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On the Ground

The Future of Dance’s Past

By Deanne Kearney
  • Eva von Gencsy and Arnold Spohr with artists of Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet in Swan Lake, Act II (1953) / Photo by Phillips-Gutkin

Photographs, diaries, letters, programs, touring itineraries and a ton of fantastic memorabilia, amounting to more than 50,000 items’ worth of American Ballet Theatre history, were recently donated to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Until then, the company, entering its seventy-fifth season, lacked the proper means of conservation.

Administrators at American Ballet Theatre had been considering how to conserve the valuable documents that outline the company’s history for a number of years. They knew that without the resources to build their own archive, they were unfit to care for them in-house. The collection now rests in the Music Department of the Library of Congress, alongside other dance collections chronicling famous dancers and choreographers, such as Martha Graham and Bronislava Nijinska. The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts – the largest and most comprehensive dance archive in the world – was also considered as a possible institution to house the material, yet it was decided that the Library of Congress was a better fit, since American Ballet Theatre is a national company.

In the United States, there is an innovative initiative by the Dance Heritage Coalition, which began in 1992, to assist companies of all sizes in the preservation of historical materials. By providing funds and workshops to help document dance history, they actively cultivate a spirit of collecting dance documents for the future. Notable members of the Dance Heritage Coalition are Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Becket, Mass., and the American Dance Festival in Durham, N.C. Both festivals do a phenomenal job archiving their own histories.

With many Canadian companies also celebrating milestone anniversaries, it is time to question how Canadian dance history is being collected and archived. How do we document dance’s past, present and future? Have we been taking care of our own dance memorabilia to the best of our ability? How can students and teachers access this wealth of material and where are such archives housed? This year, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet will also be celebrating its seventy-fifth anniversary. Dancemakers is celebrating its fortieth anniversary; ProArteDanza is celebrating its tenth; and a number of other dance companies of all sizes are reaching important milestones. With an increasing number of companies making a lasting impact on Canadian dance, we need to find ways to preserve their histories.

The main organization for documenting dance in Canada is Dance Collection Danse (DCD), which emerged in 1983 from another project by DCD founders Lawrence and Miriam Adams. Since then, Dance Collection Danse has published over thirty-seven books (including the Encyclopedia of Theatre Dance in Canada), a semi-annual magazine and it hosts regular exhibitions both on and offline. Before their recent move in 2013, Dance Collection Danse worked out of its founder’s house for three decades. The new downtown Toronto location allows more space for materials as well as sufficient room for a public gallery. Dance Collection Danse focuses on ballet and modern/contemporary sectors in Canada’s dance history. They are currently celebrating “Dancemakers at Forty” in their exhibition space and online exhibits are available, such as a photography exhibit on Vincent Warren, a past dancer for Les Grands Ballets Canadiens. On their website you can find lists of their archived materials, including a large collection of oral histories. And they have laudable policies for distance researchers so that the archives are available to all.

The Grassroots Archiving Initiative, started by DCD in March 2008, is a program that trains artists and dance companies in how to keep, organize, preserve and catalogue their archival materials. Each year, workshops are held in different parts of the country, such as Halifax, Winnipeg and Vancouver. The next Grassroots Archiving Workshop will be held in Toronto on December 3, but will be live-streamed to facilitate greater reach. After the workshops, the next phase of the program is to identify existing locales that could house archival dance materials.

Individual dance companies are taking on the responsibility for dance documentation. Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet (RWB) has its own archive. Started by a group of volunteers in the alumni association in the early 1990s, it was recently taken over by the company’s board.  “I think that the RWB Archives has been making wonderful progress in recent years, and its sustainability has been ensured now that it is officially part of RWB company operations,” states Gayle DeGagne, the staff member in charge of taking care of the collection. This change allowed the company to hire one part-time staff member, as well as a contract archivist as an adviser.

The archive at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet houses materials from the inaugural season of the company in 1939, including programs, biographical files of staff, dancers and guests as well as alumni records and publications. If you want a sneak peek into the collection, check out their social media profiles on Facebook or Instagram for “Throwback Thursdays,” where they post archival photos to celebrate dancers from their past. With the help of social media, dance archives are able to share their material more widely, hopefully shedding more light on the importance of archiving. However, one cannot forget the invaluable volunteers who ensure the survival of the archive. With little funding in Canada, volunteers are not only important to the RWB Archives but to many dance archives across the country, including those with larger holdings, such as DCD, or larger companies like The National Ballet of Canada.

Library and Archives Canada and the National Arts Centre (NAC) are institutions that could share the responsibility for Canada’s dance archives. On the Library and Archives Canada website there is a page of dedicated to biographies of famous Canadian women in dance, but it is no longer active. The Margie Gillis Dance Foundation Archival Holding has been at the Library and Archives Canada since 2010 and includes audiovisual, administrative and promotional materials for the foundation. Shouldn’t the Library and Archives Canada have a larger role in preserving Canada’s dance history?

The NAC has created a resource called Arts Alive that provides glossaries of dance-related topics like choreographyanatomy and, of course, dance history, including biographies of famous dancers in Canada and worldwide. Given that the main goal of the National Art Centre is education, a developed dance archive would be a great addition to their resources. Yet the Arts Alive site states, “There are many, many more dance artists in all forms of dance, who have contributed significantly to the development of the art form,” gently revealing the limitations of the site.

Initially, while researching this article, I could not find any archival documentation for companies working in diverse dance styles in Canada, such as urban dance or forms such as bharatanatyam. While major companies are able to take care of themselves, we need to start thinking about the smaller companies and smaller dance communities. With recent funding from the Ontario Trillium Foundation, DCD is planning on expanding their archival materials to include currently underrepresented dance communities – Aboriginal, Asian and urban dance. Hopefully, this is just the start of the collections for these communities. DCD and individual dance artists and companies are doing an admirable job with the means they have, and I have to hope for the future of Canada’s dance history.

Fittingly, to celebrate the acquisition, the Library of Congress is creating an exhibition titled “American Ballet Theatre: Touring the Globe for 75 Years,” to open at the James Madison Memorial Building in Washington, D.C. It will later travel to the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in March of 2015. For people who can’t make the journey to see the exhibit in person, it is available online here.

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