Insights into the Creation of the Dance Heritage Video Archive at USC’s Glorya Kaufman School of Dance

by: Alison D’Amato, Ph.D.

In early 2018, I was in my second year at USC’s recently established Glorya Kaufman School of Dance, mostly teaching lecture courses in dance history and dance studies. When I heard that Kaufman was collaborating with the USC Libraries to acquire a collection of over 1,200 video recordings (largely digital assets drawn from at-risk media formats such as Beta, Umatic, and VHS), I jumped at the chance to get involved alongside my colleague, Patrick Corbin. Despite having recently finished a dissertation on contemporary choreographic scoring that necessitated deep-diving into theoretical issues around preservation, documentation, and dance’s complicated relationship to the archive, I hadn’t, at the time, thought too intensely about the lives and afterlives of dances in an evolving digital landscape. Two years later, having had the pleasure of engaging with brilliant colleagues through Dancing Digital, as well as being immersed in USC’s project, it seems like a terrific time to reflect on the recent past and to consider what might be possible in the future.

Early on in my involvement with the USC project – now officially named the Dance Heritage Video Archive (acronym: DHVA; colloquially pronounced: DIVA!) – I talked it up excitedly to all who would listen, emphasizing the impact that such a collection could have on teaching and student research. I detailed some common challenges, familiar to most educators: relying on advertiser-interrupted YouTube clips lacking contextual information, searching in vain for full-length recordings, butting up against paywalls. Yet even as I listed these problems, I realized that I had complacently accepted them for as long as I had been teaching and researching – living with a “this is just how it is” mentality, relying on old standby DVDs and, increasingly, frenetic “trailer” videos that could give my students fleeting glimpses of contemporary works.

When Corbin and I travelled to the University of Alabama for 2019’s Dancing Digital symposium, I was stunned to hear about the long history of leaders in the field combatting the state of affairs that I had naively assumed was unyielding. (Much of this is detailed in Sali Ann Kriegsman’s illuminating post on this blog.) In addition to Kriegsman, I was excited to meet Libby Smigel and Imogen Smith, integral figures in developing and maintaining the collection of videos that USC was in the process of acquiring, materials that had been painstakingly sourced by the Dance Heritage Coalition as a part of their Dance Preservation and Digitization Project. Bolstered by a deepened sense of historical context, as well as a collective desire to enrich the digital dance landscape, I returned to USC excited about “phase 2” of our work – namely, acquiring new materials focused on the particularly under-acknowledged realm of Southern California dance history.

At this stage, we have completed the publication of all of the DHC materials, 400 of which are available for public access. (The remaining videos are accessible with log-in credentials, provided upon request for educational use). We have also selected 156 new recordings representing significant contributions to Southern California dance. Though all of the phase 2 contributions are tremendously exciting, users can get a sense of the breadth of the new acquisitions from these highlights: videos featuring the work of site-specific choreographer Heidi Duckler, the blend of modern and traditional Mexican dance of Pacifico Dance Company, and West Coast hip hop veteran Ali “Legendary” Shabazz.

Corbin and I, along with library collaborators, also put together a vibrant event through USC’s Visions and Voices program, titled Dancing the Archives: Emerging Choreographers and Living History. On a warm February afternoon, audiences from on and off campus watched site-specific performances by early career, Los Angeles-based artists Chris Emile, Jinglin Liao, and Marina Magalhães. All of these works were informed by their research into the DHVA materials; the three choreographic approaches could not have been more different, but each demonstrated the incredible potential of archives like DHVA to spark creative possibilities and dialogue for the present moment. After the performances, we enjoyed a panel discussion led by the incredible Bebe Miller, herself no stranger to digital innovation in the sphere of choreographic archives.

As exciting as all of this is, I find myself mulling over questions about what’s next for DHVA, and how we can fine-tune it to maximize relevance and accessibility. For one thing, I wonder a lot about context. A diverse, robust collection of choreographic works deserves equally well-developed framing. I’m thinking here about the DHC’s invaluable “100 Dance Treasures,” which paired photos and video clips with historical analysis written by leading scholars. Or the engaging “multimedia essays” on Jacob’s Pillow Dance Interactive. Not to say that DHVA’s videos can’t stand alone, but I do dream about education tools that fully mine the potential of each contribution. Additionally, I wonder how existing models for digital presentation will resonate with the typical experience of  undergraduates in years to come. Students and researchers can certainly access DHVA’s “browse” function, but what would it take for them to really get lost in the collection, discovering something they didn’t know they were looking for? I’m not necessarily suggesting that we need to mimic the social media scrolling that helps them “discover” new artists on Instagram or TikTok, but is there a way to translate that flexibility and tap into their curiosity outside of social media? Ultimately, I’m glad to sense a responsive community in the field who is eager to mull these questions over, propelling resources like DHVA, as well as those we haven’t yet dreamed up, into the future.