The History of Efforts to Improve Access to Online Dance Resources: Opening Symposium Remarks

by: Sali Ann Kriegsman

Thank you, Libby.  And thank you, Rebecca, for inviting me to the Symposium and for spearheading this effort. Though I haven’t been active in this aspect of the field for some time, I thought I could shed some light on previous efforts to broaden access to moving images of dance, efforts I have been involved with over many years. 

This is by no means a comprehensive survey of projects undertaken nation-wide.  There are many more individuals and organizations whose critical work has informed and led us to this moment. 

Almost fifty years ago, in 1970, my husband, Alan M. Kriegsman, and I co-authored an article titled “The Unstudied Art” in Cultural Affairs Journal.  We asked: “How is it that educated men and women can be conversant with the plastic arts, music, drama, and literature, yet grossly ignorant of dance?”

We saw an urgent need for revolutionary advances in notation and recording techniques and noted that an American Film Institute was just founded in response to “a growing sense of need for a national organization devoted to the art of film.” (I was working at AFI at the time).  And we said that “the benefits that could accrue from a comparable center for the preservation, study, and dissemination of dance should be obvious.”

In the early 1980’s, as dance consultant for the Smithsonian, I curated a series of public programs that included Merce Cunningham speaking about and showing his innovative videodance investigations, Ernie Smith, private collector of rare tap and Lindy footage, showing film clips of Bill Robinson at the National Portrait Gallery, and live performances of veteran tap artists along with the film “No Maps on My Taps.”

During the 1980s and 1990s at burgeoning tap festivals, artists and a few interested parties (myself included) would stay up all night in a hotel room binging on grainy videos of tap artists.  When technology democratized and could be held in our hands, tap artists were among the first to glom on, to trade and share clips of legendary and contemporary dancers —it was how they learned the history of their art, alongside living tap elders telling their stories–and it spurred a new generation’s creative work.

At the National Endowment for the Arts, the Dance Program’s dance/film/video category supported a wide range of creative and documentation projects, and collaboratively with the Media Arts program, funded TV broadcast series such as “Alive from Off-Center” and “Dance in America.”

In 1990,  “Images of American Dance:  Documenting and Preserving a Cultural Heritage” was published.   This report, based on a study co-sponsored by the NEA’s Dance Program and the Andrew E. Mellon Foundation, surveyed for the first time the existing system of dance documentation and preservation nation-wide, how transactions were conducted within the system, and to what extent the needs of the dance community were being met. 

Our focus was on users, and the need to equip artistic and archival communities in their efforts to build, strengthen and extend dance documentation and preservation efforts at the local, regional and national levels in order to assure that the legacy of dance would endure.

Among the study’s conclusions most relevant to our symposium is this one:

“‘Access’” has become everyone’s byword—for the artists who create the work and records of it, for the repositories that house those records, and for scholars and others who want to use those materials.  ….Video cameras and computers have raised everyone’s expectations of what should be available on demand…”

It identified among barriers to easy access, “the incomplete records of what collections exist and what is in them, the conflict between some needs of archive users and the limitations on physical property rights and intellectual rights, and the tension between the need for ‘hands-on” use and long-term preservation concerns.”

And it concluded: “Outreach, education and broad public access to the field’s rich and varied traditions are essential if dance is to overcome its persistent marginalization among the framework of America’s artistic and intellectual discoveries.”

The study spurred the creation in 1992 of the Dance Heritage Coalition which, in its first decade, made major strides cataloging and coordinating efforts among its principal member archives and collections and accomplished much much more in the years that followed.  Another result was the Pew Charitable Trust’s funding of the National Initiative to Preserve America’s Dance (NIPAD) 1993-2000, and in 1998-2000, the UCLA National Dance/Media Leadership Project.

When I left the Arts Endowment in 1995 for Jacob’s Pillow, Norton Owen and I made the Pillow’s archives and the potential of its holdings a priority. It was through the Pillow’s unique setting and mission that I could clearly see the rich connections to be made between practice, performance, making work, preservation, and access to dance’s live and recorded history.

In 2001, Dr. Alberta Arthurs former Director for Arts and Humanities at Rockefeller Foundation, met with me to discuss the challenge of providing access to moving images of dance.  By then collections had become better known and accessible for study and new streaming technologies showed great potential. But access to these materials was limited to the physical premises of the holders.

Dr. Arthurs secured a one-year grant from the Mellon Foundation to explore issues involved in building a “Digital Dance Library”

The proposal to the Mellon Foundation grew out of the need, acknowledged by the dance field, for an accessible collection of full-length recordings of historically and aesthetically important works of American dance.  Although such images were essential for scholarship and teaching, they were not available in a way that encouraged discovery and learning.

The Digital Dance Library Planning project went “live” from March 2002-June 2003.   It was designed to find out whether it could be possible, using digital technology, to stream moving images of dance in a curated, organized, protected, technically accessible system, to the educational institutions, teachers, students and practitioners who need them.

Not only, we proposed, might a Digital Dance Library advance dance literacy but it could greatly enrich scholarship and learning in the humanities and other disciplines where dance has largely been absent, and it could fuel and inspire artistic development and creativity.

The project was, I believe, the first, to bring artistic, technological, intellectual property legal and business sectors together to study needs, capacities and barriers.

The challenge of envisioning a streamed dance library was undertaken by a team of researchers working from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.  I was one of four principal investigators, each working in an area of expertise relevant to the study. Dr. Arthurs led the effort. The investigators (each of us directing a specialized sub-team or group) were:  Stephen Brier, co-director of the New Media Lab at the CUNY Graduate Center, on technology; Andrew Taylor, director of the Bolz Center at University of Wisconsin-Madison on the business model; Jane Ginsburg, faculty director of Columbia University’s Lernochan Center for Law, Media and the Arts on intellectual property issues, and yours truly on artistic content.

The process was enriched and also complicated by the use of specialist teams who knew little about each others’ specializations, and were located at distances from each other. (This was before Skype). Much of what was being studied had not been studied in this inclusive way before.

The team asked these questions, among others:

  • What full-length works could best be used to test the concept of a core library of American dance? I should clarify that this first group was never meant to serve as a canon. Of course, any selection of material will have deficiencies; I can go into how the database of works was compiled later if anyone would like. 
  • Would libraries purchase or license an inventory of moving images? 
  • Would dance professionals contribute to a single streamed archive? 
  • What is the potential for classroom use of such images? 
  • Could rights holders, ranging from home video to Hollywood moviemakers, from costume designers to dancers, be categorized and reached, and would they agree to cooperate? 
  • Was technology available to accommodate the demands of the project or would it need to be invented? 
  • Could marketing and sales systems be designed to promote sustainable operations of such a project?

Three techniques were particularly important: interviewing, modeling and convening.

We each conducted interviews, whether surveys (with dance scholars, with potential users) or interviews with individual experts (particularly in the law and in technology). Because information and data were located in so many closely held sub-fields, getting information directly and individually turned out to be quite important.

Models were produced.  Examples included: a model database of essential dance materials, a template of legal concerns, descriptions and analyses of information technology business models, the design and demonstration of the actual digital delivery system.  Whether in written form, in charts or on spreadsheets, or were physically constructed – models proved to be useful tools for communication from one area of expertise to another, and they tended to make synergies, connections, and gaps easier to see.

In November 2002, the team brought together forty leading professionals in the field at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City for a daylong presentation and exchange of findings and ideas.  A demonstration showed the potential and possible features of such a library.

(After watching our demo, which used as examples moving images from Jacob’s Pillow’s archives, an artist exclaimed how moving it was to see her forbears, and said she’d want her work to be included if the project was a “go”.)

Wrapping up our study, we prepared full reports on our process and work and issues to be further explored.  The Mellon Foundation encouraged an application for a pilot phase in which we would build out and test a full working model.  Application was made. Unfortunately, Mellon did not support the next phase.

Today we see tremendous advances in technologies, robotics, streaming, and the threshold possibilities of AI.  Legal guidelines regarding fair use have been thoughtfully laid out for testing more broadly.

These major challenges remained:  where to house, develop and maintain a sustainable, protected system; intellectual property rights, access for and to whom.

The technology is here; privacy rights, ownership, fair use and compensation are being fiercely debated in other sectors; dancers are creating work using new technologies.  But the lingering deficit of readily accessible full-length recordings of dance remains a major challenge both for the dance community and for the public.

I have a couple of broad questions I hope we can explore here:

  • For and from whom can national access be achieved?
  • How broad or narrow are the constituencies to be served?
  • Where and how can such a system be supported and sustained—financially and administratively?

Before I yield to my colleagues, I want to give a shout out to the many individuals, organizations and efforts that I haven’t named here, whose dedicated work has led us to this moment.