Dance history


It isn’t often that an archivist gets public recognition for her work, so double cheers to Jane Pritchard for being awarded an MBE in the New Year’s Honours lists for 2014. Pritchard, who is currently the Curator of Dance for the Theatre & Performance Collections, Victoria & Albert Museum, previously served as archivist for Rambert Dance Company, English National Ballet, and the Contemporary Dance Trust. She also is the author of a recent book on Anna Pavlova and organized the colossal Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes exhibition at the Victoria & Albert (2010) and the National Gallery of Art (2013).

In another nod to the past, you can read her article on the Diaghilev exhibition in the Winter 2010/2011 issue of Performance!.


Carl Van Vechten photograph of Paul Taylor in George Balanchine's 'Episodes'

The Paul Taylor Dance Company announced officially today that its archives are now available to the public. The collection includes Foundation records consisting of 95 cubic feet of archives backlog and over 60 cubic feet of personal papers and artifacts from Mr. Taylor’s former West Village home.

Finding aids to the collection and other information is available online at the PTDC site and also discoverable on ArchiveGrid. The preservation project was funded through a grant from the National Historic Publications and Records Commission.

Congratulations to all!  I look forward to digging around more on the site once my login is authenticated.

Image credit: Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, LOT 12735, no. 1085 [P&P]

This one in celebration of what would have been the 117th birthday of Martha Graham.  Today’s Google Doodle is an animation created by Ryan Woodward.

You can watch the entire sequence on YouTube as well:

And I’ll let you have the fun of picking out Martha Graham in this early image from her Denishawn days, courtesy of the NYPL Digital Gallery.

Denishawn dancers at Mariarden (1922).

A. Gardel postcard for Fête du Narcisse in Montreux, Switzerland (1928)

In what makes an interesting side note and a nice addendum to the article on the Diaghilev exhibition in the Winter issue of Performance!, history was made recently when the first known film of Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes company was identified by Victoria & Albert Museum Dance Curator, Jane Pritchard, after she was directed to it by Susan Eastwood of the London Ballet Circle.  The 1928 festival footage, which had been posted on the British Pathé historical archive Web site, includes a brief rehearsal (one hopes) clip, which is believed to show Serge Lifar and the company in a sequence from Les Sylphides. Diaghilev, of course, was adamant about not allowing his company to be filmed, which makes this discovery all the more exciting.

Can spring really be far off now?

In the meantime, you can view the clip for yourselves here.

Image credit:  Digital ID” Fel_018135_RE, ETH Bibliothek Zürich, Bildarchiv

“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.

I don’t mean to harp on ballet, but it is rare these days that I get to see something in advance of New York.  Last night I had a chance to watch a preview of the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Balanchine’s Petipa lecture demonstration, which will be presented as part of the Guggenheim Museum’s Works and Process series this weekend.  The program, which examines the influence of Marius Petipa and the Imperial Ballet tradition on the work of George Balanchine, pairs choreography by Petipa and his associates with that of the 20th century master.  Much of the Petipa choreography has been reconstructed using the Stepanov notation documents from the Nikolai Sergeev dance notations and music scores for ballets at the Harvard Theatre Collection. So yay for performing arts archives and archivists!  There’s even a shout out (OK, a credit)  for the HTC in the program!  Harvard’s online finding aid includes some digital images of material from the Sergeev collection, such as the above page, which illustrates part of the Paquita coda.

The program, while a little heavy on the male variations (several of the Balanchine ballets, not too surprisingly,  drew on the former NYCB rep of current PNB director, Peter Boal) was well-paced and compelling.  Especially interesting was the reconstructed “Kingdom of the Shades” pas de deux from La Bayadère which featured a lift described in the notation that proved to be impossible to reconstruct in an aesthetically pleasing fashion; a compromise lift was substituted.  Also instructive was the consecutive presentation of three different variations performed to the same music, the first by Petipa for a ballerina in the original production of Raymonda (1898), another version for a female soloist from Balanchine’s 1946 production of the ballet for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo (restaged by the stalwart Frederic Franklin, who is expected to be in attendance at the New York event), and the more familiar  male variation still performed in Balanchine’s Raymonda Variations (1961).  And it is always nice to get to see something from the too-infrequently-performed Divertimento from Le Baiser de la Fée (in this case, the demanding male solo Balanchine created for Helgi Tomasson for the 1972 Stravinsky Festival season).

The Friday program at the Guggenheim is sold out, but there are still tickets available for Saturday (you could see NYBT on Friday instead and make a full weekend of it).

Maybe one of these days someone will post about American Ballet Theatre’s 70th anniversary festivities.

Dancer Sophia Delza, possibly in costume for Broadway production of "Fiesta" (1929)

This blog normally doesn’t cover the work of moving image archives as such, but I was especially excited to hear about a retrospective on the documentary filmmaker, Leo Hurwitz, currently running at New York’s Anthology Film Archives.  This series is presenting a wealth of rarely screened films in an effort to reexamine Hurwitz’s seminal career within the context of a “New York School of Documentary Film” that emerged during the 1930s.  You can read more about Hurwitz in this overview of the series from the Village Voice and in this PBS interview with his son, Tom (also a documentary filmmaker).

I first became aware of Leo Hurwitz and the fascinating Hurwitz family when I processed the papers of one of his sisters, dancer Sophia Delza (although the term, “dancer,” here hardly captures the protean nature of her career any more adequately than “documentary filmmaker” defines that of Leo Hurwitz), and I am extremely sorry to have to miss this series.  Leo Hurwitz also was married for many years to Jane Dudley, another prominent figure in modern dance.  Haiku (1965), a short film featuring her work will be shown tomorrow.

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