The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center currently has on view a comprehensive and inspiring exhibit tracking the history of the Jerome Robbins Dance Division. However, it also works as an in-depth depiction of the work done by a performing arts archive, commenting on the division’s own archival practices as much as it does the objects on view. The Dance Division was conceived of by Genevieve Oswald, who at the time was a music librarian at the NYPL. In 1944, she made the case that the dance collections did not neatly fit into either the music or theatre archives, and deserved modes of collecting and archiving that took into consideration the form’s unique needs. The NYPL’s Dance Division was established, and in 1999 it was renamed after one of its major supporters, choreographer and director Jerome Robbins. The exhibit is both a history of dance and a history of the Dance Division, all at once, and manages to communicate both these objectives without letting one overpower the other.
I found it really interesting to get these two perspectives simultaneously, and it was impressive to see the breadth of collection material that the Dance Division has gained stewardship of over the years. The exhibit underlines the unique approach performing arts archivists and curators must take to represent the form; there was a wide range of multimedia materials, all working together to form a coherent view of a speechless – not to mention ephemeral – art form. There was an entire section at the beginning of the exhibit devoted to dance notation, documenting the ways in which choreographers and dancers recorded and remembered their steps. It is almost like the equivalent to a musical score for a composer; yet the significance of these materials is greatly overlooked by those who are not themselves dancers, unlike scores, which are generally understood by the public to be necessary documents to preserve. Representing the importance of choreographic notation as, in a way, the earliest archival methods for dance materials completely transforms the way one views the exhibit that follows.
Other types of materials on view that attempt to form an understanding of the historical context were set designs and set models, such as a rejected Salvador Dali watercolor sketch for a possible production of Romeo & Juliet. There were costumes on view, often next to a video screen that would be playing a clip of that costume in motion. The Dance Division is responsible for a huge initiative to record and preserve dance performances, from those of the New York City Ballet at the Metropolitan Opera to those from a tiny avant-garde company downtown. They pride themselves on this video collection, but the exhibit also emphasizes the importance of material objects, from works on paper to ephemera to costume, in providing context and reinforcing the reality of the visual media.
I would highly recommend anyone interested in archives or special collections to go see this exhibit, even if they think they have little interest in dance or dance history. It is an exciting opportunity to get a glimpse into the process of a major arts archive, and to see how the staff adapted over the years to continue carrying out Genevieve Oswald’s vision of preserving and providing access to this elusive form.