Collecting repositories


“A great performer feels this sharing,”  This line, written by the choreographer and theater visionary, Alwin Nikolais, describes the ideal relationship between dancer and audience.  Nikolais recorded this thought on a sheet of paper containing other observations and, wonderfully, this handwritten series of notes is one of the many extraordinary objects to be found in the current exhibition, “Alwin Nikolais’ Total Theater of Motion,” on display in the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts’ Vincent Astor Gallery.  The exhibition, curated by Claudia Gitelman, runs until January 15, 2011.

I have been a fan of Nikolais since seeing an utterly astounding performance of Noumenon in the late 1970s.  Although I was not well schooled in dance history and in spite of my regrettable lack of exposure to dance at that stage, I recall feeling that I was witnessing something very special and was certainly inspired.  The experience of Noumenon (along with an explosive solo piece by Murray Louis) made me want to dance.  Moreso, it made me feel as though I could dance.  Sharing, indeed.

It was, therefore, quite thrilling to encounter so much material in the NYPL exhibit that explores Nikolais’ educational endeavors, particularly his years with the Henry Street Settlement House on New York City’s Lower East Side.  Nikolais, along with Hanya Holm, directed the dance program there for many years and the exhibition celebrates this period with delightful photographs, programs, and posters.  Under the directorship of Nikolais and Holm, the profile of dance in the community was raised to fabulously high levels and great numbers of young people were engaged and turned on.  There is a particularly memorable photograph in the exhibition (from either the 1940s or 1950s) that shows a huge line of neighborhood people outside the Henry Street Playhouse, waiting to gain entry to a dance performance.  At another point in the Henry Street Settlement House section, a caption reads: “The first performing experiences of professional students at the Henry Street Playhouse were in dance dramas for neighborhood children.  Nikolais invented whimsical plots, vivid characters and outlandish costumes.”  Nikolais was bringing dance to the people in a major way.

And there is so much more. A striking photo of a beaming Alwin Nikolais with his idol and mentor, Mary Wigman, from 1958.  A series of costume sketches and television storyboards, created by Nikolais.  An LP record jacket for the Hanover Records release of the “Choreosonic Music of the New Dance Theatre of Alwin Nikolais.”  A copy of Nikolais’ Index to Puppetry, done for the WPA in 1936.  A business card dispensed by Nikolais in the earliest part of his career, advertising his position as an organist for the Fine Arts Theatre in Westport, Connecticut.  Costumes and props from such pieces as Gallery, Allegory, and Tent.  Wonderful and sometimes miraculous video and film clips of many Nikolais works, illustrating with absolute clarity the nature and extent of his “total theater of motion.”

Some date omissions are problematic.  However, the selected materials, the overall arrangement of the show, and the generally informative captions all get high marks.  The highest mark, though, goes to the simple act of creating an extensive tribute to the life and work of Alwin Nikolais.  It is a well-earned but long overdue tribute and I can say with great sincerity that it is a tribute very much appreciated.  And well worth seeing before it is taken down on January 15.

And, speaking of long overdue tributes, I just want to take another moment to praise the Museum of the City of New York (MCNY) for the current gem of an exhibition celebrating the work of Denys Wortman, cartoonist for the World Telegram and Sun from 1930-1953.  I knew nothing at all of Wortman’s work prior to seeing the exhibition and now cannot fathom his absence from notoriety for all of the years following his death in 1958.  What a wonderful observer of society and socioeconomic classes, and how important to bring such marvelous and significant work to the attention of the public once again.  The exhibition, entitled “Denys Wortman Rediscovered,” will be on display at MCNY until March 20, 2011.

Open House at the National Archives-New York office

The Northeast Region (located in New York City) of National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) had an open house on October 13, 2009.  For those who had never used the New York center of archives (covering NY, New Jersey, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands), it was a great opportunity to get acquainted with the resources of the facility.  Though I was there on work-related business, it overlapped with my genealogy hobby.  There were a number of genealogists there, too.

Dorothy Dougherty, in charge of public programs at NARA

Dorothy Dougherty (NARA staff in charge of public programs) showed a video from their website and provided an overview of the history of the United States and its archives.  The value in going through the institution’s history helped explain why certain materials are not there.  Although everyone had a chuckle as she went through a history of the fires (there had been many), it was quite instructive in revealing why certain records no longer exist, and why others do exist even if you would expect them not to be around. That’s the reason the 1890 US census is mostly gone – it was consumed by fire because it was being stored at the Department of Commerce, rather than the area where the rest of the censuses were kept.  She concluded her talk with a quick tour of how to navigate NARA’s website.

Staff showed us some interesting artifacts followed by a brief behind-the-scenes walking tour of their stack area.  To say there is tons of material is an understatement.  It seems as if the New York office is loaded with records of ship crews docking in New York for the past 200 years (ship captains had to keep inventories of crews to determine when any of them would stay behind).  Virtually any federal activity that took place in the New York region (which includes New Jersey, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands) is kept mostly in the New York office (at 201Varick St. – literally at the Houston St. stop on the no. 1 train).
Of the 9 full-time staff members in the New York office, 2 of them are devoted to programming and outreach.  If a group wants to meet in the archives and have (or customize) their own tour, Ms. Dougherty would be one of the people to arrange such things.  Seems like a great opportunity to plan a visit for a group.

Raffle at the NARA open houseAfter the tour, the staff held a raffle of several copies of a newly published book of photographs from the archive.  After the official end of the program, NARA staff was eager to answer questions from individual attendees.

Materials concerning "Happy Birthday To You" on display at NARA

So what is the connection between this nice NARA visit and the performing arts?  There was a prominent display of materials documenting the copyright dispute concerning the song “Happy Birthday To You.”  (Wikipedia has a summary of the legal entanglements involving this most familiar of songs in English, due to the belief that the song is still in copyright.)

It was very pleasant and educational visit (I need more time to pursue some genealogy threads!).  I highly recommend groups contact Ms. Dougherty and arrange a group visit.  Entrance to the 12th floor headquarters of the National Archives office

Afterwards, staff was eager to answer individuals’s queries.Entrance to the 12th floor headquarters of the National Archives office

The connection to performing arts archives seems to grow ever more tenuous in these posts, but Ephemeral Archives felt we must salute Brian May on the occasion of his official installation as the fourth Chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University yesterday.

Does this mean that the LJMU Special Collections and Archives will collect even more actively in the area of performing arts? Collections they already have processed include: the England’s Dreaming Punk Archive, Everyman Theatre Archive (some of which is digitized) and Frankie Vaughan Archive.

It also gives us another excuse to gratuitously link to another YouTube video.

In a recent posting on its blog, the James Weldon Johnson Collection at the Beinecke Library reports on a new digital initiative and shares some arresting color portraits by Carl Van Vechten. Among the dancers and singers included are Marian Anderson, Pearl Bailey, Diahann Carroll, Ella Fitzgerald, and Leontyne Price.