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DU’s reimagined Dance Archive takes a bow

In the vintage Dance Archive image above, modern dancer Ruth St. Denis performs as a snake in “Angkor Vat.” The costume alone provides scholars fodder for analyzing representations of other cultures in the performing arts. 

The University of Denver’s renowned archival resource for fancy footwork and soaring leaps has a refurbished spin on its role in the world.

Formerly known as the Carson Brierly Giffin Dance Library, the Dance Archive, rebranded and reimagined in 2019, aims to advance education about and engagement with all genres of dance and movement, with an emphasis on the American West. 

“Archives and special collections can seem to community members to be closed-off vaults. We aim to be the opposite. We really want to expand the [collection’s] mission, vision and scope,” Dance Archive curator Katherine Crowe says, noting that a spiffy, multicolored graphic identity reflects that aspiration. By jauntily joining a D and A in movement, a new logo expresses the archive’s ambition to connect with the community. 

Founded in 1972 and one of only a few dance-focused archives in the country, the Dance Archive already has gone beyond collecting, preserving and exhibiting materials to commissioning dance-related material. In spring 2019, the archive drew on the release from an endowment gift from Wana Barnett to fund a documentary detailing the creative process behind “Tour de Force,” a milestone collaboration uniting Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, Wonderbound and Colorado Ballet. The documentary has been featured in several dance film festivals, including an online screening in November 2020, courtesy of the Boulder-based Sans Souci Festival of Dance Cinema and the Chautauqua at Home series.

Projects like this one, says archivist Nathalie Proulx, could spur other companies to document their own creative processes and staged works. The most ephemeral of art forms, dance is hard to preserve, she explains. True, the finished products are often recorded on videotape, but the process itself is typically tracked—when it is tracked at all—through haphazard notes and photographs. A filmed documentary, Proulx says, “can give insight into how a dance work is created—those behind-the-scenes conversations.”  

Just as important, the Dance Archive can help students dive into bygone eras and their prevailing mindsets. In his history of theater class, associate professor Greg Ungar has used archival images to invite provocative discussions. For example, century-old photos of the famous modern dancer Ruth St. Denis, known for weaving Orientalist aesthetics into the art form, often show her in lavish costumes that call to mind a Hindu or Buddhist deity. 

Such images raise interesting questions for today’s students, Ungar notes. Chief among them: What does the image suggest about the production team and their intentions? What cultural assumptions are revealed by the costume and makeup choices? 

In turn, questions like these can spark conversations about what Ungar calls the “larger context having to do with representations of the ‘other’ in the performing arts.” When accompanied by texts exploring cultural appropriation, the photos can offer perspective not just into the culture of the period but also into its lingering legacy in the performing arts. 

Crowe hopes the Dance Archive will have interdisciplinary reach. “To me, [the expansion of scope] really leaves us a pretty wide opportunity to connect with the University in really interesting ways around dance that are not solely tied to the study and practice of dance and movement,” she says. For example, the archive’s repository of images and videos could serve students exploring emergent digital practices. They also could prove helpful to scholars of gerontology or neurology studying the effect of movement on aging or brain health.

Dance lovers will no doubt appreciate the archive’s world-renowned collection of western square and folk dance, as well as memorabilia from such luminaries as Misty Copeland, whose pointe shoes were donated by the Vail Dance Festival after her 2015 appearance there. Just as important, the Dance Archive, which hosts the annual Legends of Dance in Colorado extravaganza, preserves the contributions
of the state’s dance world superstars by recording video interviews and sharing them via a digital repository. 

In all its work, the Dance Archive strives for inclusivity. The archive is not, Crowe says, “this place you have to have this secret password to get into. We want the community to have access to it. To be a ‘dance resource for all’ is not just our tagline; it’s our mission.”  

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