Looking Back, Moving Forward
Preserving our dance heritage for 25 years
by Jo Thorpe
When dance enthusiasts gathered recently to hear choreographers Michael Parmenter and Susan Jordan speak about the companies they formed in the 1980’s, the National Library was there to record their presentations and the audience was treated to memorable archival film footage of their works.
The event was the second in a series of seminars entitled ‘Leaping Through Time’ that aims to raise the profile of contemporary dance in NZ and showcase its history. ‘Leaping Through Time’ is the brainchild of Peter Boyes – the current Chair of New Zealand's National Dance Archive, which this year is celebrating its 25th anniversary.
1982, the year the Archive was founded, was a time of vigour and growth for NZ dance. The NZ Ballet was shortly to secure a Royal Charter, a contemporary component had just been added to the National Ballet School curriculum, and although Impulse had folded, Limbs was a thriving full-time company.
Also in 1982, Michael Parmenter was at the National Ballet School before moving to New York to study; Susan Jordan had just returned from the US, fired by her exposure to the American post-modernists and others, Paul Jenden was freshly back from New York and together with Louis Solino formed the Fandango Company exploring gay and lesbian themes. Deirdre Tarrant was identifying a need for a dance-in-education company and the Maori renaissance was creating the right climate for the formation of Taiao Dance Theatre.
In this burgeoning environment, it is no wonder that the founding trustees of the National Dance Archive saw a whole history of dance in NZ that needed documenting and preserving. They also saw the need to encourage NZ dance artists to document their history, making and maintaining their own records and depositing them in libraries throughout the country.
Over the years, the Archive has recorded the oral histories of dance artists who have had illustrious careers and influenced the development of NZ dance. Early oral histories include Poul Gnatt, Alexander Grant, Rowena Jackson and Sir Jon Trimmer. Most recently, Russell Kerr, Sara Neil, Patricia Rianne and Michael Parmenter have been added to the collection housed in Alexander Turnbull Library. Copies are available for listening at the Oral History Centre of the National Library. Next year there are plans to interview dance teacher/RAD examiners Jenny Kjelgaard and Joan Irvine, and dance designer Raymond Boyce.
The Archive’s ‘Leaping Through Time’ seminars launched last year showcased four early NZ modern dance companies - New Dance (formed in 1946), Dunedin Dance Theatre (mid-1970’s), Impulse Dance Theatre (1976), and Limbs (1977). Recordings of these lectures and those of Parmenter and Jordan mentioned above are housed in the National Film Archives.
The next series, planned for February, as part of Wellington’s Fringe Festival, will focus on multi-culturalism in NZ contemporary dance from a Wellington perspective. Later seminars are also planned for Auckland, Dunedin and Christchurch.
As part of the NZ School of Dance’s 40th anniversary celebrations, the Archive organised a forum presenting an insight into the careers of eight of their well-known graduates. Three were there to talk in person - Mary Jane O’Reilly, Helaina Keeley and Sue Nicholls – while the careers of Taiaroa Royal, Shona McCullagh, Martin James, Jane Casson and Ross McCormack were covered in absentia.
As a way of fundraising, the Archive also produced cards and postcards of noted classical and contemporary dancers, as well as cards of Harry Baker costume designs. As with all voluntary organisations, funding of the Archive is tenuous and progress sometimes slow, but with support from such organisations as DANZ and Creative NZ, plans continue.
One plan is the creation of a central database that identifies the location of dance archival material. Others include a Dance Heritage Register that will contain biographical and professional information on a selection of dancers, choreographers and administrators. It will also identify the location, availability and condition of all dance-related materials, including publications, A/V recordings, dance notation scores, graphics, photographs, reviews, articles, letters, scrap books, librettos, music scores, oral history tapes, manuscripts and costumes. The Archive has prepared survey forms to help gather information about such collections.
To assist, key supporters around the country are being asked to act as ‘outreach’ people and to assist holders of collections with the details such as filling out survey forms if necessary. “Once the Register is up and running,” says Peter Boyes, “we will get the word out to dancers, choreographers, critics, historians, journalists, dance writers, filmmakers and students … anyone who is interested”.
In 2008 the Archive hopes to set up a website, or have a web presence off the DANZ site, with a linked page to the Heritage Register. It also plans to build links with peer institutions such as Auckland University.
If you would like to support the work of the Archive by becoming an outreach person, ordering postcards, requesting survey forms, or making a donation, please contact National Dance Archive, PO Box 9632, Marion Square, Wellington