PHILADELPHIA, MAY 23, 2002
GRANT HELPS LIBRARY RECORD DANCE HISTORY
If dance is poetry in motion, shouldn’t it be in a library?
It is now, thanks to the efforts of Mary Edsall, curator of the new Philadelphia Dance Collection at Temple (PDCAT), a collaborative effort of the University Libraries, the dance department at the Esther Boyer College of Music, and the local and regional dance community at large.
Established in 2001, PDCAT will document and preserve the history of Philadelphia dance and its contribution to the region’s culture.
“I spent two years working in the community, locating materials, talking with people and finding out if there was a need [for a dance collection], and there was,” said Edsall, a doctoral candidate in dance. “Our mission is preservation, documentation and artist education.”
The collection includes posters, playbills, programs, business records, sound recordings, press files, videotape and photographs. Dance itself is ephemeral, Edsall said, but through recordings and documentation, the collection allows people to study the history of dance through more than just the performance.
“It really runs the gamut. We might even want to get architectural and set designs; it’s interesting from a research point of view to see how people redesign spaces,” Edsall said. “Costume designs are works of art in themselves.
Edsall emphasized that PDCAT was going to be a very active archive. It is housed currently at Paley Library, as part of the University Libraries’ special collections department. Among the collections that have already been acquired are archives of Philadelphia Ballet, Philadanco, the Philadelphia Dance Alliance, the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, and Group Motion Dance Company.
“This is not a cellar-based collection that we found in someone’s basement and we’re just going to let gather dust,” said Edsall, formerly a curator of Harvard’s theater collection and a dance archivist at the Library of Congress. “With my experience, I have seen a lot of what works and doesn’t work. That’s invaluable to me as we’ve tried to build a collection here, so that we can create something that is unique for Philadelphia.”
Edsall’s devotion to Philadelphia dance comes from her background as an undergraduate at Stockton College in southern New Jersey. Despite being surrounded by teachers from New York (where she went to get her master’s degree, at Columbia). some of her fondest dance memories come from Philly. “I saw dance in Philadelphia all through the 1980s,” Edsall said. “I had an emotional connection with the city. Some of the first avant-garde I saw was here at the Painted Bride.”
One of Edsall’s first dance teachers at Stockton impressed upon her that there was a need to start collecting stories and records to document not only dance but also the lives of the dancers. That teacher later died of AIDS, she said. “We were losing the first generation of American modern dancers through natural causes, and then we were losing a whole separate tree ring to AIDS. That’s when I decided this is what I was going to do.”
Edsall holds a second master’s degree in library science from the University of Maryland, as well, which makes her the perfect curator of the library collection, according to University Librarian Maureen Pastine. “She has built quite a reputation in the field,” Pastine said. “Because of Mary’s expertise, she will be able to equip our staff to do the cataloging and eventual digitizing of visual archives, something very important in the world of dance.”
Edsall was likewise thrilled when Temple Libraries agreed to host PDCAT. “They didn’t only agree to host it, they were excited about it,” she said, “It belongs here.”
Temple is the natural home for the collection. The Esther Boyer College has one of only four doctoral dance programs in the country, and the University Libraries have experience dealing with Philadelphia-specific collections with its urban archives department. “This partnership is an exemplary model in which artists’ work becomes the basis for artistic production, research and community Pride,” said Luke Kahlich, dance department chair.
PDCAT was recently awarded a $30,000 grant from the Delmas Foundation and a $77,000 grant from Dance Advance, a program funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts. These grants will help fund the curator position and facilitate the video documentation of several important local dancers. Other fundraising efforts are ongoing.
Edsall noted that the PDCAT would prove useful to dance students who wish to recreate or trace the history of particular ballets, for instance. Changes in choreography and style analysis are as much a part of dance research as is chronicling dance history.
“This collection belongs to everybody,” Edsall said. “This is a lifelong effort–as long as people dance, there will be the dance archive.”
Originally published May 23, 2002 in Temple Times. It was a commencement feature, running a bit longer than a normal Temple Times feature. Reprinted with permission.