I spent part of my last semester at Pratt Institute conducting my own research at the Library for the Performing Arts in the Jerome Robbins Dance Division. Now as a Dance Heritage Coalition Fellow, it is my great privilege to spend time there working behind the scenes.
A highlight of my work at the library has been to contribute to the launch of an online space for audio-visual materials, the Dance Oral History Channel. The process has afforded me the opportunity to work with some really inspiring materials from the Oral History Project, which is comprised of library initiated and recorded interviews dating from 1974 through the present.
Participants in this collection include choreographers, dancers, and others like designers, critics, and those with other dance historical affiliations. Just a few examples are Alicia Alonso, Gerald Arpino, Glen Tetley, Violette Verdy, Clive Barnes, Anna Sokolow, Simone Forti, Martha Clarke, Irina Baronova, Twyla Tharp, Bill T. Jones, Maria Tallchief, Gene Kelly, the namesake of the Dance Division—Jerome Robbins, and the founding curator of the Dance Division—dance librarian Genevieve Oswald. To date there are over 400 of these recorded histories and accompanying transcripts housed at the library.
A major purpose of the Oral History Project is to address gaps in dance documentation, which it accomplishes in a fruitful way. Because of the way dance forms are taught and passed from generation to generation, these Oral Histories create a narrative, and when they are placed together within the context of the collection, they help to weave a story – in this case, of dance in America.
This brings up complex issues that performing arts archivists often brush up against and artists should consider as well; just how does one create a document of dance, not just the evidence of a performance, but of the art form itself, which is so elusive in its many expressions and methods of creation?
The Oral History Project as a collection is a testament to dance curators and librarians taking careful consideration of just what makes dance as an art form unique and then moving to both generate and collect it. When materials are gathered in libraries and archives, they come to represent the culture, and also the people who work to preserve the collections.