Preserve: Teaching Archives to Dance Companies

By Shepard, John | Fontes Artis Musicae, April-June 2011 | Go to article overview

Preserve: Teaching Archives to Dance Companies


Shepard, John, Fontes Artis Musicae


In the United States in 1990, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation jointly sponsored a study which resulted the next year in a report entitled Images of American Dance: Documenting and Preserving a Cultural Heritage. The report states that the study's purpose was

   ... to learn what comprises the existing system of dance
   documentation and preservation, how transactions are conducted
   within the system, and to what extent the needs of the dance
   community are being met. By focusing on the needs of users, it was
   hoped, the study would better equip both the artistic and archival
   communities in their efforts to build, strengthen and/or extend
   dance documentation and preservation efforts at the local, regional
   and national levels, thereby ensuring that the legacy of dance
   endures. (2)

For the work of the study, the Project Personnel developed sixteen survey questionnaires, tailored to categories of constituents: presenters (that is, impresarios), choreographers, dancers, company managers, institutional archivists, dance scholars, "teachers of the academic aspects of dance," "teachers of the creative aspects of dance," critics, collectors, filmmakers, photographers, creative collaborators (that is, composers, or designers of sets, costumes, or lighting), service organizations or artists' managers, film and video distributors, and programmers of dance related shows on television and radio. (3)

Field researchers in six metropolitan areas used these questionnaires to conduct 160 interviews with individuals and several more meetings with staff of dance festivals, major dance archives, and projects of documenting commercial musical theater. The metropolitan areas were Los Angeles (with an additional field researcher assigned to the Latino dance community), Minneapolis/St. Paul, New York City, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. "Two follow-up meetings in New York City and Washington, D.C. during the second phase of the research further tested and elaborated upon the findings....." (4)

As an introduction to the background and rationale for the project, the report makes some statements that remind us both of the state of dance documentation in the U.S. before 1991 and of the nature of dance that makes documentation essential. The report quotes two words from a passage at the opening of the dance critic Marcia Siegel's first book, which deserves to be quoted at greater length. Siegel wrote

   Dance exists at a perpetual vanishing point. At the moment of its
   creation it is gone. All of a dancer's years of training in the
   studio, all the choreographer's planning, the rehearsals, the
   coordination of designers, composers, and technicians, the raising
   of money and the gathering together of an audience, all these are
   only a preparation for an event that disappears in the very act of
   materializing. No other art is so hard to catch, so impossible to
   hold. (5)

The 1991 NEA/Mellon report further asserted that

   ... dance ... stands as a neglected stepchild vis-a-vis the other
   art forms. Left out of history books, absent from discussions of
   aesthetics and philosophy, overlooked by sociologists, ignored by
   institutions of higher learning, dance as a discipline has been
   relegated to the margins of serious intellectual interchange in
   this country.

       To a large extent, this is because, for much of its
   history, the dance field has had no easy way of recording itself
   and has left few legible documents in its wake. Poetry and fiction
   can be affixed on the printed page; visual art can be set on canvas
   or in stone; drama can be passed on through scripts; music has a
   widely understood notational system. But until recently, dance has
   lacked the means to create tangible, widely accessible records of
   its history. (6)

The report concluded that this paucity of records consigned dance to a "limbo of illiteracy," borrowing a phrase from John Martin's 1950 New York Times article about dance notation. …

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