Dance Archives and Digital Culture: The Current Situation in Germany

Video viewing area at the National Dance Centre, Paris; photo: Franz Anton CramerDance and choreography have become highly-regarded and popular art forms, of more or less equal status with other genres. Yet dance has difficulty making its historicity and origin understood. Because its works are inaccessible, it remains trapped in a breathless present. However, the internet and digital culture open up entirely new opportunities and challenges in connection with cultivating the cultural heritage of dance.

Nowadays, digital culture means free internet access to all kinds of content from anywhere in the world. Analogue culture was characterised by being tied to place and time. One could only be and read and talk at one particular geographical location at any given time. The media revolution of recent decades has made culture more fluid, so to speak, and this has had an effect on all genres.

Yet dance has a particularly precarious status within society’s commemorative institutions. Because there are no material objects in dance, but always just events, it is also particularly difficult to pass on its works. A house, a manuscript or a painting can last for centuries without any substantial change. Choreographies, dances and performances can only be transferred to other media and forms. These transmission media may be bodies, notations, scores, photographs, concepts, costumes or interviews. For 100 years, there has also been film, and for about 30 years, video.

So in contrast to architecture, literature, music and painting, there is no authorised object in dance incorporating the history, the materiality, the meaning and the form which distinguish it as a work of art.

Places for commemorating dance

Media items at the Dance Archive Leipzig; photo: Franz Anton 

That is why particular effort is required to cultivate dance heritage. Yet the lack of objects does not mean that dance has no history, or that we cannot gain an impression from our present-day vantage point of what dance used to be like, when, how, where it took place and who was involved. Indeed, dance has numerous secondary sources. In Germany in particular, a number of archives are responsible for preserving and increasing the number of items that bear witness to dance.

The Dance Archive Leipzig, founded in 1957, had the status of a GDR national archive until 1989. Its extensive collections go back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. However, its focal areas include the estate of Rudolf von Laban (1886-1957) and complete collections of documents on dance culture in the GDR and on socialist realism. From 2011 onwards, the archive is to be incorporated into the University of Leipzig and it will largely lose its independence.

The German Dance Archive in Cologne (Deutsches Tanzarchiv Köln), founded in 1948 as a private collection, was opened to a wide public in1986 by the SK Cultural Foundation of the City of Cologne (SK Stiftung Kultur und der Stadt Köln) as a centre for information, documentation and research. Among its offerings is a dance museum, over 300 bequests from individuals, approx. 200,000 photos and approx. 650,000 newspaper clippings as well as books and graphics from the 16th century onwards.

The German Dance Film Institute Bremen was set up in 1988. It is devoted to collecting, restoring and producing audiovisual recordings of dance and dancers. Its activity profile includes recording dance works, making documentaries for television and conserving old tapes. The focus of this dance film institute’s historic collection is on dance theatre in West Germany in the seventies and eighties.

The Archive of the Berlin Academy of the Arts has seven departments, one of which is Performative Art. The archive collects, keeps and documents the available information on dancers and choreographers. The artistic estate of Mary Wigman is kept here, for example.

The Mime Centre also works in Berlin. It operates at the interface of creative activity, teaching, documentation and information. It has an extensive collection of recordings of works made in Berlin, making it possible to follow the development of contemporary dance since approximately 1995.

In 2008, coordinated by Tanzplan Deutschland, the five institutions referred to above merged to form the Association of German Dance Archives and defined common objectives and demands.

Dance works on the web?

Homepage of the media catalogue of the National Dance Centre, Paris; photo: Franz Anton CramerThe challenge of digital culture is too great to be met by individual collections, however, particularly when the aim is to make dance works themselves accessible in moving images on the web. While open platforms such as YouTube do include quite a number of dance entries, including some by major artists, the quality of the clips shown is usually poor, they give no useful indication of their sources and are subject to constant copyright restrictions. They are not suitable for educational, study or analysis purposes.

In order to take over responsibility for quality under such circumstances, the National Library of France, the Maison de la Danse in Lyon and the National Dance Centre in Paris joined forces in the Numeridanse internet project to give the public access to the legacy of modernist choreography. Germany’s federalist system stands in the way of a similar central government initiative. Anyone wishing to study dance history using film recordings of important works has to go back to the days of analogue recordings. They have to go to particular places and look for film documents there, which may be viewed under certain conditions. It is often a matter of chance, and sometimes also of archivists’ good will, even to find a particular work. Copyright holders or their heirs and representatives often make it even more difficult to gain access to their works e.g. because large fees are due or only particular people are allowed to use the sources. Or, like William Forsythe with his Motion Bank, for example, they seek to present their creative work in a self-determined digital form.

Dance as a cultural resource

Reading room at the Paris Opera library; photo: Franz Anton CramerParticipation in culture, history and knowledge for all is a current watchword of the information society, also and particularly in connection with the internet and opportunities for using it regardless of one’s social background. Commercial providers such as Google operate alongside government-funded initiatives such as Europeana, a digital scientific and cultural portal, or the German Digital Library. Yet the place of dance in this context is still a completely open question. This is another reason why Tanzplan Deutschland has defined cultivation of the cultural tradition of dance as being part of its task portfolio.

Dance unites a specific concept of a work, the use of digital means to fluidise material aspects and the task of preserving our cultural heritage in a state-of-the-art form. The object itself, dance, is not only an object of archive research here, but is also the model of its intelligent transmission. Dance objectifies the immaterial aspects of performance, and they only acquire durability through their digital presentation, a durability that they previously could not have. This is probably why many choreographers fear the free circulation of their work on electronic media. Yet it is precisely this that is the hope of young dancers in particular. While they have the opportunity to perform and tour much less frequently, they still want to showcase their work.

Dance is a valuable cultural resource. The digital world offers it special opportunities to gain visibility and be appreciated in its historicity. Yet although there are many institutions documenting dance and preserving traces of it in Germany, society has not yet made any serious, politically-backed demand for its preservation.

Franz Anton Cramer
is a dance scholar and publicist. He has been in charge of the project area “Cultural Heritage Dance” for Tanzplan Deutschland since 2007.

Translation: Eileen Flügel
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
May 2010

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