Beyond ballet why and how by Hans van Keulen
Theatre can’t be preserved, you have to see and experience it. I often encounter this objection when I’m enthusiastically telling people about the Theatre Heritage collection that we conserve and manage. In large part, it’s true. The goose bumps, the shivers, the hearty laugh, the emotion: everything that’s aroused by a beautiful and outstanding performance can indeed not be conserved by us, as heritage curators for the performing arts. Nevertheless, by conserving a great deal of data and objects we can, as it were, reconstruct the performance.
What this entails, what is conserved in the Netherlands and how, what is made accessible or not, is what I’m going to share with you this morning. I’ll first begin in general terms about the conservation of dance heritage, and then I’ll show you a number of examples of how you can present this.
Subsequently, I’ll tell you a little about our organisation, special collections at the University of Amsterdam and our predecessors.
And finally, we’ll take a look at the various sorts of dance heritage items that we have in our collection, how we present these, and how you could collaborate.
2. The conservation of theatre and dance heritage
The conservation of theatre heritage is difficult; in the case of dance it’s almost impossible. There are dance makers who say that there’s no way to reconstruct a performed event, and that any attempt to do so is like an attack on the original experience. But for others, historians, critics and other interested parties, it’s nonetheless important to conserve something. How else can we understand the influence that foreign companies had in the 1950s, when Dutch dance was still in its infancy. For Hans van Manen it’s fine working without the ballast of history; but others find it very useful to be able to refer back to dance pioneers. Martha Graham from America, Roland Petit and, of course, Balanchine are indispensable for understanding and appreciating the work of contemporary dancers.
What’s more, strange ideas can circulate concerning dance in the Netherlands. Even in a brochure produced by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it’s reported that modern Dutch dance history only begins after the Second World War. As though dance pioneers like Gertrud Leistikow, Kurt Jooss and Yvonne Georgi never existed!
In spite of the elusive quality of a performance it does leave many meaningful traces, which can be utilised in a very imaginative manner in a new-style museum. Just think about costumes and sets, theatre scripts and dance notes, video recordings and programmes. These objects and recordings can never entirely evoke the original experience of a performance, but they don’t need to. They can, however, form the starting point of new theatrical situations, which will in turn evoke wonder or insight. The translation of experiences, images and creative processes from the performing arts to other presentation forms, or media, doesn’t necessarily have to be experienced as a sad loss of intensity and meaning. Rather it can be seen as ‘profit’ and ‘enrichment’, by creating new access through which you can reach a more heterogeneous public. In recent years, this challenge has led to diverse results internationally. In the Centre National du Costume de Scène in Moulins (FR) you can, for example, re-experience the French performing arts by means of dance costumes. And, a few years ago, in ‘Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes, 1909-1929, the Victoria and Albert Museum (London) tried to compensate for the lack of film recordings of the (original) Ballets Russes with specially-adapted lighting, scenography and music. And, finally, we saw an entirely different approach in the New Museum in New York, which, in late 2012, under the title ‘Performance Archiving Performance’, presented a series of projects that took the relationship between performance and the archiving-process as its departure point and actually staged the performances in the museum itself.
Furthermore, in a contemporary museum, the spatial separation between art and public is less strict than in an ordinary theatre (there, it’s even called the ‘fourth wall’). Exhibitions can encourage the visitor to walk around and then seduce them at their own tempo into admiring objects and documents, with their impressive history. But most of all, they can offer an invitation to insight and even interaction with the intangible heritage behind the objects: the experiences, practices and creative processes of artists. Even beyond the fleeting contact in the theatre, you can, in other words, build on the foundation of an arts practice that feels under pressure in a time of crisis. Thus, the choreographer, Sasha Waltz, for example, wished to present the sculptural, or installation, aspects of her dance performances in a new context and new form in ZKM Karlsruhe (G), with ‘Installationen Objekte Performances’ (2013). The (heritage)objects, moving images or choreographic passages, were not merely shown as testimony of vanished performances, but as works of art in their own right, staged as new.
A recent example is Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, who together with Rosas has created a danced exhibition that will last nine weeks in the Contemporary Arts Centre, WIELS, in Brussels. The performance, Vortex Temporum, has been re-interpreted once again for the radically different temporal and spatial circumstances of the museum context. The result is a nine-hour cycle that is continually accessible to the public. It seems to be a trend for dancers to increasingly leave the theatre and move into modern arts museums. Perhaps because there the public absorbs conceptual thinking more easily than in the theatre.
But let’s return to what remains after the performance. We’ve already mentioned this briefly: programmes, photos, reviews, video recordings and perhaps also dance notes.
Dancers are also currently asking themselves how they can best preserve their heritage. And in what manner?
Since 2004 – when one of Emio Greco | Pieter C. Scholten’s salons was devoted to the challenging implications of building modern repertoire and archiving contemporary dance – Emio Greco | Pieter C. Scholten have been researching methods of documenting and analysing their own work. The ultimate aim is to develop an information source that can draw on their previous, current and future work. A “living archive”, based on principles of movement and choreography that are continually in evolution.
Their last project (2007) was Inside Movement Knowledge.
Less theoretical are the attempts of choreographers, in particular, to protect their work after their death. This often entails their choreographies being danced in a way that they’ve determined themselves; and for them to be danced in the same way after their deaths. Thus, they control their performing rights and are generally quite strict about this. Re-interpretations of existing performances, common in theatrical practice, are out of the question here.
Until now, we’ve talked about conserving dance heritage for the benefit of professionals, but enthusiasts want to see mementos again too. In the Netherlands, the public service broadcasters have provided well for video recordings, but over the last ten years, due to such factors as cutbacks and the demand for high ratings, things have gone through quite a rough patch.
Thus, there are certainly individual dance makers who are busy with their heritage. But what is the situation with museums and archives?
Immediately after the war, the Dance Central Council was created. This later became the Netherlands Institute for Dance (NID), and later again fused with Theater Instituut Nederland. They documented all performances and also collected a great amount of material about them. These last two institutions collected only professional dance.
3. Theater Instituut Collection, now theatre collections Special Collections University of Amsterdam
After almost 90 years of collecting performing arts’ heritage, Theater Instituut Nederland was abolished because of the culture cutbacks at the end of 2012. This not only meant the disappearance of a sector institute that had worked for theatre and dance professionals, but the rich and extensive collection also became homeless. I’ll spare you the story of the agonies of this destruction. 60 personnel were made unemployed, and since then support for the sector has only be offered via the branch organisations. Dance has had to do without this too, following the break up of the DOD (direction consultation dance). Representation of their interests now has to be undertaken by the NAPK. This acronym stands for the Dutch Association for the Performing Arts, and is the branch association for the professional performing arts producers in the Netherlands. However, they don’t actually do anything with heritage.
The ownership of the library collection, with its 40,000 titles, 35,000 scripts and sheet music, was passed to the University Library at the University of Amsterdam. The heritage collection, estimated at a value of 69 million Euros was transferred to the stewardship of Special Collections at the University Library. It included such items as 22,000 prints and drawings, 500 scale-models, 5000 hours of video and 400 archives, 150,000 photos, 5000 costumes and costume items, and much more beside.
Although a great deal of know-how was lost, and only 4 people now work on the collection daily in place of 15, we can fortunately still do rather a lot.
First, we collect all data from all premières in the Netherlands. That is to say the date of the première, the theatre, the company, and also all the performers. This première database is the heart of our collection database. Here, you can see what materials we have from these productions or performances.
Let’s take an example of an iconic performance by Rudi van Dantzig.
Monument for a Dead Boy. (monument voor een gestorven jongen(19 June 1965; almost 50 years ago)
This ballet from 1965 was viewed at the time as extremely progressive, both thematically and for the advancement of the ballet, and in my opinion in 2015 it has lost nothing of its power. The theme of homosexuality caused a great deal of controversy in the Netherlands and abroad at that time. In this ballet, a young man wrestles with his sexual identity. Via short dream and nightmare scenes, one dancer interprets the role of the boy and another the role of his youth.
What do we have from this production?
I’ll let the database (adlib) show (but not live) what we are working with. There you can find the data of more than 100,000 premières. You can do this at home too, but it looks a little different then. I’ll come back to that later.
On this page, you can see the most important data for Monument for a Dead Boy.
The scenographer, the designer, the performers at the première, and of course the date of the premiere and the theatre.
On the following file tab, you can see that this performance was reprised in a number of seasons. The performers for these have not been included in our database; this is a database of premières after all.
On yet another file tab, you can see what materials we have from this performance. A number of posters, photos, design-drawings and a scale-model.
Here are a number of images of items we have in the collection from this ballet. A pair of trousers (costume); photos, design of the decor and the decor-model.
Of course, we do also collect currently, but we can’t collect all of the materials that belong to all of the 1500 premières on average in the Netherlands. Thus, we do collect the data of all the premieres, but in the case of objects, we do that differently:
To arrive at a representative and responsibly managed collection, TIN decided in 2003 to appoint an expert advisory commission to make a selection of productions for the composition of its collection.
In the acquisition of posters, videos and photos, a selection is made at the end of the theatre season of some 100 representative productions by the Collection Selection Commission.
This commission consists of 15 members who are chosen on the basis of their expertise in the areas of the various theatre disciplines. The 10 external members are reviewers, theatre directors or programmers and see many performances in the course of their work.
The chosen productions don’t necessarily need to be ‘the best’ performance; they may also be productions that had an important social theme, or productions that perhaps weren’t that strong in terms of content, but had a wonderful, outstanding or innovative design. Attention is also paid to the proportional choice of productions by discipline, weighing up the entire range on offer in that particular season.
The selection is supplemented annually with productions that were awarded important prizes. We also make a comparable selection in the case of retrospective acquisition. For example, if we are offered the archive of a discontinued company, we, and a number of commission members, take a retrospective look at all of the productions, and then we make a representative selection. Subsequently, we include as much material as possible from these productions.
In this way, we have selected some 379 dance performances over 10 years, and we have actively tried to collect a video, a set of photos and a poster from each of these productions. I emphasise tried because it’s not always easy to actually get these materials. Is this because of disinterest, or is it because of the pressing issues of the day that so little comes in? We often have to phone a number of times and mail before we get anything in. And sometimes it’s the case that there’s no video or poster of the performance available.
Now that the collection is being managed by a much smaller number of people, it’s no longer possible to import all of the data ourselves. A tool has therefore been developed so that companies and producers can do this for themselves: the so-called upload-window. This is why it’s essential that the awareness of the importance of heritage be more broadly established than is presently the case. It’s no longer the government that currently provides for cultural legacy, you really do have to do it yourself.
In addition to the information and material that comes in via the theatre selection, we also receive photos, material and archives spontaneously.
Here is a brief overview of what I consider to be the highpoints in regards to Dutch dance history.
Archives: 48 archives: including Het Nationaal ballet, Nederlands Ballet, St Dansproductie. And of Lili Green, Corrie Hartong, Jodjana, Gertrud Leistikow, Florrie Rodrigo, Hans Snoek, Sonia Gaskell, Helen le Clerq and Rudi van Dantzig.
More than 18,000 objects relating to dance. Designs for costumes, 1000 costumes and costume items, 4400 posters, thousands of photos, scale-models and scrapbooks. And some 2700 videos.
4. Presentation of the collection
And how do we present this wealth? After all, we no longer have a museum. We do this via digital media and, of course, we collaborate on museum exhibitions. Thus, there was a wonderful general-exhibition on Gertrud Leistikow in Museum Kranenburg in 2014, where 60% of what was on display came from our collection.
Back to the digital presentations:
The Dutch theatre collection has only been made accessible in the Dutch language; both the database and the presentation sites are unfortunately only in Dutch.
- Searching in the collection for yourself: www.tin.nl and http://vintagetin.adlibhosting.com/default.aspx. We are now going to try it live, always a risk because the technology could let us down (certainly on an old laptop), but ask me what you’d like me to search for.
- Via the Theatre Encyclopaedia
- and biographical portraits on the site Een levenlangtheater.nl (A Life-Longer Theatre).
Of the 30 portraits, five are of dancers: Hans van Manen, Rudi van Dantzig, Toer van Schayk, Alexandra Radius and Sonia Gaskell.
Theatre Encyclopaedia: Write your own theatre history! You can search freely and, in contrast to the database, also search like Google. The premiere database is the basis of the Theatre Encyclopaedia. The Theatre Encyclopaedia is founded on the WIKI principle; anyone can add information and images. It is divided between companies, persons and theaters.
A separate canon for Dutch Dance has been included in the Dutch theatre history time-line.
Ladies and gentlemen, that was my story. I hope I’ve been able to make two issues clear:
- The Theatre Collection, and with it the Dutch Dance heritage, is still alive and kicking
- You’re personally responsible for collecting, managing and housing your own heritage.
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Thank you very much for your attention!