based theatre collaborators Quelemia Sparrow and Lois Anderson for their co-authored article “Camas Lilies and Lysistrata.” A behind-the-scenes look at a reinterpretation of Aristophanes’s Lysistrata for Bard on the Beach, it appeared in the winter 2020 issue of Canadian Theatre Review.

The annual awards recognize outstanding performing arts criticism by Canada-based writers published over the past theatre season. This year’s guest judge was New York theatre and cultural critic Jose Solís, a New York Times contributor and co-host of the podcast series Token Theatre Friends.

Mr. Solís said he felt “chills” reading Ms. Kelly’s review, in which the critic brings an awareness of the burgeoning pandemic to the subjects and performances of the National Ballet program. He called it “the perfect review for 2020, the kind where our own humanity can’t help but burst from the page. It really beautifully sums up the limbo that we are in now, but I was also left with a lot of hope.”

Of Ms. Sparrow and Ms. Anderson’s essay, focusing on the Indigenous element of their Lysistrataproduction, Mr. Solís said, “I was so in awe of the journey that it took me on.” He praised how the essay evolved from a personal account to “a devastating call to action by highlighting the unjust treatment of Indigenous actors who are often asked to work twice as hard in order to find safe work conditions and thrive artistically in a dehumanizing field.”

In the Review category, Mr. Solís gave honorable mentions to Martin Morrow’s critique of The Jungle at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre, published in The Globe and Mail, and Carly Maga’s review of the North American touring production of Cats, which appeared in the Toronto Star. Honorable mentions in the Critical Essay category went to J. Kelly Nestruck’s piece “Reading plays in a pandemic” in the Globe and Ms. Maga’s Jagged Little Pill the musical offers a whole new generation permission to be angry,”published in the Star.

The Outstanding Emerging Critic award, introduced in 2019, was not given out this year but will resume in 2021.

The Nathan Cohen Awards, established in 1981 by the Toronto Drama Bench, are named after the legendary Toronto Star and CBC critic Nathan Cohen (1923-1971). Since 1990, they have been administered as national awards by the Canadian Theatre Critics Association. A history of the awards and list of past recipients may be found on the CTCA website.

This year’s awards were presented earlier this month at the CTCA’s annual general meeting, held for the first time by video conference.

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