Archiving Fellowships Blog: AXIS Dance Company, Part 3

By Sarah Nguyễn

Sarah Nguyễn was a 2020/21 Dance/USA Archiving & Preservation Fellow. Phase 1 of their Fellowship ran from June-September 2020, and was hosted remotely by AXIS Dance Company. For Phase 2 in the summer of 2021, Sarah continued their work with AXIS, remotely and on site. Read more about the Fellowship program here. This is the third part of Sarah’s blog; find the second part here.

March 3, 2022: Archives Meets People & Basement Storage

In August 2021, I had the pleasure of meeting AXIS Dance Company’s mighty and creative administrators. We met in the AXIS office space, on the second floor of the historic Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts, in sunny downtown Oakland, CA. After a summer of conducting oral histories with Artistic Director Emerita Judith (Judy) Smith, and former Artistic Director Marc Brew (see my first and second blog posts for more details), I was looking forward to meeting the people and moving within the spaces that make AXIS perform like a well-oiled machine, outside of digital video boxes.

Photograph of the exterior front of a four-story building during the day time. The street-level entrance of the building opens up with three white arches surrounded by grey bricks and adjacent store window fronts to sidewalk level. The second level of the building is terracotta with narrow arched windows topped with geometric white bricks, and the third and fourth levels are painted cream with small rectangular windows.

Image A: Photo of the front of the Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts building during the day time. Source: City of Oakland, 2021.

During my three-day office visit, I met the powerhouse Executive Director, Danae Rees; multitalented Marketing & Communications Coordinator, Octavia Rose Hingle; and cogent Company Manager, Christopher Ouellette. After collaborating with them via email for almost one year, the AXIS story became tangible when I saw them, in person, put out fires while running an inclusive, accessible, socially active performing arts institution during global health, social, political, and cultural crises. In the midst of coordinating the hybrid online and in-person Summer Workshop series, Danae guided me through small pieces of AXIS’ inner workings by way of analog and digital artifacts. These seem like just a small piece of the grand scheme of orchestrating all branches of AXIS programming, but I felt like I could sit with all of that information for another year to fully digest its influence on the dance and company itself. 

The Records Management Manual which I created for the company last summer is meant to be the start of piecing together the interdepartmental workflow of digital file management. The ultimate goal is to implement an operational workflow between all AXIS departments as they create, upload, store, access, and share the new and old artifacts. That will take a lot more time and resources. To keep this project in a tangible scope, I had to remind myself that this type of work is a major operational and cultural change for an organization and it takes a gradual transition of training and adoption with all peoples involved (i.e. administrators, dancers, directors, board members, etc.). Particularly these days, when in-person time is limited, the top priorities were for me to get educated on AXIS’ systems and then have a potential process proposed to AXIS, The Bancroft Library, and future archivists who continue the re-organization of records; incorporation of artists’ and administrators’ interests, disabilities, and needs; training staff in the new workflow; and continuity for long-term access and usage. 

Meeting the Basement

Three photographs side-by-side of the shelves of touring, finance, and photography binders. Including unorganized plastic and cardboard boxes of books, photos, posters, and magnetic media.

Image B: Three photos from the AXIS basement storage. We focused on searching through the binders and boxes of contracts, programs, touring information, magnetic/optical media, photographs, and books. Luckily, these were well labeled and accounted for by Bancroft Library archivists.

On day one, Danae toured me through a dimly lit, cold, and wet basement storage (Image B) and a double-door closet full of costumes and props (Image D)—an archivist’s nightmare (or dream?!), but a challenge ready to be tackled. In these inaccessible storage locations, we prioritized some tangible wins that would immediately support AXIS’ current programming and serve the preparation for archives cataloging and donation into The Bancroft Library’s temperature controlled storage unit.

Down two flights of narrow, cold stairs, we walked into a large room that opened onto an unlit, unkempt space with a bit of mildew stench coming from it. Turning the corner, we mazed through stacks of dusty plastic and cardboard boxes, suitcases, wheels, and shelves of binders, folders, and media.

Two photos side-by-side. Photo on the left is of my laptop and disc reader hardware setup to upload and skim through each CD to record information, such as song title, work title, length of time, etc. Photo on the right is the box, labeled as “AXIS Repertoire Music CDs” and the discs carefully alphanumerically sorted and labeled by work or choreographer.

Image C: Photographs of the box of CDs from AXIS’ repertoire. Most of these soundtracks are available as a digital file but not all. This was the inventory and quality check set up I sat with for one day in AXIS’ office, with a disc reader to connect to my laptop and a spreadsheet to record all of the metadata to inventory all media.

I focused on magnetic or optical media (Image C), non-digitized analog materials, and any artifacts that could provide copyright or contractual information about AXIS works. I gathered and inventoried the optical, magnetic, and analog materials to prepare for the Bancroft Library as they came up with their own digitization and cataloging plan. I also hunted for any lingering paperwork, most likely pre-2016, that wasn’t digitized or born-digital so that Danae could work with AXIS’ legal team to ensure they had rights for streaming and restaging works for future use.

Within the box of optical media, I weeded out duplicates and organized any unsorted discs. I then prepared the inventory sheet so that Judith could listen and skim so as to identify the iteration of the soundtrack (e.g. rehearsal, performance, re-master). 

Meeting Judith

After meeting Judith on video conference calls at least once per week across a five-month time period to record and learn about her last 13 years as Artistic Director of AXIS, I finally got to meet Judith in-person 🤗.  Judith carved out time in between rescuing animals to meet me at Malonga and share her institutional knowledge to identify specific artifacts, as well as sharing her vision for the AXIS Archives, and her visions for the future of dance and performance.

A photograph through opened doubled-doors with three steel racks of clothes hanging, bags and boxes on the top shelves, a large TV multimedia rack, a wheelchair, and a large suitcase.

Image D: Photograph of the (more-accessible) costume, prop, touring, and equipment closet.

Since the basement room is completely inaccessible, we began with the impacted costume, prop, tour, and equipment closet. This organization and identification exercise helped us familiarize ourselves with the costumes for each piece in preparation for identifying works in photographs and videos, as well as preparing AXIS for restaging older works. We sorted through every single accessory and piece of clothing. While I unfolded and hung up an article, Judith logged into her memory and identified which work that article was worn in and who wore it for the premiere, or for that iteration of the work. After one full workday, all costumes were hung, grouped by works, sorted by alphanumerical order, and inventoried to ensure all garments and accessories were accounted for.

On my second day with Judith, we sifted through and identified the value of paper ephemera and its role (or not) in the archive. While I sorted through the magnetic and optical media (see above), Judith identified dancers, work name, location, photographer, and context about each photo in the binder of photos (Image E). This allowed us to document metadata for the inventory to be shared with the Bancroft Library, as well as help Marketing prepare for #ThrowbackThursdays on social media and newsletters to educate the audience about AXIS’ history. Currently, the Marketing team and Judith do weekly content checks, but this process of identifying in bulk and creating a database about the artifacts creates less dependency on the last minute day-to-day of marketing and more sustainable long term preservation of AXIS history. Along with the photos, Judith also sifted through the many binders and boxes of loose-leaf papers to find any significant ephemera that would help identify contracts, copyright, and any other legalese for the perpetuity of AXIS works.

Three photos side-by-side of one binder of photography. Left photo shows the spine of the binder titled, AXIS Dance Company Photo Archives 1990-2004. Middle photo is the binder opened to the first photo page showing the 5 inch thickness of the binder. Right photo is an aerial view of the binder opened to show the type of black and white performance photography within the binder.

Image E: Three photographs demonstrating one of the photography binders, titled “Photo Archive 1990-2004”.

This wraps up a small peek into the ongoing organizing chaos between archives and dance. Check out the next blog post about my experience integrating outreach and marketing to archival workflows. Please feel free to reach out to me if you have any questions, thoughts, and/or comments about this process. (Contact Dance/USA’s archiving team, Imogen Smith and Hallie Chametzky, if you’d like to be in touch.) I’m happy to chat with any dancers, arts administrators, and others who are interested in creating workflows between outreach and preservation of their creative works.

Sarah wears glasses, overalls, and a pink scarf, and looks directly at the camera.Sarah Nguyễn is a librarian-archivist in training and a movement practitioner. Their research interests include the ephemerality of dance, the obsolescence rate of digital creations, and the processes and ethics behind preservation, reproduction, and representation. As an advocate for open, accessible, and secure technologies, Sarah has fulfilled these values through projects such as Preserve This Podcast, Investigating & Archiving the Scholarly Git Experience, Mark Morris Dance Group Archive, CUNY City Tech Open Education Resources, and linkRot, an intermedia performance simulating the physical euphoria that internet content creation permits into the digital decay that comes with/out feelings of loss.

With AXIS Dance Company, Sarah is looking forward to bringing physically integrated dance, disability rights, and independent living movements to our cultural heritage legacy. The North Bay Area is Sarah’s hometown and they are excited to bridge recent experiences in archival practices with their lifelong dance practice to the community that inspired them to pursue dance preservation. Currently, Sarah is a PhD student at the University of Washington.


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