360 Dance

The Wonder of Motion

Digital Dance Archives and the NYPL By Philip Szporer
  • Annabelle Whitford Moore dances a la trilby / Photo courtesy of nypl.org
  • Annabelle Whitford Moore dances a la trilby / Photo courtesy of nypl.org
  • Bhutan Dance Project, Core of Culture / Photo courtesy of digitalcollections.nypl

If you’re an adventurous internaute and love the act of online discovery, the announcement that the New York Public Library (NYPL) has digitized over a thousand hours of dance videos from the Jerome Robbins Dance Division’s Archive of the Recorded Moving Image marks a thrilling moment in time. The powerful impact of dance and the moving image can’t be underestimated; perceptions will be altered as this treasure trove comes to life in digital form. One click can unlock grainy footage of fleeting performances from a distant past, videos of traditional dance from a variety of cultures and traditions as well as clips from beloved contemporary works.

According to the NYPL, there is an abundance and diversity to the collection – over 24,000 dance films and tapes are contained in the Robbins holdings. That’s a lot of material to still be processed and disseminated. Regardless, the web portal raises important issues about access, and why dance in particular needs to get online – in plain terms, dance needs to be seen. Experiencing dance on film or video can be transcendental – it can take you to the land of the gods, to another place and time, to another emotion.

Because there’s no subscription fee for users, this NYPL initiative is all about bringing dance to the larger public and whetting their appetite for dance. And, let’s underline this; there are impressive, quality videos to watch. A cursory search revealed a preponderance of material from early films of the late nineteenth century, including Edison’s hand-tinted films of Annabella. There is also an important archive of performance, rehearsals and interviews from the Royal Ballet of Cambodia, and recordings from the Bhutan Dance Project, Core of Culture, both initiatives funded by the Anne Hendricks Bass Foundation.  There is a healthy dose of dance-related discussion and oral history in the mix as well. So, in addition to making more works available for offsite viewing, there is still work to be done in terms of broadening the scope of this otherwise fantastic service.

In Canada, the terrific Arts Alive site, an online initiative begun some years ago by the National Arts Centre, contains historical information and archival material including photos and educational material, as well as a compendium of performance videos and artist interviews. Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival also offers web resources through the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Interactive, an easy-access collection of video clips from the festival’s archives, tagged by artist, genre or era. France’s Numeridanse.tv is another digital dance archive. It was launched in 2011 by La Maison de la danse in Lyon, in partnership with the Centre national de la danse. This ambitious open model of archiving dance features performances along with associated interviews and documentaries.

Digitizing the NYPL’s contents is testament to the persistent power of imagery from the past. Digitizing the Jerome Robbins Dance Division’s Archive of the Recorded Moving Image underscores the continued importance of preserving, maintaining and sharing ephemeral images of dance events. This new digital archive forges greater arts participation and speaks to the art form’s history and cultural legacy. Digitization is a necessary step in disseminating artistic content. Creating this platform of dance film and video allows dance to reach out beyond its traditional fan base. It enables global access and reaches users in rural communities, as well as those who are more likely to experience dance through media than through live attendance. With digitization, the demands of watching analog tapes and film reels in a specific place and at an appointed time are becoming a thing of the past, however much of this footage must still be viewed onsite at the NYPL.  Nonetheless, the NYPL initiative will impact research in dance history, and the discoveries that can be made online are equally stimulating and engaging for everyone else. These strategic innovations are contributing to the spread of the art form and are helping create a new audience for dance.

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