Carolina Meneses: Summer 2018 Fellowship in LA

Carolina Meneses is Dance/USA’s first Dance Archiving & Preservation Fellow. Her Fellowship, from July-September 2018, is hosted by UCLA Library Special Collections, and her practicum site is Lula Washington Dance Theatre. Read more about the Fellowship program here, and read Carolina’s bio here.

December 11, 2018

“Most importantly, I haven’t grown tired of working with dance archives.”

When I was first selected as the inaugural Dance/USA Archiving Fellow, I had no idea what awaited me. I had the perception that I would simply build on the practical experience I had as an intern at the Trisha Brown Dance Archive, but it was so much more. I began to more concretely address what it means to preserve something as ephemeral as dance and especially to ask, to what end? In such a short time I’ve had the opportunity to work on a variety of projects that spoke to this question; I re-described a series of the Ruth St. Denis papers to improve user discovery; I participated in donor visits and UCLA Library Special Collections study groups; I attended Society of American Archivists (SAA) for the first time to promote the utility of archiving for dance collections; I processed the Elle Johnson papers from start to (almost) finish; and I had the pleasure of working with the Lula Washington Dance Theatre (LWDT), empowering them with a better control of their audiovisual collection.

One of the most significant things that I took away from my experience was viewing first-hand the notable differences that existed between the archives of major research institutions like UCLA Library Special Collections and smaller, community-based centers like LWDT. It brought into focus many of the topics I’ve studied so far in my Master of Library and Information (MLIS) program. Self-determination and autonomous models of community-based archives are concepts that we’ve discussed at length in the course Archives, Records, and Memory, taught by Anne Gilliland, and witnessing them first-hand through my time working at LWDT was a major revelation since I’ve been thinking a lot about how to standardize dance archives.

It is now apparent to me that not only is it impossible to come up with a standardization or a one-size-fits-all approach towards dance or ephemeral archives, but it is also counterproductive since the needs of the user, the human being who consults the archive for a specific need, demand a diversity of archival arrangement. Although institutions like UCLA have the resources to better preserve and make accessible an archive like LWDT’s, it will come at the expense of the pragmatism (beneficial or not to its long-term preservation) that is currently in place and adapted to their immediate needs. When the needs of the user change, so too will the archive need to change to meet a new set of users’ needs—in LWDT’s case, from dancer to researcher. This makes me think that there’s still a lot to consider when approaching dance archives.

I appreciate everyone I’ve had the opportunity to collaborate with along the way, particularly Genie Guerard and Velma Blue. They were both incredibly helpful and supportive. Most importantly, I haven’t grown tired of working with dance archives. I’m still interested in working to create solutions to preserve this ephemeral art. I’m now halfway through the first quarter of my MLIS program and already I’m thinking about dance archives through the lens of archival theory and canon. I can’t wait to see what the future has in store for me!

Photo caption

Selections from the Howard Holtzman Collection on Isadora Duncan, Arthur Todd Papers (Rudolph Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn ballet slippers), and Tagioni [paper doll], Paris: Simon, ca. 1832. Photo by Carolina Meneses.

November 13, 2018

“Elle Johnson’s story is a gap in the dance record of Los Angeles that deserves to be preserved and described for future researchers”

Before I attended SAA and started my practicum at Lula Washington Dance Theatre, I meant to post about a project I started at UCLA Library Special Collections (LSC). I was assigned to process a small collection, the Elle Johnson papers. This was a very exciting opportunity for me, since it was my first time processing a collection from start to finish.

Though not as well known today as Ruth St. Denis, Elle Johnson was essential to LA’s young but rapidly growing dance scene in the 1950s. Elle first studied under Katherine Dunham and later Lester Horton before forming her own dance troupe, the Elle Johnson Trio with Bruce Bain and David Hebel. She was assistant choreographer for a number of 20th Century Fox films in the mid 1950s. Elle was also a popular dance teacher with Hollywood actors. Although Elle enjoyed performing with her troupe, she found the most satisfaction in teaching.

In 1966 Elle formed her own company, the Elle Johnson Dance Company, “with the objective of providing performing outlets for California dancers as well as a chance for choreographers to experiment” (from Performing Arts, The Music Center Monthly, March 1971, Vol. 5 No. 3). Many of the works Elle created included motifs of Afro-Cuban dance, as seen in Swadeski. Other original works like Soleus were more abstract and usually set to jazz music. Elle’s group performed throughout Los Angeles, from high schools to small theaters. Until she retired in 1999, Elle maintained a loyal following. I should mention that Genie Guerard (Curator and Manuscripts Librarian, and also my Dance/USA host for the fellowship) studied under Elle Johnson in the 1970s and 1980s.

It was hard to piece together Elle’s history, as there isn’t much information out there, save for her obituary and a mention in a Lester Horton’s biography. I relied mostly on the clippings that I found in her archive. Everything came in a small legal size document box and my first task was to create a basic survey of the materials, making note of dates and material formats. I observed that the materials were in no discernible order. I found mostly undated photographs, newspaper clippings, publications, programs, and fliers. 

Next, I created a processing plan. I worked out an appropriate processing level based on the collection’s research value, institutional value, and object value. Following the LSC processing manual as well as Guidelines for Efficient Archival Processing in the University of California Libraries, I decided it would be best to arrange the collection by file, sorted by material type alphabetically since there were no common themes in the intellectual content that I could find. 

The bulk of the Elle Johnson papers consist of photographs. I separated these by format (photographs and negatives) chronologically by approximate decade and placed them in folders accordingly. After physically arranging the other materials, I began to write descriptions for the finding aid via ArchiveSpace. Unfortunately, I was not able to finish, but it is a project I will complete during my Mosaic internship at UCLA LSC, as Elle Johnson’s story is a gap in the dance record of Los Angeles that deserves to be preserved and described for future researchers.

Photo captions:

1. Elle Johnson Dance Trio photos from the 1950s, Elle Johnson papers (Collection 2362). UCLA Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, University of California, Los Angeles.

2. Elle Johnson Dance Company photos, circa 1966-1979, Elle Johnson papers (Collection 2362). UCLA Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, University of California, Los Angeles.

All photos by Carolina Meneses.

October 24, 2018

“Lula’s enthusiasm in that moment punctuates how important this work has been”

For the last few weeks I have continued with my inventory of audiovisual (AV) material at the Lula Washington Dance Theatre (LWDT). I have surveyed close to 800 items and counting. The material I’ve encountered the most is optical media, which includes DVDs and compact discs (CD). Believe it or not, optical media isn’t immune to deterioration over time. Not only that, but it tends to be more sensitive to mishandling. It is very delicate and prone to cracks and scratches (I know there’s a reader or two out there that can reminisce on the quick fix of wiping a CD clean with their shirt in order to listen to a track without a skip.) As a result, I consulted the Preservation Self-Assessment Program collection identification guide for information about risks and storage recommendations. It indicated that “recordable discs may be appropriate as a temporary solution for smaller institutions that have a collection of compact cassettes in need of immediate reformatting and that are under funding restraints. However, transfer to optical media should not be considered the final stage for this type of archival preservation.” While optical media tends to deteriorate at a slower rate than say, videotape formats like VHS, they should not be taken for granted as invincible.

Although at times routine, this process of surveying the dance company’s AV materials has come with a very rewarding moment. This past week I began going through the materials in Lula’s office and on Saturday she mentioned that she needed to locate a couple of tapes. The only clues she gave me were “Mary, Don’t You Weep” (after the gospel song popularized by the late Aretha Franklin) and “Initiations’, which is one of the company’s landmark pieces. A search through my inventory came up with more than a few instances of the two and I was able to locate and hand a few materials to Lula. Happily, she found what she was looking for! Lula’s enthusiasm in that moment punctuates how important this work has been, that is, of creating an inventory of AV materials. I will leave LWDT with better access to her materials, which is essential to a living archive.

As my fellowship comes to close, I’ve been thinking about how invaluable it would be to conduct oral histories with Lula and other members of the LWDT. Just recently, I participated in an oral history workshop at UCLA’s Library Center for Oral History Research where we covered the basics of oral history methodology, including designing interview outlines, effective interviewing techniques, as well as legal and ethical concerns. It was such an enriching experience to say the least and it made me think of how it could be applied to preserving dance legacy. A combination of audio and visual interviews with the dancer providing commentary on old video footage of a performance and rehearsal would be useful to creating new iterations of a choreography -- an idea first brought to my attention by Stephanie Neel, Archive Project Director at the Mark Morris Dance Group, at the Archiving and Preservation Affinity Group meeting this past summer at Dance/USA's Annual Conference in Los Angeles.

While surveying LWDT’s massive AV collection of various formats, I have wondered specifically about its future usefulness for dancers in the company and I keep returning to the idea of Lula singling out her most significant works for commentary. I wish I had more time to take on such an endeavor. It’s something I would definitely like to explore in the future as I continue to wonder about the possibilities for making dance archives more useful to the practitioners themselves.

Photo Captions

1. Façade of Lula Washington Dance Theatre on Crenshaw Boulevard in Los Angeles. Photo by Carolina Meneses

2. Lula Washington Dance Theatre collection of VHS. Photo by Carolina Meneses

September 19, 2018

“It is such a privilege to work with the archival materials of one of the world’s most adored African American dance troupes.”

Last week I began my practicum at the Lula Washington Dance Theatre (LWDT). I first saw Lula at this year’s Dance/USA conference in LA when she and her husband Erwin Washington received the 2018 Champion Award during the opening night celebration. I remember Lula took off her shoes and got everyone out of their seats with “This Little Light of Mine.”

For those who do not know Lula, she and Erwin founded the Lula Washington Dance Theatre in 1980. By combining African American contemporary dance and culture with theater that explores history and social issues, Lula’s oeuvre is unique and, most importantly, all her own. The company performs everywhere from China to Alaska. It is such a privilege to work with the archival materials of one of the world’s most adored African American dance troupes.

On my first day, my UCLA mentor Genie Guerard and I met with Erwin and my project coordinator at LWDT, Velma Blue, to discuss different projects and goals for my practicum. I got a tour of all the different places where materials are housed. A large part of the collection consists of audio-visual (AV) materials, many of which are in obsolete formats. Deterioration occurs with each passing day and even more quickly if materials are not stored properly. Even if some of the materials aren’t digitized at once, proper storage will greatly extend their shelf life. As such, accessing and indexing the AV materials is my first priority.

It just so happens that a former Dance Heritage Coalition (now Dance/USA) fellow, Irlanda Jacinto, also did her practicum with LWDT, where she created an extensive index of moving images, slides, and manuscripts. You can read more about her experience in her blog here. Irlanda’s work proved to be very helpful for the company, since they now have better control over their records. Still, there’s a lot of work to do, so that we can ensure that the legacy of LWDT is preserved for the future. Digitizing moving image materials on obsolete formats is a top priority, and my work will support that next step.

I have picked up where Irlanda left off and started with creating an index of video and audio materials. Some of these are in formats I’ve never come across, like DVCAM and MiniDV, which are now more or less obsolete. Luckily, Velma and I met with UCLA’s Head of Audiovisual Preservation Yasmin Dessem and Audiovisual Preservation Coordinator Allie Whalen. Together we reviewed the collection and the best practices for storage and format identification. Dessem shared some helpful resources for video format identification. We also reviewed the AV materials inventory template from the Dance/USA Artist’s Legacy Toolkit and slightly modified it to better fit the needs of the collection.

I hope to make progress by working my way through a filing cabinet full of AV material. Having already surveyed the first two drawers I’ve found the majority of the materials are DVDs covering more recent performances and rehearsals, with plenty of duplicates. My goal is to finish surveying the materials by the end of next week. By then I should have received the appropriate storage boxes in order to give these materials a new, safe home.

Photo Credits

1. Lula Washington at the Dance/USA 2018 Annual Conference Opening Ceremony. Photo by Runway Productions

2. Lula Washington Dance Theater collections of DVDs and CD-Rs. Photo by Carolina Meneses

3. Inside of drawer containing mostly MiniDVs. Photo by Carolina Meneses

August 31, 2018

"Another big takeaway was the notion of an embodied archive, which emphasizes oral and movement traditions."

Two weeks ago I was able to attend my first Society of American Archivists (SAA) Conference. In the years past, I considered attending, hoping that it would motivate me to commit myself to apply to library school, but the price of attendance was always too high. I was thrilled then to receive support from Dance/USA to attend this year and I was doubly thrilled that it would be happening in such a vibrant and dynamic city as Washington D.C.

This year SAA’s week-long annual conference was held with two other organizations, Council of State Archivists (CoSA) and the National Association of Government Archives (NAGARA), which made for a thorough, in-depth program. I’ve been to a number of conferences so far, but none as far-reaching as this one. There were so many interesting sessions to choose from, often occurring simultaneously, so that it was difficult to choose which to attend.

Perhaps the most thought-provoking session I attended was Memory Walk and Virtues of Opacity, where panelists discussed different notions and ideas of transparency as they relate to different cultural traditions and the implications these hold for archival work. Since I will be starting my practicum with Lula Washington Dance Theater soon, I was drawn to this presentation as it could offer me different viewpoints on how to build trust and transparency with the dance company. I knew from my own readings about working with dance companies and other living archives that building and maintaining a certain level of trust and transparency from the beginning is essential. This is something that I have paid attention to during my site visits. I’ve noted too that it’s important to keep in mind that an artist’s lack of resources to properly organize their materials does not make them less passionate about their art. What’s more, artists of different cultural backgrounds and genres might have their own idiosyncratic way or philosophy about how they want to save and share their work.

The panelists eloquently delivered as promised. Aisha Haykal, Manager of Archival Services at College of Charleston, spoke of her work with the Gullah people or “Geechees” and their languages, both verbal and non-verbal. Cheylon Woods, Head Archivist at the Ernest J. Gaines Center told us the story of Gaines, an author born into slavery, through photographs of slave homes in Louisiana similar to the one he grew up in. Woods’ insight was provocative as she challenged Eurocentric archival models and proposed that an archive of the slave experience might only be served best orally rather than textually.


Darra Hoffman, Ph.D student at the University of British Columbia, presented on competing models of transparency and privacy and the dominance of Notice-Choice, the idea that consent to surveillance relies on sufficient notice to the surveillance and the ability to choose to participate or not. And finally, Christiana Dobrzynski, College Archivist at Bryn Mawr College challenged the overemphasis on official documents in her presentation and spoke at length about how “our life is our record”, or the archive exists in one’s body through everyday ritual. She spoke specifically about ephemerality and how mixed nomadic communities have resisted rigid paradigms and models of archival work.

I was really impressed by both Woods’ and Dobrzynski’s presentations, since I’ve been thinking for some time now about how memory is created through the materiality of the archive and how ephemerality and performance by its nature resists being materialized or captured. Another big takeaway was the notion of an embodied archive, which emphasizes oral and movement traditions. This is something that I look forward to in my future with dance archives at large, since I expect the trove of a company’s records to exist inside the minds and bodies of long-time dancers and company members. At Lula Washington I will spend time talking and listening to staff.

Between networking and sessions, I did get a chance to do some exploring in D.C. Besides visiting museums and other popular sites, I toured the city through what I believe is the best way to get to know a city: by foot, through its food and bookstores. Kramer Books and Busboys and Poets were a must, but my favorite was Capitol Hill Books, a cozy little used bookstore, stuffed to the brim. Despite its dizzying signage situation, I was able to find an early edition of Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night a Traveler, which I’ve always wanted to read. The bookstore was just steps away from Eastern Market where I enjoyed a delicious soft shell crab sandwich.

I realize how important SAA is to an early career archivist as it provides access to a robust community who support the knowledge necessary to succeed in the field and, in turn, enables me to support my colleagues as my expertise increases over time. 

All photos by Carolina Meneses. 1. Mystery section of Capitol Hill Books. 2. After Soichi Sunami (Japanese/American, 1885-1971) Ruth St. Denis, National Portrait Gallery. Smithsonian Institution. 3. Eastern Market, Washington, D.C. 

August 3, 2018

“Perhaps one of the best perks about being an archivist is being able to read other people’s mail.”

I was excited to finally start my Dance/USA fellowship at UCLA Library Special Collections (LSC). Going into the experience I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was delighted by how beautiful the space was and how friendly and welcoming its staff. Genie Guerard, Curator and Manuscripts Librarian, and also my Dance/USA host and mentor for the fellowship, has been super helpful in getting me up to speed with everything and helping me understand what to expect. I also met with Jasmine Jones, the Head of Processing for Library Special Collections, who trained me and gave me an overview of the different projects I would be working on during the first part of my fellowship at UCLA. She assigned me some reading and then set me up with my first project with the Ruth St. Denis papers, 1880-1968.

This was my first introduction to Ruth St. Denis, a pioneer in American modern dance whose work was inspired by Eastern philosophy and culture. Apparently, it all started when she came across an image of the goddess Iris on an advertisement for Egyptian Deities cigarettes. For decades, she was greatly influential as a modern dancer who combined dance and spirituality.

LSC holds a collection of Ruth St. Denis’s personal papers, which is made up of her journals, correspondence, writings, choreographic notes, and more. I have been tasked with going through a series of Ruth’s correspondence to verify that what is physically inside the folders matches the descriptions in the finding aid, which is a document containing everything from processing notes to information about how a collection is arranged. The collection was arranged at the folder level and each folder was given a title by the archivist.

After going through the 17 boxes in the series, I found that most of the folder titles need updated description in order to better assist researchers with identifying their contents. Each folder contains letters to and by diverse people and organizations, discussing a variety of topics. Dates were the most common thread per folder. I presented my findings to Jasmine and together we decided to list just the date ranges of the letters in each folder, and to name the correspondents and main topics found in those folders within scope notes that cover each series or subseries.

I have been editing the Ruth St. Denis finding aid via ArchiveSpace, a software for managing archival collections. It’s my first time using ArchiveSpace so I have been learning as I go.

Perhaps one of the best perks about being an archivist is being able to read other people’s mail. However, as much as I have been tempted to read every single letter in the Ruth St. Denis correspondence series, I’ve held back since time is of the essence. It’s important that the collection becomes available for the user as soon as possible. Still, I haven’t been able to resist reading from time to time. There are of course some heartfelt love letters from her husband Ted Shawn. I have also come across a series of “history letters” which were written by Ruth St. Denis to keep people informed of her activities and plans. There’s one from December 29, 1944 where she goes through the course of her day, beginning with her waking up to her cat Tiger: “It is now about 7:30 A.M. So he brushes his whiskers along my chin and purrs a little throaty baritone purr - and sinks a claw discretely, always the gentleman, into my shoulder and I begin to stir.”

Another really interesting thing I’ve been exposed to is participating in donor visits. Last week I attended a meeting with a dance performer who is interested in donating his collection to UCLA. Genie did a wonderful show-and-tell of some of LSC’s dance treasures for him. I also went with Genie and another LSC archivist, Kelly Besser, to visit an archive that is being donated to LSC from a major Los Angeles performing arts center. Final plans are being made for processing their collection on-site in advance of their deposit to UCLA. Both were fascinating opportunities to see how relationships are formed with potential donors and the way collections are acquired.

I’m really looking forward to the next few weeks at UCLA, followed by my practicum with Lula Washington Dance Theatre.

Photo captions and sources:

1. Lobby of the Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA, showing current exhibition titled, “Songs of America: Themes in Popular American Music”

2. Drawing of Ruth St. Denis as the Madonna, Ruth St. Denis papers (Collection 1031). UCLA Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

3. Correspondence, Ruth St. Denis papers (Collection 1031). UCLA Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

4. Correspondence, Ruth St. Denis papers (Collection 1031). UCLA Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

5. Feuillet, Raoul-Auger, “Chorégraphie, ou, L'art de décrire la dance par caracteres, figures et signes desmonstratifs…” Paris: Chez le sr.Dezais, 1713.

All photos by Carolina Meneses.