Archiving Artistic Legacy

How can artists creatively re-purpose or re-contextualize their legacy materials and envision their legacies through the construction of archives? Featured Case Studies: Why can I not tell my own story? by Ze’eva Cohen David Gordon’s Archiveography

Photograph by Avri Ohana. Copyright Ze'eva Cohen, 2015.
Photograph by Avri Ohana. Copyright Ze’eva Cohen, 2015.

Why can I not tell my own story?
Ze’eva Cohen reflects on documenting a life in dance

Throughout my long life as dancer and choreographer I have been saving programs, reviews and videos of my own performances.  When video formats became obsolete, I transferred them to the next viable format- -so that videos made in the 70’s have been through as many as five conversions. Considering my incredibly busy life as dancer, choreographer, academic, mother and wife, the answer to the question of why I took the trouble and bore the expense to do this only became clear as I retired from my 40 years teaching at Princeton University and as my career as dancer and choreographer was winding down. It was then that I began to think seriously about leaving a legacy of my work, and decided to produce a documentary film of my life in dance based on materials preserved at home, and as told in my own voice.

The impulse to preserve all material relating to my solo repertory performances and my group choreography, as well as performances and choreography of my students, was always irrevocably present. It felt necessary, important and deeply meaningful not to let my love for dance as I experienced it disappear.

I remember how indignant I felt when I was confronted by a veteran dance writer and critic who challenged my chutzpah (Yiddish for ‘gall’) in producing my documentary film, Ze’eva Cohen: Creating A Life In Dance. To my responding question, “Why can I not tell my own story?,” there was first a long silence followed by, “I guess you can.” I also remember how on fire with excitement I felt when I was made aware of the postmodernist trends in anthropology that advocate a pluralistic approach to the interpreting and writing of cultural critiques. As I was developing new courses on dance and world culture at Princeton, this awareness was particularly useful.

As a performing and creative artist, I often felt like a voiceless “subject” whose life and work were viewed, previewed and reviewed by writers whose accounts, I knew, would become the voice of history. However, although most of these writers were skilled, their points of view were theirs, not mine. The new mandate in current anthropology of “giving voice” to people being studied, became an answer to my quest to be heard, and to be a participant in the writing of my personal history as I knew it from personal experience.

ZC_The One of No Way_Jack Mitchell_ high res
Photograph by Jack Mitchell. Copyright Ze’eva Cohen, 2015.

I started taking action in 2009, around the time of my retirement from teaching and directing the dance program at Princeton.

As the Utah Repertory Dance Theater was staging my  works–Ariadne, a solo, and Rainwood, a group work–and with a grant from Princeton, I was able to engage the Dance Notation Bureau in creating scores for these works using Labanotation. I reasoned that, unlike video formats, which were forever changing and becoming obsolete at a faster and faster pace, the written format (notation) would survive the test of time.  The second action I took was to engage a veteran video editor, Sharon Kaufman, to co-produce with me a video on my life in dance that was shown during the Tribute Concert given in my honor shortly before my retirement from Princeton, in 2010.

Despite the poor quality of a few of the old videos, this film turned out to be a dynamic and quite riveting documentary. It not only captured my work over 50 years, but also provided, to a degree, a window to five decades of the changing dance scene in downtown New York.

As the excitement of my changing life in postretirement became routine, the question of legacy–of what I wanted to leave behind–resurfaced. The power and immediacy of telling my story through film became ever so evident. Sharon Kaufman and I returned to rework the film by finding a better through line to tell my story by refocusing the film’s thrust not only on the “what,” but rather “how” I went about creating a highly fulfilling and long life in dance. We also decided to include my work as an academic and educator by inserting scenes of my time at Princeton, where I started building the dance program the year undergraduate women students were first admitted in fall of 1969.

The remaining problem, however, of how to improve the poor visual quality of old performance videos taken in the 70’s and afterwards, still needed to be solved. This was essential. To my good luck, I became a member of the Dance Heritage Coalition and was able to discuss this problem during their daylong session on issues of planning artist-driven archives and preserving artistic legacy. Soon after, the Dance Heritage Coalition was able to use grant funds to help me restore, clean and convert many old videotapes to digital files, from which we created a much clearer film.

Through a successful Indiegogo fundraising campaign launched by the Ze’eva Cohen Dance Foundation we were able pay for post-production expenses, including the writing and designing of the jacket for a beautiful two-DVD set.

Part One of the first DVD is the 32-minute documentary Ze’eva Cohen: Creating A Life In Dance. Part Two includes filmed interviews with four dance artists: Jose Mateo, David Rousseve, Jill Sigman and Mariah Steele, all my students at Princeton whom I closely mentored.  The second DVD contains five complete works selected from my large repertory as choreographer and dancer. To my view, these five works–Negotiations, If Eve Had a Daughter, Ariadne, Rainwood, and Mothers of Israel–in addition to my early solo repertory programs, represent my authentic voice and my unique contribution as choreographer and performer to the dance field.

The 32-minute film documentary Ze’eva Cohen: Creating A Life In Dance was recently selected by Dance On Camera for screening at their 2015 Film Festival at Lincoln Center. It will be screened at the Walter Reade Theater, February 3rd, at 3 PM.

Ironically (or, perhaps, not ironically at all), the writer/critic, who earlier expressed surprise at my initiative in opting to tell my own story, and who is also a friend, urged me to submit my documentary film to the Dance On Camera Film Festival. Luckily, I spoke to her one day before the deadline for submitting the application for the 2015 festival. To my great surprise and delight, it was accepted.

Image at top: Photograph by Jack Mitchell. Copyright Ze’eva Cohen, 2015.

gordon.eccles4 crDavid Gordon

When writer/director/choreographer David Gordon plans to donate his archives to the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center he begins to investigate the language of contemporary archive systems to discover relationships of existent archival methodology to his own 50 years as a working artist exploring, questioning and reinventing movement and text. Gordon hopes to annotate his own manufacturing process to contextualize his work from his own memory, as well as the memories of former collaborators and performers, and to adhere to traditional archival practice including a targeted digitization initiative of videos, photos, scripts and scores which may be viewed independently. He refers to what he’s doing as “archiveography” and he imagines archiveography to include the process of archiving. This audio documents preliminary planning sessions between David Gordon and archivist Patsy Gay for archiveographies of The Matter (1972) and Chair (1975).

Listen to David Gordon Archiveography.

length: 19:52

Join the conversation! We invite your comments, feedback, and questions below.

Pictured: David Gordon. Photo by Andrew Eccles.

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