“As much as and more than a thing of the past, before such a thing, the archive should call into question the coming of the future.” ¹
For the past 40 years I have created multidisciplinary works for stage, site-specific architectural and environment locations, and films that, I hope, forwarded and expanded artistic definitions of dance. This journey has made it possible to create a living archive for the public from a personal perspective. My hope is that the Maida Withers Dance Construction Company archive will stimulate memories while honoring all those who contributed to make the work possible. How this archives calls into question the future is yet to be seen.
For an independent experimental dance company, creating an artist archive is a major stretch in commitment of time and energy. Plans for celebrating the company’s 40th anniversary season in 2014-15 brought impetus to the idea of moving forward as an artist to create the archive that is available online today: http://maidadance.com. The practice and vision of the Company determined the direction the archival project would take. From the beginning, we had a commitment to creative processes founded on experimentation, artist engagement, and collaboration. Through association with others exploring technology and artworks, we soon developed a love of mixing dance with technology and media to create thought-provoking works with dancers, visual artists, scientists, musicians and others interested in experimentation. Investing time and research in improvisation, site and location work produced ideas bold in concept, choreography, and unusual movement. Large-scale collaborations developed that would be impossible to easily replicate. Consequently, making new evening-length works as often as we could became the pattern, an explanation for the magnitude of the works created. Since the projects always reflected my own passions related to questions about art and social/political issues, there came to be large blocks of dances extending over many years related to the environment, women’s issues, and technology, which seemed important to document.
The archive project was made possible by the enormous collection of photographs, videos, and printed materials preserved since our founding in 1974.
In 1968, a Washington, DC government grant provided me with an unusual gift – a video camera with playback equipment for the purpose of documenting my approach to teaching and choreography. Initially, rehearsal and performances were documented, usually by myself or another member of the Company with professionals hired for major performances. On reflection, having a camera and learning to edit made possible our extensive video collection. Over forty years, every format has been involved, creating a challenge in transferring the tapes to the required digital format for streaming on the Internet. First it was one-inch Ampex, then SONY reel to reel, SONY cassette, MiniDV, HD with a chip, and eventually instant posting on Vimeo from the iPhone.
Assembling and organizing the materials was important to me for two reason: First, to honor all the dancers and other collaborators, perhaps 400; second, to place the works in a historic timeline that would make it possible for me to take the next, and perhaps more important step in the future, to tell a meaningful story about my life and my life’s work.
Will Kruse, a web designer who had assisted with various updates on MWDCCo’s original website over the years, created what we lovingly call the website/archive/timeline. WordPress was selected as the platform because it was functionally simple and straightforward for data entry, accessible to novices, and easy to maintain with continual updates to serve its dual purpose as Company website and Archive—which proved to be more functional perhaps as an archive than a website. Will Kruse’s design used open-source software to adapt WordPress to become highly integrative; the archive is organized by type of work (for stage, site, museum, and dance films) with an additional layer of connective infrastructure that links each work to a unique timeline, as well as to location, collaborators, and descriptive mediums (text, photos, video, press). The Timeline and search engine permit multiple entry points to the materials: the Timeline allows a visitor to view and understand visually the volume and relationship of works at any given time; meanwhile, entering a dancer’s name into the search engine will identify all the DCC projects they are affiliated with along with complete information about each project including video and photos.
As the driving workforce for the project, the question for me was clearly, what could I undertake? To review everything in the exhaustive files was not possible in my case as there was no time for such research and no inclination by me to follow the classic approach to archiving. Considering my interest, time constraints, and the sheer volume of materials, foremost focus was placed on creating video and photo galleries. Programs, flyers, and reports were relied on for accuracy of data as a reference, but much of the information was from my memory as the primary source. This can be a major advantage or disadvantage of the living artist archive. Perhaps there is not as much objectivity in editing, collecting, and defining the art works by the artistic director; but if the project was to happen there was no other way. I had performed in all the works, so there was a significant memory in “the body.” Hopefully corrections and adjustment, if necessary, will be made by artist/collaborators as they visit the online site.
Are there disappointments? Yes and no. As an artist interested in technology, I would choose to have more audio, voice-overs, more music–more “live” presence in telling the story, but that will have to be in the future. For now, getting all the boxes into the library’s archive will be a huge achievement and relief and will allow me to return space in my house to its original purpose.
Maida Withers Dance Construction Company Living Archive is an open-source project and could be replicated. My experience is quite different from that of young artists starting their creative/performing history today. “For the coming of the future”, this site could be used as a possible model for other dance artists who could implement their archives as they are beginning to make work, or for mature artists who wish to retroactively make sense of their trajectory in order to tell their own story.
Archives allow individuals to make meaning from history and in my case from collaborations and experimentation; this project would not be possible without the artistic and professional contributions of all the artists, producers, and presenters who have been part of creating Maida Withers Dance Construction Company over the past four decades.
¹Jacques Derrida and Eric Prenowitz (Translator) Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression (Religion and Post Modernism). University of Chicago Press 1996.