I visited with Stephanie Neel at the Mark Morris Dance Center on Friday November 9th. Neel is overseeing a group of archivists working on a large-scale project at the Center in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Her team has been making diligent progress towards digitizing the Center’s library of VHS and pneumatic tapes. 

History of the Mark Morris Dance Center

The Mark Morris Dance Center, located one block west of the Brooklyn Academy of Music at the intersection of Lafayette and Flatbush in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, has been the home base of the Mark Morris Dance Group since 2001.  The Center was the first building to be dedicated solely to a dance group, and serves an additional function as an education space and outreach facility for the community.  The Mark Morris Dance Center offers many affordable and inclusive classes to the community and are not prejudicial with regard to experience or ability.

The Team

Neel is conducting this project in consultation with Greg Lisi and Savannah Campbell. Lisi and Campbell are video digitization specialists employed by the Dance Heritage Coalition. Lisi is also the moving image preservation specialist for the NYPL and has overseen all of their AV digitization efforts for the past ten years. Campbell is a graduate of the NYU Tisch School’s Moving Image Archiving and Preservation program. This team is rounded out be Regina Carra, Archive Project Metadata and Cataloging Coordinator, and Sarah Nguyen, a University of Washington MLIS student.

Funding

Neel and her team have been producing their work in accordance with a three-year Mellon grant, which is specificly tailored to the Mark Morris Dance Center. The grant is compliant with current digitization standards, and is aligned with OMEKA, a performing arts database standard. The main objective of this work is to organize and digitize their large holding of pneumatic tape, beta, VHS and high eight.

Archival Process

Neel and her team begin by cross-referencing the individual records with open source software. This method is similar to that which is employed by the NYPL and the Tate in London. 

The primary challenge of this work is in coordinating between Mark Morris and the various institutions throughout the world that commission dance pieces from the institute. Each of these institutions employ their own videographer, and therefore maintain proprietary usage rights of their footage. This footage then resides in a cold storage facility.  Mark Morris must then request an extraction of the digital files from cold storage.  The files are then checked for compliance with the Collective Access.  Collective Access is database software technology for use in cataloging.  

Further Challenges

The archival process at the Mark Morris Dance Center poses exciting challenges. These challenges are best illustrated by Michelle Caswell’s article “The Archive” is Not An Archives: Acknowledging the Intellectual Contributions of Archival Studies. In this article, Caswell identifies the importance of the record in archival practice. She writes: “The ‘record’ is the foundational concept in archival studies. Records, according to the prevailing definition in archival studies, are ‘persistent representations of activities, created by participants or observers of those activities or by their authorized proxies.'”1 Neel and her team of archivists and preservation specialists are sifting through a various forms of records in their process and must create separate hierarchies. 

Neel and her team are grappling with the archiving and cataloging of the so-called “uncatalogable.” They approach this problem by dividing the work into two aspects. One aspect is the choreography, which is authored soley by Mark Morris. The choreography is its own text. This text is then translated to other institutions that choose to perform the work with their own companies. The performances are a separate aspect of the process. They are made physical in the form of the recordings captured by each company’s individual videography department.

This process of sorting relates to Caswell’s definition of provenance. She writes: “Through provenance, archival studies insists on the importance of the context of the record, even over and above its content.”2 While content is important for Neel, the contextualization of the performance (when, where, which company) is the primary method of placing the records within the archive.

Outside Assistance

Neel has contracted with The MediaPreserve in Pittsburgh to complement the work being done in Brooklyn.  Shipping crates come and go from the Center’s archival office. The crates are filled with analog reels and cassettes, a couple of which I helped carry up to the lobby. According to the website of The MediaPreserve: “We have digitized for hundreds of institutions, universities, and museums transferring an array of formats including 1” Type C, 2” Quad, video cassettes, digital videos, film, and many more. Our work has covered numerous genres, including home movies, propaganda, documentaries, and works of art, as well as news, scientific, musical and educational programs.”

Practical Use of the Archive

The digital resources, once archived, are not simply kept in a closet. The tapes are a vital aspect to the company’s process, and are heavily referenced by new dancers and other global dance companies in order to recreate the specifics of Morris’s choreography. A database exists for the dancers where they are able to access time-stamped footage of past performances and other forms of raw choreography that serve as the building blocks for new performances.

Secondary Goals

Neel’s team is also responsible for the large collection of costumes and ephemera belonging to the Mark Morris Dance Group. These costumes  span the forty-year history of the Group. Additional items in need or archiving include historical prints, photographs, and programs. Most of these items are securely stored are of a less urgent manner for the team.  The analog technology of the video tapes is more fragile and requires urgent attention. Neel has decided to tend to the costumes toward the back end of the grant. 

Conclusion

Stephanie Neel and her team are dealing with an interesting challenge in archiving the digital materials at the Mark Morris Dance Center. They must parse through the records and create hierarchies of place and performance in order to assign order to their holdings. Their digitization and preservation methods are sophisticated and the team is composed of accomplished specialists in the field. The archive is unique in that these records will then become widely used as practical tools for instruction.

Sources:

  1. Michelle Caswell, “The Archive” is Not An Archives: Acknowledging the Intellectual Contributions of Archival Studies.
  2. Caswell, “The Archive.”

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