Daina Coffey: 2018 Fellowship in Chicago

Daina Coffey is Dance/USA’s second Dance Archiving & Preservation Fellow. Her Fellowship, which ran from August-December 2018, was hosted by the Chicago Dance History Project, and her practicum site was Joel Hall Dancers. Read more about the Fellowship program here, and read Daina's bio here.

January 22, 2019: The Chicago Dance History Project

When I started as the Dance Archiving and Preservation Fellow this past fall at the Chicago Dance History Project (CDHP), I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. I had worked before at various institutions such as the Bancroft Library at U.C. Berkeley and the Seaver Center for Western History Research at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, and I had been accustomed to reporting to a collections manager who gave me a list of archival tasks to complete.

CDHP proved to be an entirely different experience. Much to my delight, I was thrown into the deep-end of dance exhibits and archives, and while I was given all the support I needed, I was also given space to think critically and creatively.

CDHP is an organization run by dancers, and it shows. It’s small, it’s scrappy, and it’s unique. The goal of CDHP is, in their words, to “investigate, preserve, and present the oral and corporeal histories of theatrical dance in Chicago and its vicinity.” Headed by the indefatigable Jenai Cutcher, Executive Director and tap-dancer extraordinaire, CDHP has helped uncover many lesser-known members of the thriving Chicago historical dance community. In conducting scores of oral history interviews and digitizing materials held in personal as well as small dance studio collections, CDHP is in the process of creating an exceptional archive.

As I covered in my previous blog posts, one of my first tasks at CDHP was to create an exhibit for the Joel Hall Dancers and Center’s (JHDC) “Legacy Concert.” This was an eye-opening and highly educational experience for me—curating a physical exhibit from start to finish. However, once I completed that project, my next task was to figure out how to organize some of CDHP’s digital collections.

This included not only the JHDC Collection but the Charles Grass Collection (Grass teamed with Bob Fosse in the 1940s in a dance duo, “The Riff Brothers”) and the Mabel Katherine Pearse Modern Dance Camp Collection (this includes two scrapbooks filled with young dance student Mary Kay Lackritz Gray’s memories of her time at the Mabel Katherine Pearse Modern Dance Camp in the early 1940s), among several others.

I thus transitioned from the glitz and glamour of the exhibit world to the more solitary but still rewarding world of putting thousands of digital files into something resembling order. I examined every photograph, video, letter, contract, script, and piece of choreographic notes in each collection, wrote descriptions, determined date ranges, and attempted to place everything in some sort of logical order with a consistent file naming method.

A time-consuming task to be sure, but this is the crucial work that makes archival preservation possible. A dance collection is of little use if you can’t find anything, and organizing and documenting this material makes it easier to track. And, as I’ve learned over the past few months, dancers and dance companies rely on their archives. They serve as not only a means of preserving one’s legacy, but also as a constant source of memory, inspiration, and renewal.

As my fellowship draws to a close, I am so grateful to Dance/USA and the Chicago Dance History Project—especially to Imogen Smith and Jenai Cutcher—for this incredible opportunity to work the field of dance archives. I cannot begin to share how much I’ve learned and grown over these past few months, and I am forever honored by the chance to preserve and promote the incredible work of Chicago’s historical dance community.

Photo captions: 

1. Charles Grass and Bob Fosse perform as the dance team, “The Riff Brothers,” ca 1940s.

2. Young dancers do warm-up exercises on the docks at the Mabel Katherine Pearse Modern Dance Camp on Washington Island in the early 1940s.

3. Example of file organization from the Charles Grass Collection

December 19, 2018: The Joel Hall Dancers Legacy Exhibit: Part 2

In my previous post, I shared the process of curating an exhibit for the Joel Hall Dancers and Center’s (JHDC) “Legacy Concert” through my role at the Chicago Dance History Project (CDHP). In this post, I will continue in that vein, delving more deeply into how we conceptualized the exhibit, how we attempted to realize our vision, and what comes next.

A key concept of our exhibit was the idea of the archive itself. We wanted our audience to think about archives and the role they play in their own lives. The goal was for the exhibit to have multiple layers—it wasn’t just going to be photos plastered on the wall (although that in itself has value). We wanted the work we do at CDHP—uncovering and making accessible previously unknown dance histories—to translate into this exhibit. In other words, we considered the archive as a process, as something interactive, and we tried to integrate these ideas into the exhibit.

With significant help from CDHP Executive Director Jenai Cutcher and board member Elizabeth Liebman, we designed a program for the exhibit, which offered some ideas and posed some questions about the makeup of a dance archive. We asked simple questions about what constitutes an archive, who decides what goes in it, and how a dance archive is distinct. We also suggested that a dance archive consists of “bodies, objects, spaces, memories, and communities”—all concepts we tried to incorporate into the exhibit itself (without being too heavy handed about it). The purpose of this program was to set a tone for the exhibit—and to give those who were interested some food for thought as they journeyed through.


However, we also wanted to create an interactive exhibit. So we set up a table with objects and documents from the JHDC dance archive and posed a series of questions. The objects included a mask from “Y2 Day,” a hat from “El Gato Negro,” dance notes, a lighting plot, a program, and a dance studio sign-in sheet from 1976. We asked questions such as “What kinds of relationships do you think people had (or have) with these items?” and “Why do some documents and objects become valuable while others become disposable?” Onlookers were free to examine the materials on the table and to discuss them with their companions as they (hopefully) considered the questions we posed.

We also prompted our audience to look carefully at the 1976 sign-in sheet, which included Hall’s signature along with other prominent dancers from that period. We asked them to put themselves in the place of one of those dancers. “What was their world like?” we asked. “What might they have been thinking and experiencing at that particular moment?” In other words, we attempted to transport our audience back into time and to get them to consider another world—all through the use of the dance archive.

To take our interactive theme even further, we wrote questions on large index cards and posted them on each exhibit panel, inviting onlookers to write their responses on the back of each card. We asked questions such as, “What clues do these costumes give us about the time and context of the performance?”; “How can we recreate a dance performance when its archive no longer exists?”; and “How is a performance archived in the body of a dancer?” To our delight, many people eagerly shared their answers. Our plan is to digitize these cards and add them to the dance archive.

And this leads me to our next task: curating a digital version of the JHDC exhibit and, more broadly, developing, organizing, and maintaining a comprehensive digital dance archive. The act of curating (or better yet, choreographing) the JHDC exhibit taught us a lot about how we might envision the digital exhibit.We’re imagining an interactive digital project and which continues to expand our goal of contributing to the dance archive as we work simultaneously to preserve it and make it readily accessible to current and future users. We view the archive as a living, breathing, dancing thing and we want our digital exhibit to reflect that vision.

Photo captions

1. Interactive objects and documents table. 2. Index card with question posted on exhibit panel. 3. Back of index card with audience responses. 4. Exhibit visitor writing response on index card. All photos courtesy of Chicago Dance History Project.

December 19, 2018: The Joel Hall Dancers Legacy Exhibit: Part 1

In October, for Chicago Open Archives and along with the Chicago Dance History Project (CDHP) team, I helped curate an analog exhibit for the Joel Hall Dancers and Center (JHDC). While I had some degree of experience with curatorial projects and exhibits, this was a major learning experience for me (and a fun one).

As Joel Hall, artistic director emeritus of JHDC, transitions into what sounds like a lovely semi-retirement (living part-time in Hawaii!), his dance studio is gearing up to perform the “Legacy Concert” in 2019. Our task at CDHP was to develop both an analog and a digital exhibit based on this concert, which includes a selection from one piece choreographed by Hall from each decade since the company’s founding in 1974 including, “Night Walker” (1979), “Caliente, Por Favor” (1985), “El Gato Negro” (1992), “Y2 Day” (2000), and “Anja: The Unexpected” (2015).

First of all, given the set up of this concert, it seemed natural that the physical exhibit should follow a chronological structure—taking the onlooker on a journey through each decade. Luckily, we had permission from JHDC to make liberal use of their walls, which opened up a number of creative possibilities for us. We ultimately opted to create a multimedia experience of each piece. In addition to photographs posted on the walls, we had videos and slide shows screening on three different types of monitors. We also included costumes and other ephemera, such as hats, masks, and a large Ankh that Hall had used for his performance in “Anja: The Unexpected.”

Moreover, given that this exhibit was largely centered on Hall himself, I dug into the newspaper archives and located quotes from Hall recorded in interviews over the years. Our board member and resident artist, Elizabeth Liebman, then painted one quote from each decade across five different walls at the studio. The concept for the quotes was multifaceted. They served to contextualize each performance, giving the onlooker a sense of Hall’s mindset when he choreographed each piece. They also functioned as both a visual anchor and a thoroughfare—on the one hand, tying together all the documents in each section, and on the other hand, guiding the onlooker to the next piece in the exhibit.

Of course, we ran into problems. Some performances had more documentation than others, which initially seemed to limit our curatorial options. For example, in 1993, a fire at the School Street studio destroyed many of JHDC’s materials—including photographs, costumes, and videos—not to mention the dance company’s rehearsal space. The company also sadly lost their beloved studio cat named Civic.

As I worked on developing the “Caliente, Por Favor” section of the exhibit, I realized that, due to the fire, I only had one small candid photo of a curtain call and one large staged photograph. Rather than just simply post the few materials we had, we decided to explain the absence of the documentation by telling the story of the fire in our exhibit caption. We also posted a few copies of newspaper articles about the fire, which had devastated other artistic organizations as well. This was our attempt to engage the onlooker with the concept of an archive (see my next blog post for more discussion about this).

The exhibit itself was a success. Scores of people showed up, and we were delighted to see young dancers watching old VHS tapes of a 1985 performance alongside older dancers who had danced in that same performance. Dance students were thrilled to see the costumes and dancers from years past at their home studio. And members of the community, who were not dancers themselves, were happy to learn about the history of a dance organization in their neighborhood with deep Chicago roots.

Photo captions

1. View of exhibit panel showing “Caliente, Por Favor.” 2. CDHP board member Elizabeth Liebman sketching out quotes for exhibit. 3. Visitor reading newspaper articles about the 1993 fire. 4. View of exhibit panel showing “El Gato Negro”All photos courtesy of Chicago Dance History Project and Joel Hall Dancers.

October 4, 2018: What is an Archive?

Historians are essentially storytellers, and most of the sources that feed our stories are to be found in an endless series of acid-free boxes lining the shelves in a dark and cool climate-controlled room. But what is an archive, actually?

As I started the Fellowship in Dance Archiving and Preservation with the Chicago Dance History Project through Dance/USA, I thought I had a clear idea of what constitutes an archive. But—to my embarrassment—I discovered that I had not given the concept of “the archive” nearly enough thought.

One of my first tasks at CDHP was to assess the archival materials at the Joel Hall Dance Center, a 40-plus year old Chicago dance company and studio. Joel Hall—dancer, teacher, choreographer, and artistic director—is himself an institution in the Chicago dance world and beyond. As he transitions into semi-retirement, his studio is gearing up to perform the Legacy Concert in 2019, which will include one piece choreographed by Hall from each decade since the company’s founding in 1974. Meanwhile, CDHP is scheduled to curate an exhibit, The Joel Hall Dancers Legacy, focusing on the historical performances from the Legacy Concert for Chicago Open Archives on October 17 and 18.

My job was to identify photographs, videos, programs, and other ephemera from each of the performances: Night Walker (1979), Caliente Por Favor (1986), El Gato Negro (1992), Y2Day (2000), and Anja: The Unexpected (2015). Like many dance companies, JHDC has a ton of materials, not many of which are organized and labeled in a consistent fashion. Yet, with the invaluable advice of Jenai Cutcher, Executive Director of the CDHP and my supervisor, as well as the vast institutional knowledge of Jacqueline Sinclair, the newly appointed Artistic Director at JHDC, I was able to locate a fair amount of materials.

However, the new problem has become how to curate and display these invaluable documents and objects. And here is where I started to think more deeply about the construction of an archive. Jenai and I met with the remarkable CDHP board member and art historian, Elizabeth Liebman, at the dance studio to develop a plan for displaying the archival materials. It was Liz who first prompted us to think critically about the JHDC exhibit as the representation of not just an archive, but a dance archive, and what that means. 

As such, as we weave together these materials to tell a larger story about the legacy of JHDC, we must consider a number of factors. For example, how does a dance company use its own archive? Often for dancers, the archive is a means to reproduce older works—watching a video to see how a dancer moved in the original piece; viewing a photograph to see how costumes moved; examining lighting cues to understand the original lighting design concept. In other words, for dancers, the archive is a living, breathing thing—it is something with which they regularly engage.

So, as noted above, as a historian and aspiring archivist, I find myself in a fortunate position. Through diving headfirst into this project, I’m discovering that archives are not just a physical place, but a process that is continually in flux. People are constantly in conversation with the archive—whether an archivist like me who is making decisions about what to preserve or display in an exhibit or a dancer reviewing old footage or photos to recreate a piece or to draw inspiration for a new performance.

As we continue to develop this exhibit for October, I’m hoping to think more carefully about how to tell a story not just about the history of JHDC (which is significant in its own right), but also how to tell the story of a dance archive—what it is, what it does, and what it means. I’m looking forward to this journey.

All photos courtesy of Joel Hall Dancers. 

1. Joel Hall performing in My Love (1969). Photography by Czeschin.

2. Scene from performance of Night Walker (1979). Photographer unknown.

3. Tracy Hodgkin-Valcy leaping through the air in revival of El Gato Negro in 1994. Photography by Suzanne Plunkett.