By BERNICE TELL
From earliest times, humans have expressed their deepest emotions through dance. Dance plays a major role in the rites and the ceremonies of every culture. However, of all the arts, dance may be the most ephemeral - the most difficult to record.
For centuries, dances were passed down from master to pupil. With each passage came the possibility of distortion or omission or both.
In the 20th century, dance notation ("Labanotation scores") of choreographic works and motion pictures and videocameras at last have captured the transient nature of dance.
The Music Division of the Library of Congress has had a long-term commitment to the study and preservation of dance materials, which has resulted in the acquisition of a broad range of collections portraying every aspect of the dance in America, from Colonial times to the present.
To expand its preservation efforts and make its dance collection more accessible, the Library in 1992 joined three major institutions with extensive dance collections to establish the Dance Heritage Coalition (DHC). Other DHC founders are: the Harvard Theater Collection of Harvard College Library, the Dance Collection of New York Public Library and the San Francisco Performing Arts Library and Museum. Headquartered in New York, the DHC develops collaborative projects to preserve the dance and make it more accessible. The coalition focuses on four areas: access to materials; continuing documentation of dance; preservation of existing documents; and education.
With an initial grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the DHC studied the current state of preservation and documentation of American dance. The study concluded that the coalition would make best use of its resources by embarking on a concentrated effort to increase access to dance documents and related materials.
To achieve its goal of greater access, the DHC turned to the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and applied for a grant. In 1994 the DHC was awarded $663,000, the largest grant ever given by NEH in the area of access. New members joining DHC and the Access Project, as it became known, were the Lawrence and Lee Theater Collection of Ohio State University, the American Dance Festival working with the Duke University Special Collections Library and the Performing Arts Archives of the University of Minnesota. The official recipient of the award, New York Public Library, administered the grant.
The overall cost of the two-year project, more than $1 million, was financed through the addition of matching funds from private foundations and the NEH. Each institution selected materials from its own archival collections that, when combined with materials of the other institutions, would create a coherent document to reveal the broad spectrum of dance in America.
Before the Access Project, there was no single source for dance scholars and artists to use in determining which dance materials were available and where they could be located. Even before the end of 1996, which marks the close of the Access Project, every institution will have exceeded its projections and quotas, and the project as a whole will have met its goals and objectives. All told, more than 18,000 items and 1,500 linear feet of manuscripts and archives will have been cataloged, preserved and made available.
At the Library of Congress, the Access Project involved three divisions: Music; Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound; and the American Folklife Center. Among other tasks, the Music Division preserved, processed and prepared a finding aid for scholars and researchers studying the Bob Fosse/Gwen Verdon Collection, a comprehensive assemblage of the choreography and other works of these two artists, who were married to each other. Collectively, the documents create a picture of their lives and their world, both on Broadway and in motion pictures.
It was the first time a finding aid combined in one document the related holdings of the Music Division and the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division. To provide greater access to this material, the finding aid has been incorporated into the LC MARVEL database, available from the Library's Internet homepage at http://www.loc.gov.
Coordination between Music and Broadcasting was responsible as well for processing, preserving and making available the Library's Danny Kaye/Sylvia Fine collection, the finding aid for which is also accessible on LC MARVEL.
Recently the Music Division also prepared a finding aid for the Franziska Boas Collection. Boas, a dancer, educator, social activist and artistic director of the Franziska Boas Dance Company, was a pioneer in the field of dance accompaniment.
In addition to its other valuable contributions to the Access Project, the Folklife Center processed the Gheorghe and Eugenia Popescu-Judetz Collection, the largest collection of Romanian folk dance materials ever assembled in the United States.
Although the DHC grant accelerated its activities, the Music Division has always endeavored to preserve and enhance its American dance collection. The collection goes back as far as 18th and 19th century dance manuals. (Before this, America's population, largely rural and isolated, relied on "dancing masters" who traveled about the country using manuals from Europe to teach the latest Continental dances to the gentry.)
The early part of the 20th century saw an explosion of modern music and theatrical ballet. Serge Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes were at the core of this explosion, which included the artistry of Nijinsky. The Library holds the Music Library of Diaghilev and the personal notebook of his later years. Enhancing this material are such visual items as a costume design by Leon Bakst and a watercolor portrait of Nijinsky in the ballet Les Orientals.
In the 20th century, the Library's dance collections expanded as its anthropological and folklife cultural activities grew.
However, what most Americans think of as "dance" - that is, dance performed in a theater or dance hall - has not been well documented. In fact, many materials were preserved not because of their intrinsic dance value but because of their relevance to other fields, such as music, theater or cultural history. For example, sheet music covers depicting dancers may in some cases give the only available clues to what these old-time dances looked like and what costumes the dancers wore.
Since the revision in 1976 of the copyright law that provides for the registration of choreographic works, as well as the development of low-cost videotape to record dance, the Library has received thousands of videotapes. Dance tapes from choreographer George Balanchine include Square Dance, Chaconne, and Stars and Stripes. From Agnes de Mille the Library received Bloomer Girl, The Bitter Weird and Conversation About the Dance.
The Access Project's most enduring accomplishment may be the lesson that large institutions can achieve collectively what they cannot do singly. Although these NEH grant moneys are spent, the Dance Heritage Coalition will continue to facilitate access to America's invaluable dance treasures.
Bernice Tell is a free-lance writer based in Washington.