Dance as a process, archiving as a process

For most dancers, it is easy to speak of and understand the concept of a living art work. The process happens in the rehearsal studio where works are created and finessed before being performed. Then perhaps they are changed in the future, by the choreographer, or by nature of it being performed by a different cast, in a different venue, possibly with different lighting.

Through dialog and experimentation, dance works are given meaning. It matters whose minds and bodies are in the room–the impetus for movement comes from a visualization or concept that is internalized by artists and then expressed outwardly. When performed, there is a dialogue between performer and audience, and a transfer at least of energy and awareness of each others’ presence. Graham McFee believes that performing arts “must be brought into completeness by being performed” (McFee, 1992). It is truly special to be conscious of the uniqueness of individual live performances.

Dances are created to be performed and expressed to others in live theater. This is the nature of the work and the tradition of the profession. Recording dance is not a new practice but it influences the way in which archivists attempt to describe and curate dance with documentations of each piece. When we archive and document dance, should we focus on the creation or the variations of the work? Peggy Phelan argues that performance cannot be documented, and that if it is, “it becomes something other than performance” (Phelan, p. 146). In fact, her stance is so rigid that she believes that recording or reproducing performance “betrays and lessens the promise of its own ontology.” There is still discussion on the best way these two things–the work and the performance of it–relate to each other. How should they related? Conceptually, Phelan believes each performance is essentially a different thing. Ontologically, they could be described as variations of one work. However, a videorecording of a performance includes an unknown variable of curation, whether intentional or not, and only one performance variation of the work is given permanence–it is understandable why we would question a recording’s as an authoritative representation of a work.

But if dance can only be performed live and seen in person as its own best representation, how many people can we affect and reach with this art? Even when I see a dance performance live, I do not see everything–I blink and I miss it. I focus on one dancer’s artistry and I miss the whole corps. Blades (2011) warns that dance’s “temporary existence in the physical world means that performance…cannot always be accessed” (p. 41).

Probably Phelan would agree that one work, performed over time, is a living thing, that needs to survive specifically by performing it. “Some believe that for a dance work to exist it should be performable and not just one moment in time–that is, you need to capture how the dance is done; it needs to be repeatable.” Abstractions must be instanced, or put into play.

What does videorecording or filming do to a performance? Is it a fair presentation of the work? The Metropolitan Opera streams performances live in HD from The Met stage, to cinemas all over the world, so that audiences can attend a live performance. Although live, there is still mediation by technology; would Phelan believe that distance-audiences are truly seeing the work? After all, the same streamed performance is simultaneously recorded for repeat viewings.

Digital technology requires archivists to have new considerations for dance ontologies. Live relay vs. representation. Multiplicity of digitally produced DVDs vs. one version on the internet. Performance is now represented and experienced through digital portals, and digital curation aims to present archived objects for recontextualization, conversation, and use. Online sites like NYPL’s Digital Collections Tools allow users to compare, research, create new digital objects from archived dance recordings. Archiving has become a process, from collecting documentation of dance performances like dance reviews, choreographic notes, music scores, and oral histories. Writing, formal notations, and passive or produced recording of dance works all help put together a picture of what a dance was. Even if the details of the initial performance are lost, the abstract notion of the work may still allow future reincarnations.

Just like dance, which changes organically over time, the practices in archiving dance are in flux, where dance scholars, archivists and digital curators share conceptual notions for a process to keep the works richly described for the fullest experience over time.

Phelan, P. (1993). Unmarked: The politics of performance. London, New York: Routledge.
Guy, M. (July 2013). ECLAP 2013: Information Technologies for Performing Arts, Media Access and Entertainment. Ariadne, 71. Retrieved from:
McFee, G. (1992). Understanding dance. London: Routledge.
Blades, H. (2011). Dance on the Internet: An ontological investigation. Postgraduate Journal of Aesthetics, 8(1). 40-52.


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