By David Vaughan
(Archivist, Merce Cunningham Dance Company)
I started to be a dance historian when I first became interested in ballet as a teenager and used to compile lists of the repertories of various ballet companies, starting with the Diaghilev Ballets Russes. So when I first began to work for Merce Cunningham - as secretary of the Studio he opened in December 1959 - I established a chronology of his work from programs I found in the Studio and from the personal records of dancers in his company, Carolyn Brown and Remy Charlip. This formed, as it were, the spine of what was to become the archival collection. I added more programs as they came in from the company's tours, and further documents, press clippings, reviews and interviews, flyers, photographs, collected by myself if we went on tour. In 1976 Jean Rigg, then the company administrator, was able to secure a pilot grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to appoint me archivist, formalizing what I had been doing for my own interest. The grant was for two years. When it came to an end Merce Cunningham, the administration, and the board of directors of the Cunningham Dance Foundation decided to continue to employ me in that capacity since the archival project itself was clearly open-ended: Merce Cunningham was continuing to make work and the company continued to perform it.
Being an archivist was something I learned on the job, from my own ideas and from talking to other people who were doing similar work, as well as from workshops given by the late Lesley Hansen Kopp, a pioneer in the field, and from my observation of the kind of records kept by the Royal Ballet in London, which I was able to study when researching for a book I wrote about the English choreographer Frederick Ashton. Computers were only just beginning to be in general use, and I began by creating three card files as what we now call a database: one of performances, one of works (noting when and where they were performed), and a geographical file of places where these performances took place. In fact I continue to keep these files up to date since I can find any information I need as quickly as I can from the computer database that now exists.
In the 1970s the company had begun making video and later film records of performances and rehearsals, as well as original works created for the camera by Cunningham in collaboration with filmmakers Charles Atlas and Elliot Caplan, and these became an important part of the archives.
In a real sense the “living archive” is contributed to by every member of the dance company, its apprentices, and the administrative and production staff. The company musicians, for instance, have begun to create a comprehensive archive of musical performances, when they have been recorded, which are often unique since as is well known the music for Cunningham's dances can change from one performance to another. It is hoped that a collection of these recordings will be issued on CD and made available to the general public. Robert Swinston, the senior member of the dance company and Cunningham's assistant, keeps the current repertory in rehearsal and is in charge of reconstructions of past work to be added to that repertory. For this task he also calls upon former company members whose “body memories” help to fill out details of the structure assembled from (often imperfect) video records, their own notes, and Cunningham's own personal notations, the copying and scanning of which is one of the most important projects of the archives. These copious notations, in the form of stick-figure drawings, diagrams of spatial configurations, and even verbal descriptions, are often indecipherable to anyone else, but Swinston has learned to read them.
As examples of this kind of work, two dances have been reconstructed in the last two or three years: “Crises” (1960) and “Second Hand” (1970). In both cases films exist of the original casts. “Crises” was reconstructed from a good film with the help of Carolyn Brown. “Second Hand” was more difficult, the film is silent and far from clear, but the choreography was reconstructed by Sandra Neels, from a painstaking examination of the film and from notes of her own. Neels has now done similar work on another dance from that time, “Tread,” which will probably be revived in the next year.
As is well known, Cunningham has been using computer software called DanceForms as a tool for devising the dance phrases that he then submits to chance processes in developing a new work. I am often asked if this material is held in the archives but so far it remains his personal property. But other materials in the archives are available to students and dance writers. An arrangement has been made for the eventual acquisition of the archives by the Dance Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, and already some have been transferred, notably the collections of original programs and photographs, as well as copies of most of the video and film material.
Meanwhile, my book “Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years,” and its supplement, “Fifty Forward,” in the form of a CD/Rom, are essentially products of the archives that make much of the material available to the general reader. An important part of my work as archivist has been as liaison with curators of exhibitions and galleries who need to borrow designs or actual decors from the company, and in fact I have been co-curator of several exhibitions including “Diaghilev/Cunningham” at Hofstra University on Long Island, New York, in 1974; the exhibition that toured to Barcelona, Porto, Vienna, and Torino several years ago; and “Invention: Cunningham and Collaborators,” which ran at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts in 2007.
(Dec. 9, 2008)