Choreographing Archives: An Artist-Driven Approach

By Imogen Smith

In today’s dance world, artists are often largely responsible for documenting their own works. Dance companies and independent artists amass collections of video recordings in multiple formats — from obsolete open-reel tapes to digital files — along with photographs, programs, promotional materials, press clippings, choreographic notes, designs, costumes, and set pieces. These materials support the daily activities and creative vitality of companies, and also promise to preserve artistic legacy; they are the materials that future researchers will want access to when they study the artists, genres, or dance cultures of our time.

The traditional archiving model has been for artists to donate their materials to institutional repositories as they reach the final stages of their careers, but this model is beginning to shift as more artists see the value of holding onto their collections. The traditional archiving model has been for artists to donate their materials to institutional repositories as they reach the final stages of their careers, but this model is beginning to shift as more artists see the value of holding onto their collections. There are several reasons for this change, including some artists’ fears that institutional repositories will be slow to process their collections and make them accessible, or will not accept them without funding; as well as deepening interest in the challenges and possibilities of documenting and preserving dance, which have inspired some artists and companies to envision how they might construct and maintain their own archives.

Dance Heritage Coalition (DHC) is engaged in exploring models for “Artist-Driven Archiving.” The goal of this investigation is to create archival collections that reflect the unique working process and creative vision of the artist, that promote deeper engagement between artists and their audiences, and that are adapted to the specific culture of dance.

DHC’s Past Projects Illuminate the Culture of Dance Company Archives
Dance Heritage Coalition is an alliance of archives throughout the United States holding dance research collections, and its mission is to document, preserve, and create access to records of dance in America. DHC has been working directly with dance companies since the early 2000s, and in 2009 undertook a project to assess the scope and condition of archival holdings of 23 single-choreographer ballet, modern, and postmodern dance companies. I was one of several consultants who visited companies to create the assessments; since I had previously worked in the world’s largest dance research collection, the Jerome Robbins Dance Division of the New York Public Library, it was eye-opening for me to learn about conditions in the field.

While there was considerable diversity in the size of collections that were assessed and the degree of organization and expertise — from companies that had dedicated space and staff for archives and were in the process of cataloging their collections, to choreographers whose materials were literally under their beds — patterns clearly emerged, revealing the distinctive cultures within dance companies.

While artists and company staff nearly always assert that the production of new work is their primary focus, they tend to save everything that documents their history and artistic development, expending scarce resources on storage and maintenance of records. These archival materials are used continually to support company activities — remounting works, marketing, and education, as well as to preserve artistic legacy. Artists fear losing control of and access to their materials, even as they know they lack the capacity to properly care for them over the long term. Many artists have on their own begun projects to organize and create databases, often with their own visions of how the archives can carry their legacy forward. Probably the best known instance of such an innovative project is the Merce Cunningham Dance Capsules, which aggregate materials documenting Cunningham’s individual choreographic works, so that they can be remounted and studied.

There is a wide range of feeling among artists about the need to save material, from those who claim to have no interest in their past choreography, to those who are deeply engaged in exploring and preserving their earlier work. Getting involved with archiving can change artists’ self-perceptions and encourage them to go in new directions. For instance, David Gordon was inspired by the project of inventorying and organizing his archives to explore continuity across his works, and to remount his piece The Matter, originally presented in several versions between 1971-1979, as The Matter/2012: Art and Archive, incorporating archival materials in the production.

Dance artists also vary widely in their ideas about how to document and preserve their work. Some have scores for their choreographic works created through Labanotation or other forms of dance notation, while others are openly skeptical of these methods. Some like to videotape every rehearsal, while others feel video is “flat,” and cannot capture their choreography adequately. For instance, choreographer Billy Siegenfeld, creator of the “Jump Rhythm Technique,” believes video does not do justice to his style, which is based on rhythm and internal energy rather than shape, and he consequently has a limited amount of video documentation of his works.

The Artist-Driven Archives project aims to move away from a one-size-fits-all philosophy of archiving, to create more flexible and creative models for fruitful partnerships between artists and repositories, as well as models for innovative practices that artists can feasibly carry out on their own.

Artist-Driven Archives Project: Case Studies, Focus Groups, and Next Steps
The activities of the Artist-Driven Archives project, which were supported by a planning grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Resources, included convening of focus groups and the creation of a website featuring case studies and aimed at catalyzing broad discussion. Case studies that provided inspiration for the project include:

  • David Gordon, a multi-disciplinary downtown New York artist, who developed the idea of recording audio commentary tracks to accompany archival videos of his works, in which he discusses the creation of the pieces and provides narrative context. Gordon writes (referring to himself in the third-person): “Gordon hopes to annotate his own manufacturing process to contextualize his work from his own memory, as well as the memories of former collaborators and performers, and to adhere to traditional archival practice including a targeted digitization initiative of videos, photos, scripts and scores which may be viewed independently. He refers to what he’s doing as ‘archiveography’ and he imagines archiveography to include the process of archiving.”
  • Meredith Monk, a pioneer of multi-disciplinary performance who has resisted being categorized in dance, theater, or music, has created gallery exhibitions using production elements and documentation of her works, creatively displayed in ways that illuminate her artistic vision and development. At the Walker Art Center, she devised “Singing Suitcases” that played excerpts from her compositions when opened by visitors; used projections to display archival images; and created a “shoe timeline” using footwear from her performances. Monk has used the phrase “Archaeology of an Artist” both for lecture-demonstrations she offers and for a retrospective exhibition mounted at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts in 1996, which displayed production elements not in traditional chronological order by work, but as a creatively reimagined landscape.
    Choreographing Archives: An Artist-Driven Approach
  • Eiko & Koma, the Japanese-American performance duo, launched their Retrospective Project in 2012, which included re-stagings, exhibitions, a website, and a book, all looking back at their earlier works. Exhibitions featured costumes, environments they designed, and archival videos projected in pools of water, or in pedestal kiosks that visitors had to lean over to view.
  • Choreographer Bebe Miller and her collaborators — including an “embedded archivist” — created Dance Fort, a web-based portal that aims “to share with a broad audience what it feels like to be inside a dance in the making.” Dance Fort is imagined as  “a technological play-space, part installation, part eBook, part website. Containing cross-referenced research materials ‘danced,’ viewed, spoken and shared, Dance Fort will serve as a richly interactive archive of BMC’s creative processes and function as a documentation template for other dance artists, ultimately shifting the paradigm of an artist’s archive from artifact to artwork.”
  • Other innovative web-based projects include Terry Fox’s Local Dance History Project, a community archive for the recent history of Philadelphia modern dance; the Motion Bank project, which documents a 2010-2013 research project by The Forsythe Company in choreographic practice, focusing primarily on the creation of online digital scores; Siobhan Davies’ RePlay, the first online dance archive in the UK; and Emio Greco’s Capturing Intention project, a website documenting the multi-disciplinary Notation Research Project.

In November 2013, DHC hosted three focus groups in New York City, convening artists, archivists, arts presenters, and scholars. The focus groups were based around three models: 1) artistic re-purposing or re-contextualization of legacy materials; 2) documentation of the creative process; and 3) arts venues and incubators as multi-artist archives. The enthusiastic response to these gatherings and the engagement of the participants demonstrated the current vibrancy of this topic. The perspectives that emerged from the focus groups were diverse but also revealed broadly shared concerns.

It became clear that there is strong desire for more collaboration, connections, and communication among artists, archivists, scholars, and presenters. Many artists are separately wrestling with similar issues, and would benefit from exchanging ideas and experiences. Artists wonder: What are they responsible for saving? What are the boundaries of the archive? Who is the archive for? There is interest in archival models that capture context and connections, lineage, and communities. Art connects, but archives tend to separate through the creation of individual collections, often geographically dispersed. Digital technologies create new opportunities for materials to be virtually united.

Many artists are interested in capturing more of the creative process through emerging technologies and new archival methods (such as collaborating with an “embedded archivist,” who creates documentation during the creation process). So much of the process of creating a work is not readily visible in the final piece, and artists want to preserve more of this material. Questions arise: how would this documentation change scholarship? How might it change the creative process itself?So much of the process of creating a work is not readily visible in the
final piece, and artists want to preserve more of this material. Questions arise: How would this documentation change scholarship? How might it change the creative process itself?

A number of participants commented on the fact that archiving has become a “hot topic” in the arts world, and Sarah Maxfield has speculated that the sheer volume of information and documentation populating the world-wide web creates a hunger for context, narrative, and ordering of information. Artists, archivists, scholars, critics, students, and general users can all add value to archives through the way they curate, organize, use and share materials.

There was agreement that, while archives should contain the voice and narrative of the artist, they also need to allow scholars and other users to find their own connections, discoveries, and pathways. It was also evident that, though many artists and archivists are engaged by digital developments, there is still appreciation for the value and frisson of physically encountering archival objects. (I think for, instance, of how deeply moved I was by seeing a collection of Fred Astaire’s shoes.) These objects can have value beyond the information they convey, because they can stimulate imaginative responses and create a feeling of connection to the past. It is not enough to create access to materials, one focus group participant noted: we must create appetite for the materials, so that they will not only be preserved but meaningfully used.

The next step for the Artist-Driven Archives project will be to take the ideas and models gleaned from the planning phase and propose a demonstration project to implement one or more of these models, with the aim of testing and enhancing their broad applicability for the field. DHC encourages artists, dance company administrators and staff to view the Artist-Driven Archives blog and contribute ideas, questions, comments, or case studies of their own. The voices of artists and users of dance archives are the essence and engine of the Artist-Driven Archives project.

Imogen Sara SmithImogen Sara Smith is the project manager for the Dance Heritage Coalition. She is the author of two books, In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City and Buster Keaton: The Persistence of Comedy, and her writing has appeared in The Threepenny Review, Moving Image Source, Dance Chronicle, Bright Lights Film Journal, and other venues. You may reach her at:


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