Just Out of Reach: The Art of the Company History, Mar 2008

By Selby Schwartz


Capturing dance, if not purely impossible, is at least like hunting butterflies: a fragile art, with many beautiful frustrations. Once you pin it down, its motion has been stilled, and it is not the same creature that was floating in the air just a minute ago. And if it so difficult to catch and hold just one moment in dance, how can we possibly aspire to throw a net around everything that has gone into creating it—the choreographer’s vision for a piece; the smell of fabric being dyed for costumes; the sidelong glances of dancers in studio mirrors as they rehearse for the hundredth time; the day you signed a theater rental agreement without believing, really, that opening night would ever come?

The fragility of this history is an inherent part of dance as an ephemeral performance art. Moreover, specific dance histories are rarely preserved by the people who know them best, because they are in the middle of making them. When you start or join a company, you are mostly concerned with helping it to survive. If we do find, as members of a dance community, that we have a moment to take ourselves outside of our small orbits of everyday worries and joys, we can begin to reflect on our achievements and continual evolutions. Maybe a time comes when the company can finally offer contracts to its dancers, or embarks on its first tour, or celebrates its fifth year; maybe it is something more poignant, like the realization that someone in the company who is so fiercely alive and creative could ever cease to be part of it.

Often, there are wonderful stories about how the company came into existence, how the dances were conceived and created, and how it all went out into the world on bright wings. How do we tell these stories? Who should recount the history of a dance company, and in what form? Where are the boundaries of this story—the inside, the outside, the backstage, the larger picture—and where is its backbone, its center, its heart?

Creating a company history can be like setting out to write the history of a whole country. You have to decide whether it is mainly a history of leaders, events, and broad cultural contexts, or whether it is, instead, a history of daily labors, small triumphs, and personal memories. If you decide to tell the history as it happened over time, the teleology or ‘arc’ of the story will bend events to fit its curve, so that it seems to be moving logically from its beginning towards its end-point.

Company histories are intensely personal, imprinted with the characters of their founders, directors, choreographers, principle dancers, or long-term patrons (and it does seem, in dance, that many of these personalities are exceptionally colorful, from Louis XIV to Martha Graham). Some voices will be louder than others, and some things will always be left out. Your own voice has to find the right place from which to tell this story. Is it meant to sound like an objective, incisive version of the company’s history told from a critical distance, or is it a celebratory paean to the company’s vision and accomplishments?

Because the dance community is so tightly interwoven, it is useful to think of company histories as ethnographies—a term from cultural anthropology that literally means ‘people + writing,’ and conveys the sense that you are telling a history derived from both qualitative and quantitative observations, as well as from your personal experience in the community. One form of ethnography, developed by anthropologist Clifford Geertz, uses ‘thick description’ as a technique to portray how individual events and actions are involved in cultural contexts. For example, it is historically true that Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, pioneers of modern dance in America, were married for many years. This is a ‘thin description,’ because it leaves out—as does Ted Shawn’s own autobiography—the significant fact that Shawn was gay. A ‘thick description’ would also give the context for Ted Shawn’s decision to separate from Ruth St. Denis in 1933, and to found his own Company of Male Dancers.

In the Bay Area, the creation of company histories has been as diverse as the companies themselves. The Legacy Oral History Project, for example, which is about to celebrate its twentieth year of existence, was founded in response to the devastation of the dance community by the AIDS crisis. Now incorporated into the Museum of Performance and Design (formerly San Francisco Performing Arts Library), the Legacy Project has expanded its mission to respond to “the passing of a first generation of modern dance pioneers and other elders,” in particular “culturally embedded artists, often invisible to the historical record” such as Cambodian refugee dancer Kong The’ap.

Jeff Friedman can pinpoint the moment when he knew that the Legacy Project had to be created: “I was performing with ODC, and I had back problems from a two-week tour we had done in Alaska. My physical therapist was a dancer named Joah Lowe—and he was the light at the end of the tunnel for me, while I was healing—and then it was Christmas, and Joah went home to visit his family in Texas, and he died. And he didn’t know he was HIV positive. So there was a memorial service for him at the Footwork studio on 21st and Mission, and I remember the intensity of that service: there was a video-monitor with tapes of him dancing placed onstage, and we were all on the floor, watching this flickering visual image, mourning…and it just was not sufficient. It was not enough to have this ephemeral thing.”

The Legacy Project deliberately emphasizes non-written histories—“as working artists, we communicate what we do, and how we do it, orally and kinesthetically,” Friedman says—and the importance of community trust. The project’s collection of oral histories, now managed by Basya Petnick, is the largest of its kind outside of New York, and continues to grow as more Bay Area dance figures are nominated to be ‘narrators’ each year. The collection takes the form of online videos, photo galleries, transcripts, ephemera, illustrations, and even performance pieces, such as Friedman’s own Muscle Memory. SFPALM itself is probably the best place for a Bay Area company history archive to find a home—especially since dance companies tend to preserve keepsakes by throwing them into cardboard boxes, packing them into old suitcases, or leaving them at the back of costume storage, rather than organizing and cross-referencing them, as the Museum of Performance of Design does, on acid-free paper, in a temperature-controlled environment.

When ODC reached its 30th anniversary, its founders did pull the old suitcases out from their basements, and hunted down photos and videos from the company’s early days, in order to create a book. “It was our choice not have a continual narrative,” says Kimi Okada, one of the founders. “We wanted it to be from the inside out and from the outside in. Once we accepted that it was not going to be a factual history, but an experiential history of ODC, then we thought: we’re essentially about community, and have been from the beginning, so we wanted to have representatives from the community.” The book includes photographs, a list of repertory, and a list of company members by year, as well as essays and reflections by company dancers, choreographers, dance critic Allan Ulrich, and dance historian Janice Ross. “It was important for each of us to have a voice,” Okada explains, adding with a quick smile,“although, when you have a lot of artists trying to remember things…well…”

During the company’s 30th anniversary celebration, a retrospective performance piece was created to accompany the book. Excerpts from old repertory were set on current company dancers—“they had a hard time, you know, with the old work: speaking backwards, running around, all this pedestrian stuff!” Okada says—and alumni as well as children from the current ODC program performed together. “It was about celebrating, but also about telling a story. It’s daunting to know that this is it,” Okada admits. “This is what you’re leaving and people will read it, and they will believe it. It’s a really important responsibility.”

Janice Ross, a former dance critic at the Oakland Tribune, who is now a Stanford professor and prolific dance historian, has written commemorative essays for ODC, Joe Goode, and Margaret Jenkins, as well as a ten-year project that became a book on Anna Halprin. In December 2007, her book chronicling 75 years of San Francisco Ballet’s history was published, the product of investigating “all the concentric rings that radiate out from the stage, at every performance,” as she describes her methodology. “As a cultural historian, you have to test and sample every ring. At SFB, the performance is documented—but there are five layers of rehearsal before that ever happens, and you have to get the texture of those, too.”

Ross says that her research is guided by two main principles: “be on the ground, looking at the live process of dance,” and “look broadly and look unconventionally,” both of which are helpful pieces of advice for anyone thinking of beginning a company history. Her techniques for past research, such as the work she did for the Popular Balanchine Project a few years ago, have included searches for past audience members and stage hands, tracking down bootleg videos and old newspaper clippings, and trying to reconstruct choreography from dancers’ kinesthetic memories. For her book on SFB, she says, because “Helgi [Tomasson]’s identity is written across the company in very subtle ways, in the rep, in the training, I looked closely at his attributes as a dancer (at New York City Ballet), in old films, and I saw his very clear moral compass, even when he a very young dancer in Finland: an exquisitely pure classical dancer. So I did a little covert biographical reading of him as an artist, and that gave me a kind of through-line for the company history.”

Ross is optimistic about the future of dance histories, and sees them being gradually accepted as part of a larger discourse about the significance of dance. “It is hugely exhilarating for me,” she says, “to be part of this discussion, asking those questions: what is the cultural resonance of a dance piece? What makes a work endure? What is ballet in America? These histories are like cultural portraits.” Jeff Friedman, who is now also a professor (at Rutgers University), also thinks that more people are recognizing the vitality and urgency of preserving dance history. “Many people think that the performing arts are a reflection of culture—but they also drive culture, and transform it,” he points out. In fact, Friedman proposes that not only should more dance histories be recorded, but more histories should also be preserved in dance. Giving the example of Rosa Parks sitting down on a bus as “an action that made history—an embodied choice that moved history forward,” Friedman says: “you could write about that, or sing about that, or dance about that. Because dance is action, and performance—in the largest sense, of people acting in the world—is what makes history happen.”

Selby Wynn Schwartz is the International Tour Manager/ Project Manager at Alonzo King LINES Ballet, a Lecturer at UC Berkeley, and a member of the LEAP faculty. She holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley, and is currently working on a book about drag and dance.