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by Catherine J. Johnson


The challenges of preservation for dance are intricately tied to those of documentation. While the historical artifacts and artworks referred to in Snyder’s opening essay on documentation-the ancient pottery and jars, bas-reliefs in temples, cave paintings, statuettes, screens, and paintings-survive through the efforts of museum curators, archaeologists, and anthropologists, the later documentation of archival materials has been left to librarians and archivists, who grapple with issues of ongoing preservation management on a large scale. Preserving the remnants of an art form and cultural activity dependent on time and space requires no less creativity than that needed to create the dance itself.

Theatrical dance in the United States is often created under adverse economic conditions. Artistic companies must struggle for financial survival, straining resources that might provide better quality documentation materials, and better care and environment. Tales abound of precious materials housed in barns, hidden in closets, and rotting in rat-infested warehouses. Educational efforts, research, and foundation funding have provided momentum for preservation planning for dance, yet continued collaboration and cooperation will be necessary to meet the challenge of preserving America’s dance heritage for future generations. While the preservation of all materials that document dance is important, the most urgent need now is to rescue materials recorded on magnetic media before they disappear.

An ongoing challenge in the dance field is the confusion about the term preservation. The word has several connotations that differ between the library and archives community and the dance community. People in the dance world speak of the need to preserve dance, the dance, or a choreographic work. Frequently, this means recording a performance in some fashion, primarily on videotape. Educational efforts have tried to make it clear that preserving a work on videotape requires an ongoing commitment to the physical preservation of the tape. Nonetheless, the real commitment and costs involved often are not fully understood or taken into account when planning preservation programs. Therefore, preservation must continually be tied directly to both access and documentation. Practices, programs, and projects in all three areas must be integrated, every step of the way, to improve efficiency and ensure that the legacy of dance lives on for future generations.

At The New York Public Library (NYPL), for example, documentation, access, and preservation are carried out as part of the same process. When a work is recorded on videotape through the Jerome Robbins Archive of Dance on Film and Tape program, the process includes the creation of a preservation master tape kept in climate-controlled storage and the creation of a copy for viewing. The videotape is then cataloged in a timely fashion and the catalog record is available both through the NYPL union catalog and the larger Research Libraries Information Network (RLIN). The viewing copy is available for use in the NYPL reading room, and, depending on agreements with the choreographer and the performing company, may be made available for use offsite. Such a model, although difficult to replicate in a small dance company, might be coordinated by a cooperative library arrangement so that smaller organizations could make use of the same system.

The Multiformat Morass

While many archival collections contain a variety of material formats, nowhere is this more prevalent than in those documenting the performing arts, particularly dance. It is not uncommon for a single performing arts archival collection to include manuscript and printed matter, magnetic media (in more than one format), oversized posters, photographs, costumes and textiles, objects, and possibly blueprints and mechanical drawings for the construction of sets or lighting plots. The combination and variety of formats present particular preservation challenges.

For some time, curators have been concerned about the special preservation needs of performing arts collections. In 1982, the Theater Library Association held a conference on preservation management for performing arts collections that resulted in the publication of Preserving America’s Performing Arts (Cohen-Stratyner and Keuppers 1985). This conference included sessions on the preservation of paper and manuscript materials; playbills and programs; designs, fine art, and technical drawings; image and sound recordings; posters and billboards; scrapbooks and albums; realia and memorabilia; and photographs, negatives, and transparencies.

Besides concerns related to format, limited resources create other preservation management issues. Dance collections housed in larger institutions must vie for access to centralized preservation services that may focus on print and paper materials. As one curator put it, despite the fact that the university library had instituted a preservation program and hired a conservator, “since I must share [the conservator’s] knowledge, skills, limited time, and even more limited work space with at least a dozen other curators and administrators, our collections [have]? continued to get little overall attention” (Jensen 1985, 70). Performing arts collections, including dance collections, are often short-staffed; reference services and day-to-day management tend to take precedence over long-range planning for preservation.

Also, the curatorial tendency has been to collect whatever is available on the premise that all dance documentation is vital and important and must be saved. Given the current restraints on space, time, and money, however, curators must understand that they no longer have the luxury of collecting everything. As Margaret Child has advised, “both archivists and librarians need to develop clear appraisal guidelines appropriate to the discipline being served and reflective of the way in which scholars and other users in that particular field utilize documentary materials” (1985, 78). Cooperative collecting policies and systematic documentation strategies are needed if libraries and archives are to preserve and care for the most vital materials. Accepting that we cannot, nor should we, preserve everything, and planning in a realistic way to preserve what we do choose to save are the first two steps toward a solution to the preservation problem.

The implementation of phased preservation and conservation methods requires appropriate preservation evaluation. As Marilyn Kemp Weidner has described it, “phased preservation is the long-range plan to physically stabilize a collection until more extensive treatment is possible. It seeks to deal with the realities under which most institutions operate: vast quantities of material in need of conservation treatment and limited funds with which to accomplish the task. A realistic phased conservation program should allow an institution to utilize its resources to achieve the maximum benefits for the maximum number of objects” (1985, 102). Evaluating preservation needs for multiformat collections can be complex and difficult, and requires an instrument to identify, assess, quantify, and establish priorities. Work on such an instrument began as part of the Dance Heritage Coalition’s (DHC) Access to Resources for the History of Dance in Seven Repositories Project (the Access Project), Phase One.

Initially, the project attempted to use the Decision Model for Assigning Preservation Priorities (DMAPP) survey developed by a task force at the behest of the Commission on Preservation and Access. The survey, however, did not clearly identify the specific preservation needs of particular materials and collections. Consequently, the Preservation Office at Harvard University agreed to help develop an assessment tool that would record specific information related to the formats in which performing arts materials are most commonly found. Staff at the Harvard Theatre Collection and the Dance Heritage Coalition collaborated on drafting a Collection Condition Assessment Form for Performing Arts Materials, which is being tested at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival Archives.

The development of multimedia digital technology has been heralded as the answer to the documentation needs of dance. The idea of being able to combine, through digitization, a variety of formats that can then interact is very attractive for dance. The very act of documenting dance requires many formats and the concept of viewing them together in one package would make understanding and interpreting the work much easier. For example, a single CD (or other digital medium) can capture videotape, musical score, dance notation score, sound record, voice-over of a choreographer, notes from a designer, and so forth-all of which can be viewed simultaneously.

But the electronic media that may advance documentation-in the computer itself, CDs, DVDs, and the tools of telecommunications and virtual reality-bring with them future challenges for preservation. As with videotape, the long-term stability of digital media is still unknown and may yet turn into another preservation nightmare for the performing arts. Moreover, information that was formerly created in analog fashion, such as music and, in some cases, moving image and dance notation itself, is now often captured digitally and stored electronically. Ironically, as the dance field becomes less prepared economically to deal with long-term issues of digital records, sound, lighting, and stage design work are beginning to rely more heavily on digital technologies.

Environment, Environment, Environment

Preservation managers generally agree that the best investment of preservation dollars is in controlling the temperature and relative humidity in which materials are stored.1 Keeping a constant environment is essential to increasing the longevity of physical objects. Unfortunately, even in the best of houses, this remains among the most difficult of tasks. For example, at a state-of-the-art, temperature-controlled, offsite storage facility it was found that the door to the outside was routinely propped open for long periods of time. In a building designed to be climate controlled, the heating and air-conditioning system was being turned off during evenings and weekends as a cost-cutting measure (unbeknownst to curators and the library administration), causing wild fluctuations in the environment.

Unfortunately, maintaining the controlled environments that libraries and museums need to protect collections is neither simple nor inexpensive. In fact, the cost can be prohibitive for a performing arts organization wishing to maintain its own in-house archive. Even large, well-endowed institutions often struggle to secure funding for their heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning systems. Many smaller organizations, whose missions often include sustaining performing companies and presenting programs, strive to create climate-controlled environments. Some, such as the San Francisco Performing Arts Library and Museum (SFPALM), are fortunate to be located in moderate climates without a great deal of fluctuating relative humidity. However, they may be prone to other environmental hazards, such as earthquakes. Alternatives to onsite storage include relying on the kindness of parent institutions to house portions of collections, purchasing the services of offsite storage facilities, or making arrangements with larger institutions to house master videotapes and the originals of important documents.2

Cost remains the biggest obstacle to controlling the environment. Nonetheless, archival administrators cannot afford to ignore environmental issues. The cost of repairing damage to materials from inhospitable environments is far greater than that of maintaining the correct environment from the start, and allowing such damage to occur would defeat the purpose of the archiving: to preserve research materials and make them available.

Preventive Preservation

Besides maintaining a favorable storage environment, another preventative measure is to ensure that materials are appropriately created and cared for before they arrive at a library or archive. It is worth the time and effort to encourage the creators of records to use stable materials from the outset. For example, selecting professional, good quality tape stock when videotaping, rather than bargain-brand commercial tape, will increase the life span of a work documented on videotape, and printing programs and important documents on acid-free paper will slow their deterioration. Fortunately, the dance community has gained from a series of well-executed educational efforts, from workshops to Web sites, that continue to yield benefits. In 1989, under the auspices of Dance/USA (the association for dance companies), Preserve Inc. offered an introductory preservation workshop throughout the United States. After Preserve’s tour, it was rare to find a dance company that was unaware of the advantages of acid-free paper or the perils of mucilage. In 1994, the Dance Heritage Coalition collaborated with Dance/USA to publish and distribute Beyond Memory (Johnson 1994), a booklet that describes basic preservation issues and provides recommendations and guidelines to the dance community on caring for its documentation. Preserve, Inc. subsequently published the Dance Archives Manual (Kopp 1995), which made available in book form much of the preservation information included in the initial Preserve workshops. Representatives from the DHC and Preserve Inc. continue to speak on issues of preservation and documentation at dance community events and conferences, and to present workshops on preservation concerns and archival management.

In 1992, The Pew Charitable Trusts funded the National Initiative to Preserve America’s Dance (NIPAD) to serve as a regranting organization to support documentation and preservation projects for dance. Making money available to undertake such projects reinforced the importance of documentation and preservation in an arena where creation and presentation had traditionally been the funding focus. Several NIPAD projects resulted in additional educational efforts. For example, in 1994, a San Francisco Bay Area consortium of archivists, videographers, and presenters received a NIPAD grant “to develop strategies, technologies and standards for the effective preservation of dance on video, and to make the resulting documentation accessible to the dance and video communities and the general public”(LADD, 1997, 1.2). Essentially a training program for videographers and choreographers, the curriculum included a review of some of the problems in preserving magnetic media, particularly its long-term instability. The project resulted in the Learning Applications to Document Dance (LADD) report, which provides guidance on how to create quality videotape documentation. In response to inquiries from NIPAD and requests for help in preparing grant applications, libraries such as the NYPL Dance Collection and the Library of Congress have also worked directly with dance companies, advising them in the care of their materials and sometimes providing archival supplies to ensure that materials are housed safely.

The World Wide Web has become an information tool for dance preservation. For example, the Dance Heritage Coalition Web site’s preservation section includes basic information, the full text of Beyond Memory, and links to other sites with helpful preservation information (such as CLIR, Research Libraries Group’s PRESERV, and NIPAD). As with other fields, the fast and easy access afforded by the Internet can aid in the dissemination of current information.

Turning “Future Shock” into Future Plans

Besides the challenges of preserving a wide variety of formats and housing these formats properly, the dance field also must contend with the fact that much of its documentation exists on a notoriously unstable medium: videotape and other magnetic media.

Videotape has become a central tool for the documentation of dance during the past 15 years and serves as a form of currency in the dance world. As the late dance videographer Michael Schwartz wrote in the Poor Dancer’s Almanac (1993): “Of all the arts, dance has been the most profoundly affected by the wide-spread use of video technology. Choreographers, dancers, critics, historians, and producers now have a tool that can preserve the ephemeral material of rehearsal and performance-for repeated, detailed viewing. Video has affected not only the preservation and teaching of established repertory but also the work process itself. Instant replay allows the dancer and choreographer to rework and edit a dance as it evolves . . . Edited into promotional tapes, video documentation has become an essential part of the business of all performance-a tool required by funders and presenters to determine who receives funding and who is presented.”

While the dance field now has a quick and affordable way to record its heretofore difficult-to-document form, the format on which dance is being recorded has an unsatisfactory track record for physical preservation. The Media Alliance publication Video Preservation: Securing the Future of the Past, written by Deirdre Boyle (1993), stated it clearly: “For anyone concerned about the future of our cultural legacy as recorded on videotape-whether it be the video artist whose early work will no longer play or the archivist with thousands of tapes to maintain-the challenges of video preservation are considerable, the responsibility awesome, the problems numerous, the resources spare, the urgency great.” Boyle did, however, present some rays of hope-providing examples of successful video preservation efforts in an area where the term preservation seems an oxymoron.

The dance community faces a massive preservation problem: thousands of reels of tape recorded on now-obsolete formats require transfer, both to preserve them from further deterioration and to make them viewable. The facilities to undertake this transfer are few and the process is costly. Moreover, new recordings continue to be made on a variety of formats and it is necessary to maintain equipment in all formats for playback and transfer in the future. To be sure, the concerns of magnetic media preservation are not limited to dance. However, finding solutions is critical to sustaining the movement form itself because so many in the field have relied on it as the sole record of their choreographic output and use it as a primary method to transmit their work to others.

Thus far, the strategy for dance has been to look toward the commercial industries and large national institutions and organizations for leadership and planning. Over the past five years, there has been growing interest in magnetic media preservation. At the same time, technology continues to change and evolve, hampering the selection of a definitive preservation format. Most major efforts to date have been in what might be called the “research and discovery” phase. Concerned leadership organizations in the library and archives fields and in the magnetic media industry have attempted to identify the current state of preservation standards for magnetic media, the scope and scale of the preservation problem, and the range of curatorial issues for the preservation of this medium.

In 1995, the Commission on Preservation and Access (now the Council on Library and Information Resources, or CLIR) and the National Media Laboratory published Magnetic Tape Storage and Handling: A Guide for Libraries and Archives by John Van Bogart. This report gives a thorough technical overview of the current state of the preservation problem for magnetic media, reviews the state of standards development, and describes clearly the physical concerns that cause the medium to be unstable. The publication was written for nontechnicians, especially library and archives administrators, and provides a solid foundation from which to construct a research agenda. The Bay Area Video Coalition (BAVC), with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, organized and presented “Playback 96,” a symposium that developed out of several working groups. The working groups were made up of individuals around the country in the fields of conservation, museology, and media arts involved in the creation and preservation of videotape, who came together to address technical and ideological issues surrounding video preservation. The resulting conference discussed the causes of videotape deterioration and presented the industry’s recommendations for effective methods of storage and cleaning. Also addressed were the ethical and procedural issues commonly faced by arts conservators that are increasingly applicable in handling electronic art (BAVC 1998).

In 1997, the Research Libraries Group established the Working Group on Preserving Magnetic Media as part of its PRESERV program. This working group set as its main goal the development of practical guidelines to assist institutions in preserving magnetic media collections: “Because of parallel effort by existing organizations, guidelines or best practices may exist but have yet to be compiled and presented in a comprehensive and complete manner” (RLG 1997). Also at this time, the Library of Congress (LC) commissioned a major investigation, which resulted in Television and Video Preservation: A Report on the Current State of American Television and Video Preservation (1997). The Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) has been reviewing the recommendations of this report and plans to set priorities and develop strategies for implementing them. Meanwhile, LC is working to develop its own institutional universal preservation strategy for magnetic media.

Boston’s public television station, WGBH, is currently engaged in a Universal Preservation Format project. Sponsored by the WGBH Educational Foundation and supported in part by a grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission of the National Archives, the Universal Preservation Format initiative advocates a format for the long-term storage of electronically generated media. Working with representatives from standards organizations, hardware and software companies, museums, academic institutions, archives, and libraries, this project will produce guidelines for recommended practice. This document will be submitted to the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), suggesting guidelines for engineers when designing computer applications that involve or interact with digital storage. The project’s goal is to make the long-term preservation of and access to electronic records (both original and migrated versions) simpler and more efficient and cost-effective.

By monitoring these activities in magnetic media preservation and bringing partners together, the DHC is working to develop a preservation strategy for the field. A meeting held in the winter of 1998 involving DHC members and leaders in the field of magnetic media preservation and archives initiated a dialogue that will continue toward project planning. The manageable scale of dance videotape preservation, as compared with some other fields, presents a real opportunity to test solutions for magnetic media preservation within a single discipline. Focus on dance videotapes offers tremendous potential for realizing a usable model for cooperative videotape preservation and resource sharing that may address access issues as well.

To date, the major repositories of dance videotape have a strong record of successful collaboration through DHC initiatives. Additionally, the DHC and others have established collaborations with various stakeholders in the future of videotape records of dance: dance presenters, companies, choreographers, and creators of documentation on videotape; media centers such as BAVC, which provide services and resources to videographers; and the technical and industrial communities that create the products.

The challenge now is for the dance community, with leadership from dance libraries and archives, to develop a pilot program to test possible long-range cooperative solutions for the video preservation problem. Several steps must be taken, however, to develop a model project for magnetic media preservation. While initial survey work to identify the preservation needs at DHC member repositories has been completed, a more thorough national assessment must be done and a systematic method developed, including criteria for identifying the most urgent preservation needs. Once the need is identified and a strong case for support is refined, a pilot or test project can be explored that would use dance as a model for collaborative preservation. Model concepts range from a cooperative central distribution facility of digitized magnetic media that would house and manage preservation masters to a more diffused structure where a standardized methodology for preservation remastering and monitoring is followed by participating organizations, which then perhaps contribute to a shared database.

One expected stumbling block is funding. The dance community, including the dance repositories, does not have the financial resources to deal with the large-scale preservation problem it faces. It is not a commercial industry with the potential for substantial earned income from the materials that would be preserved, although it is possible that a collaborative approach might produce a product that could lead to increased availability of materials for commercial purposes. To date, national funding organizations such as the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) have been reluctant to support major videotape preservation projects because of the lack of agreement on preservation standards for the medium. Despite this reluctance, NEH has assisted in important preservation efforts on a small scale, such as funding a preservation project to reformat the original masters for the PBS program Dance in America. However, an investment no less significant than that made to address the problem of brittle books3 will be necessary to save the history currently recorded on this unstable format. Already, tales can be told of important dance works that have disappeared because the tapes on which they were recorded are no longer readable. Images of American Dance reported: “From a Lew Christensen ballet for the San Francisco Ballet shot on two-inch reel-to-reel format that oxidized into an unplayable ‘sticky mess,’ to an early work by pioneering modern dancer Helen Tamiris damaged perhaps beyond repair due to failure to follow basic preservation techniques,” many important works, including documentary videotapes recorded by anthropologists, are in danger of being lost permanently for future generations (Keens 1991, 22).


While magnetic media provide a focal point for the preservation concerns of dance, all documentation formats require continued attention and preservation management. The preservation management field in libraries and archives has grown rapidly in the past 10 years and dance archives and libraries must do all they can to implement the standards and recommendations that come from preservation managers. The continued development of documentation strategies and cooperative collecting policies would go a long way toward maximizing the impact of limited resources. Understanding that everything cannot be saved is essential if we are to manage the problem into the twenty-first century.

Without a concerted and collaborative effort from national leaders, the magnetic media problem will continue to grow. Because of the need for a more immediate solution in the dance community, leadership from the DHC is vital. To date, the DHC has established a Magnetic Media Working Group whose charge is to develop a model digitization project, based on a national management strategy, that will both preserve and make accessible the video documentation of dance in America. For this working group to fulfill its charge, however, a national management strategy must be agreed upon. The DHC must rely on the leadership of the AMIA, SMPTE, and LC to provide strategic recommendations. The Council on Library and Information Resources can assist through education and publication efforts and by convening groups of concerned parties and experts, commissioning research, and influencing the funding community to support model projects, experimental work, and testing of methods.

While the first strategy may not be the best and final strategy, a start is better than a continued holding pattern. Early methods and systems of microfilming brittle books fall short of today’s standards, but the books were saved, even though the early microfilm formats may need future upgrading. Had we waited for the development of a perfect methodology and technical specifications, many books would have been lost. The same is true of our current videotape: the longer we wait, the more we will lose. That is not to say we should begin willy-nilly duplicating and or digitizing videotape without regard to standards; rather, we must consider all current technical standards, perhaps even select two to three compatible methodologies and test them in model projects. But we must begin now before more of the great works of modern dance are lost to audiences forever.


1 “As a first step in climate control, organizational archives should aim at achieving a stable temperature of 72 degrees and a stable percentage between 35 and 55 percent relative humidity. Stability is vitally important; these conditions should not vary more than 2-3 percent during any 24 hour period.” (Motylewski 1991). More complete recommendations exist for various formats including paper, photographs, and magnetic media. For example, see The Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers’ Web site:

2 Examples of these actions include the American Dance Festival, which has a deposit agreement with its host institution, Duke University, to house the most fragile, at-risk materials in the climate-controlled University Special Collections storage facility. Both SFPALM and the Merce Cunningham Dance Foundation store some video masters at Iron Mountain, a commercial, climate-controlled offsite storage facility. Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival has arranged to have particularly valuable, at-risk, or fragile materials copied. The Pillow archives then keep the copies for onsite use and the originals are housed at the NYPL Dance Collection.

3 As CLIR President Deanna Marcum has testified (1998), “Since 1989, the National Endowment for the Humanities has been implementing a coordinated national plan to save the intellectual content of books, serials, and other research materials that are deteriorating in the libraries and archives of the United States because of the high acidic content of their paper. The plan was drawn to preserve the contents of some 3,000,000 embrittled books over a period of twenty years, through reformatting…In response to the brittle-books crisis, research libraries, which hold the largest number of endangered volumes, have taken a leadership role and built a capacity to deal with the widespread deterioration.”

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