Documenting Creative Spaces

How can arts producers and incubators archive multiple artistic legacies as well as their own institutional histories?

Featured Case Studies:
The Clark Center Story: Sharing the Legacy of a Seminal Dance
Community
by Jill Williams with Ramona Candy
An Interview with Terry Fox by Brittany Austin

Nonlinear Lineage by Sarah Maxfield


The Clark Center Story: Sharing the Legacy of a Seminal Dance Community
by Jill Williams with Ramona Candy

Thelma Hill by Nathaniel TIleston
Thelma Hill by Nathaniel TIleston

There are some stories that need to be told. That’s how a few alumni from Clark Center for the Performing Arts felt about our stories: they are too important to the world of dance to disappear. Though Clark Center closed its doors 25 years ago, it continues to live in the hearts of all of the dancers, musicians, choreographers, and students who were a part of this important and unique dance community. The collective devotion to Clark Center is attested to by the willingness of the active alumni—a group that has now grown to over 600—who generously support our project, Clark Center NYC, by sharing memories through writing and through presentations, offering dance works for performances as well as volunteering time to work on the preservation of our legacy. The role of creative spaces such as Clark Center that nurtured many artists is an important piece of dance history, one that is too often overlooked. The aim of the Clark Center NYC project is to capture this communal history and lineage while honoring the individual artists whose stories are part of ours—and vice versa.

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Louise Roberts, from Clark Center NYC archives

Our story begins with Alvin Ailey, a moving force in the creation of Clark Center. He was one of the gifted young artists who emerged in the late 1950s and early 1960s—years of tremendous change in the dance world, marked chiefly by the emergence of many talented black dancers and choreographers. Louise Roberts, Clark Center’s last director (1970-1985), guided and nurtured the careers of so many dancers, driven by her own love, passion, and dedication to the art of dance. She was our director, producer, critic, mentor, mother, and true friend. As she recounts, “It was this lack of space to create, rehearse and perform which led Alvin Ailey, one of the leaders of this new dance movement, accompanied by Charles Blackwell and Robert Buccolo, to the West Side YWCA in search of a home for his new dance company. Thus, in 1959, Clark Center was established offering instruction and performances not only in dance but in theater and opera as well.”

Fred Benjamin, from Clark Center NYC archives
Fred Benjamin, from Clark Center NYC archives

Through a preeminent faculty of instructors, an extensive scholarship program, and a philosophy of accessibility, Clark Center provided an environment that produced performing artists with far-reaching influence on the dance world. Students were given both training and performance opportunities guided by faculty that included Alvin Ailey, Thelma Hill, Jimmy Truitte, Eleo Pomare, Fred Benjamin, Maggie Black, Lenore Latimer, Michael Peters, Syvilla Fort, Pepsi Bethel, Anna Sokolow, Bertram Ross, and Charles Moore. Typical of that period, there were many talented musicians who accompanied classes and performed live in concerts adding a great artistic dimension to the environment. Clark Center’s Dance Horizons program produced over 120 companies and choreographers, exposing their work to a wide audience. Small and emerging dance companies were provided with professional support services, a showcase for their work, and funds to pay their dancers. The companies represented the full spectrum of the dance world; from Multi-Gravitational Aerodance, Pepsi Bethel’s Authentic Jazz Dance Theater and The Charles Moore’s Dances and Drums of Africa to Kei Takei’s Moving Earth and Urban Bush Women. Brazilian Capoiera was introduced to the United States at Clark Center by two young dancers from Bahia: Loremil Machado and Jelon Vieria. Jelon now directs an international company, DanceBrazil, and credits Clark Center’s influence and support.

Pepsi Bethel by Nathaniel Tileston
Pepsi Bethel by Nathaniel Tileston

Clark Center’s New Choreographers Concerts introduced over 115 talented choreographers, many of whom eventually formed companies produced by Clark Center’s Dance Horizons. A list of the dance professionals that can trace their beginnings to Clark Center reads like a Who’s Who of dance: George Faison, Dianne McIntyre, Bill T. Jones, Laura Dean, Hinton Battle, Chuck Davis, Meredith Monk, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, and so many others. How could we allow this story to be forgotten? Clark Center embraced all of us, beginners to professional dancers. Classes in ballet, modern, tap, jazz, Capoeira, mime, Afro Cuban, Congolese, and more were offered and many of us ran from one to another in order to become well-rounded dancers. At Clark Center, we created community by creating dance. Now, we embrace Clark Center as our ancestral dance home by collectively honoring those who came before and made it possible for us to dance and to now share the story and share all that we learned with those who come after us.

We are fortunate that Louise Roberts began to create an archival history when Clark Center closed its doors. These clark_Alvin Ailey_IMG_0296records are housed in the Jerome Robbins Dance Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. (For a description of the collection: http://archives.nypl.org/dan/19827). We began digging through thousands of documents and photos in this collection to fully understand the breadth and depth of our story. Louise’s intention was always to preserve the record of Clark Center by writing a book. Without the efforts of Clark Center NYC, much of that rich history, documented not only with written materials, but also oral histories, would be lost forever. In honor of Louise and the hundreds of others who are so important to our story, we’ve created Clark Center NYC and a website (clarkcenternyc.org) which will become a repository for students and scholars. Future plans include ongoing research into the archives, publishing interviews with distinguished alumni, dance on film created by our alumni, a call for excerpts of published works, and a call for new original works. As we continue to share our story, we also plan to carry on the tradition of Clark Center by presenting the works of New Choreographers.

We continue to tell our story and extend our community as a number of organizations in NYC are collaborating to host the symposia and presentations. To date, these include the The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, 651 Arts, The 92Y Harkness Dance Center, and The City College Center for the Arts. We will continue to share our stories on our website, in presentations and performances which will all be filmed and become a part of our permanent record.

Pictured: Flyers for performances at Clark Center for the Performing Arts, documenting some of the artists who were nurtured by and contributed to the center.


An Interview with Terry Fox by Brittany Austin

In 2010, Philadelphia Dance Projects (PDP) presented a revival of dance works originally performed in 1980 by composer Dan Martin and dancers/choreographers Michael Biello, Jano Cohen, Terry Fox, Wendy Hammarstrom, and Ishmael Houston-Jones. This reconstruction of work initiated a new endeavor called the Local Dance History Project, led by PDP executive director Terry Fox. LDHP is a collaborative effort with the artists to launch a website that shares Philadelphia’s dance history through images, videos, artist narratives, historical notes, and an interactive timeline that allows other local dance artists to join in on the discussion and share their work. Additionally, PDP is working with Temple University’s Special Collections Research Center and will donate physical and digital materials [can we add “to create an archive accessible to the public”?]. The artists’ involvement is crucial to the success of the project, and LDHP not only allows the artists to reconnect with their work, but also to connect their work to a present and future generation of dance artists and a potentially wider public including audiences, urban and cultural historians, educators and students. Terry Fox shares her experiences while archiving her work and more background on this project:

Why did you decide to recreate works from the past? What inspired this project? I have always felt that dance artists should be counted in the cultural history of our city. So I embarked on this project because a lot of cardboard boxes of my own “history,” which includes many others, needed attention. PDP had helped jumpstart the Philadelphia Dance Collection at Temple University, but to date it has very few individual artists included as part of the overall collection, and that group has and still does comprise a large and lively sector of what we call the “dance community” here in Philadelphia.

LDHP_pic 1
Poster from the 1980 show with Wendy Hammarstrom, Ishmael Houston Jones, Jano Cohen and Terry Fox; Poster design: K. Ragone

Could you describe your process for re-setting these works for a new audience and with new dancers? How did you engage with your past work? So one way to inspire me to mobilize getting my “historic” materials in order was to invite other artists to think about their own history. In 1980 I curated a program of dance featuring independent artists at the Harold Prince Theater at the Annenberg Center. (During that time most artists performed mainly at “alternative” spaces, re-purposed storefront galleries or theaters or “au plein air” around the city. This was an effort to put work in a more formal theater for audiences to consider.) In 2009, I invited five 1980 artists to consider reconstructing their work from that era, and a sixth one who lived in California to participate. With a small planning grant from the PA Humanities Council we convened and discussed how best to do that. Yes, since those 1980 concerts had been videoed (though videos were pretty shaky) we did watch the original performances, and also other works circa that time, and put together a program. We decided on a process of selecting a present generation of artists to perform the works and wrote a grant to get support to carry the project to the next step. It was also decided that we would put the former works on the same program with a new generation of artists to compare and contrast.

LDHP_pic3_cr
Terry Fox performs “Interference…” in the 1980 Dance & Dancers presentation

What does the word archive mean to you as an artist and a dancer? Good question. I guess poetically it means remembering the traces of what you did living as an artist. It means the collection of ephemera that points to that time of creating, but only point to, and perhaps not really capture a real experience. The shards of things only hint at a more full satisfying clarity that dance brings to the body and soul. I recently heard a radio program about memory. It seems that the more you remember something, the less accurate it becomes, the brain re-stores information as one conjures the memory, each time layering it with a new remembering in the new neural storing. I like the word “re-member.” It’s very physical, dance-like; the putting of the parts of a body back into action. The root of “archive” is less direct; commands or orders becomes arranging. So I guess arranging these things and putting some memory around them is the best archiving – it will offer some insight in the future. Future is as much a part of the meaning of archive as the past.

What has been the most challenging thing for you as an artist to do as an “archivist”? Well that accurate remembering. There’s a lot I forgot. Having others who shared the same time and experience really helps. Though I don’t have a lot, the volume of material is still overwhelming, especially in how to sort it out and reflect on it. The DHC fellows have been super helpful with setting up “a system.” We now realize the artists have way more “stuff” than we can process, so it’s become a challenge on how best to include more. It seems leading the artists to do their own archiving (using the LDHP model) may be a solution.

What has this project taught you about art and your creative process? Were there any epiphanies after going through the historic materials? The word “interpretative” is bandied about when it comes to history. I think the Local Dance History Project aspires to be more than just a confirmation of dates of performances, artists’ CV’s, etc.   Providing context of the time in which we were beginning to make dance and commit ourselves to a creative life something we want to “interpret” for the user/browser. This then becomes a kind of creative endeavor. The “telling” around the “cataloging.” “Epiphanies” hmmm – maybe, how things change and don’t change is an old cliché – but I see many of today’s artists confronted with the same issues we faced, including the “material questions” and a larger public that not only doesn’t get what they do, doesn’t even know that they are doing that “what.” All of the artists, who re-constructed or re-imagined their works in the 2010 presentations, were pleasantly surprised and heartened that work that was 30 years old still had relevance to contemporary artists and audiences. I guess that’s an epiphany – that what you created has value and interest, even beauty and emotional depth, even over time.

What are the next steps for this preservation project? The next steps will continue to keep momentum around this Project. We have prepared 11 artist collections including digitizing some videos which we will donate to the SCRC this year. With Indiegogo funds and other resources, we are continuing work with Night Kitchen Interactive to design the infrastructure and dance history timeline for the website. We anticipate the timeline will go active in early 2015, with full site to follow as more funds are raised.

LDHP_pic 2
Sample of timeline for LDHP website, design by Night Kitchen Interactive

Inviting artists to participate is essential. This year we want to hold two workshops with Margery Sly, Director of the SCRC, on archiving essentials for dance artists. We want artists to have a template for logging their materials for gift to the LDHP Collection and a template for submitting basic info on a timeline which we intend to place temporarily to our LDHP page of the PDP website. This will help us see who else is out there, and how to continue to be inclusive and accessible.   One important step is to keep the Local Dance History Project visible. The Local Dance History Project will take precedence this year as we work behind the scenes and at the same time communicate our progress along with emphasizing the importance and value of this Project overall.


Nonlinear Lineage by Sarah MaxfieldNonlinear Lineage by Sarah Maxfield

Over the past couple of years, my performance-based practice has gradually shifted to a practice of archiving performance.  I didn’t set out to make this change.  It gradually occurred as I became less interested in creating disposable content and more interested in conserving performance content – and context. I am still finding my way with this shifted practice, but lately I have been thinking of it as a form of collage, which is a return to something from my childhood. As a kid, I was always working on collages. I would cut and arrange pictures to create a new composition. I chose things to which I felt an affinity, images to which I related in some way and which helped me map a growing identity. The archive work I am currently undertaking is similar. I am collecting memories and ephemera relating to experimental dance and performance in New York City. I am arranging these stories and scraps in such a way that the pieces inform each other and resonate in new ways. I am still mapping identity. I call the project Nonlinear Lineage.

Through my process of collecting and arranging, I want to foster conversation between historical context and contemporary practice. For me, developing an archive is not about privileging the past over the present, but about providing a deeper context and an expanded community with which to investigate the questions we research through performance. Creating the Nonlinear Lineage archive is also an effort to emphasize the realities and complexities of artistic life beyond the “fame narrative” and to develop an alternative to a consumerist approach to experiencing performance – an alternative in which we pay attention to what we’ve previously witnessed even after we’ve moved on to the next show. I think, as a culture, we are craving this slower pace of deeper attention right now, which may be why archiving is so hot these days. Content is everywhere, but we are hungry for context.

Sarah Maxfield’s Nonlinear Lineage The Nonlinear Lineage project does provide a certain context on performance, but it also faces a challenge in that the context it provides is very much auto-ethnographic.  The project collects items and stories from numerous artists, but I am the collector. I ask the questions, and I choose what is presented in various “live” collage formats and online. I feel a responsibility to represent contributors on their own terms, but I have a particular point of view that shapes the angle of my presentation. It is a challenge to keep my point of view transparent, and also to offer methods for artists to contextualize their own contributions and continue a conversation around the collected material.

I also face a challenge of expectation around expertise. I am conducting and presenting this work as an artist investigating my own artistic lineage – not as a historian, but as someone with expertise as practitioner. Ideally, I’d like the project to open doors between traditional research and artistic practitioners, but it is difficult to find common ground without diluting my purpose and/or overreaching the scope of my abilities and time. Making choices around technology is also a challenge. Platforms are changing so quickly that it’s difficult to predict what’s going to last longest. I also need to consider what types of technology best help contributors feel comfortable, so that I can have conversations with them with minimal interference and awkwardness from machines. It’s a balance, and I am still very much in an experimental phase in these areas.

It’s curious and exciting that artist-driven archives are gaining traction, and I am delighted to share this brief description of some of my process of developing Nonlinear Lineage thus far. Continuing peer dialogue around these topics is extremely helpful, and I’m grateful to the Dance Heritage Coalition for providing this platform.

Sarah Maxfield’s Nonlinear Lineage Join the conversation! We invite your comments, feedback, and questions below.

Pictured: First two photos from We deserve each other No 2. installation at The Invisible Dog’s Glass House, Brooklyn, November, 2013. Second two photos from We deserve each other, installation at The Chocolate Factory Theater in 2010.  Both installations featured performance ephemera on loan from numerous artistic contributors as well as items collected by Maxfield. All photos by Sarah Maxfield.

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