7 Must-See Dance Relics From the New York Public Library’s Archive In Motion Exhibition

Lists   7 Must-See Dance Relics From the New York Public Library’s Archive In Motion Exhibition
Cowboy boots from Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo, a set sketch by Salvador Dalí, and more can only be seen at the NYPL for the Performing Arts’ new Jerome Robbins Dance Division exhibit.
Jerome Robbins leading a rehearsal for West Side Story
Jerome Robbins leading a rehearsal for West Side Story Martha Swope

The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts continues its reign as the treasure trove of performing arts relics.

The Library’s Jerome Robbins Dance Division turns 75 years old this year. Originally called the Dance Collection, it became a full division of The New York Public Library in 1965 and was finally given its current name in 1999 in honor of choreographer Jerome Robbins, the Division’s greatest champion during his lifetime. Genevieve Oswald, the Division’s first curator, oversaw the first 43 years of the Division’s history, transforming it from a handful of Ballet Theatre publicity photographs to the largest dance archive in the world, setting the international standard for practices of dance librarianship and archiving.

Today the Jerome Robbins Dance Division offers free programs and exhibitions, studio space for special projects, educational activities, residencies, fellowships, documentation of performances and oral histories and, of course, dance reference services. The new exhibition, Archive in Motion: 75 Years of the Jerome Robbins Dance Division, offers a snapshot of key moments in the Division’s history told through some of the prized objects in its care.

Here’s a teaser of just 7 of the dozens of relics you can explore for free through January 25, 2020.

1. Costume Designs Painted by Dancer-Choreographer Janet Collins

TOP Costume design for Spirituals watercolor and pencil ca. 1947-1976 Janet Collins
BOTTOM Costume design for Mozart Rondo watercolor and pencil ca. 1947-1976 Janet Collins Jonathan Blanc/The New York Public Library

Dancer and choreographer Janet Collins was the first African-American person to be hired full-time by the Metropolitan Opera. Collins had classical training and was one of the most successful black ballet dancers of her era. However, she still experienced severe racism which prevented her from performing in many states. Early on, choreographer Léonide Massine saw her promise but would only offer her a role if she painted her face white. Collins refused. In the exhibition are two costume designs painted by Collins herself from a series that documents roles she choreographed and danced throughout her career. They also reveal two sides to her personality. Mozart Rondo was her audition piece at the 92nd Street Y when she arrived in New York in 1949 where Muriel Stuart (a former dancer for Anna Pavlova’s company) said there was “spontaneous applause. I mean we clapped, we shouted, we stamped our feet.” Spirituals, on the other hand, connects to Collins’ deep faith. She began her dancing career in a Catholic community center and, when she retired, Collins chose to live out her days as an oblate in the Benedictine order.

2. The Salvador Dalí Sketch That Was Almost the Romeo & Juliet Set

Romeo & Juliet watercolor and graphite 1942 Salvador Dali The New York Public Library

The Jerome Robbins Dance Division doesn't just document and preserve dance history as it happened, it also preserves the history of what might have been. A particularly compelling example of this is the 1942 Antony Tudor ballet Romeo & Juliet. While Eugene Berman ultimately designed the set and costumes for the production, originally, Tudor was in talks with Salvador Dalí for the commission. While the Berman set and costumes served the choreography well, it is fun to imagine what surrealist flights of fancy might have taken place had Dalí been allowed to realize his vision, for which now only this sketch remains.

3. Doris Humphrey’s The Dance Score

The Dance Score: A Project for Dance Notation typescript 1936 Doris Humphrey Jonathan Blanc/The New York Public Library

In 1936, Doris Humphrey and Martha Graham were the two most powerful women in American modern dance. They were also living in poverty and struggling to keep a company together between performances. Unlike ballet, which had an understood vocabulary, when new dancers were introduced to the ranks in modern dance companies there was no shared language. Humphrey and Graham would have to begin from scratch each time, training new dancers in their singular techniques before teaching the actual dances. The cycle was grueling and Humphrey began to worry that these sacrifices were not sustainable. She feared that modern dance would be lost within a generation and she set about to solve the problem. The answer for her was to film, notate, and save dance so that the work of modern dance artists would be preserved for future generations. She built a budget for this enterprise, solicited forms of notation from international experts, and wrote a compelling essay that essentially advocates for the need of the Dance Division eight years before our formation. Her work is gathered in this document, known as The Dance Score, and it serves as a touchstone for the Division’s mission to this day.

4. Doll of Dancer Vaslav Nijinsky

Handmade doll made by Olga Spessivtzeva of Vaslav Nijinsky in Les Sylphides nylon, cotton, wood, wool c.1960s Olga Spessivtzeva Jonathan Blanc/The New York Public Library

This doll of Nijinsky, made by Russian ballerina Olga Spessivtzeva, has a sad poignancy to it because of the shared fate of both Spessivtzeva and Nijinsky. Both struggled with mental health during their careers and both were institutionalized for the better part of their adult lives. Spessivtzeva was considered to be one of the most complete ballet dancers of the 20th century and a definitive interpreter of the ballets Giselle and Swan Lake. She struggled with clinical depression and infamously lost her memory performing the mad scene in Giselle. She retired from the stage in 1937, and a breakdown in 1940 left her institutionalized in a psychiatric hospital in New Jersey for 22 years, until friends finally found her and moved her to a retirement home where she spent the rest of her life. Spessivtzeva and Nijinsky partnered each other in the 1916 season of the Ballets Russes, dancing the Bluebird pas de deux, Spectre de la Rose and the Fokine ballet blanc Les Sylphides, which this doll depicts.

5. Souvenir Box Holding Lillian Moore’s Ballet Ribbon

Sylphide ribbon presented to Lillian Moore painted wood, glass, fabric, ribbon, glitter, and marbles 1950 Joseph Cornell Jonathan Blanc/The New York Public Library

The New York artist Joseph Cornell was famous for his construction of boxes on themes, which ranged from the Cubist artist Juan Gris, to birds, and more. He was also a ballet enthusiast, counted many dancers as friends, and contributed to the layout of Lincoln Kirstein’s publication Dance Index. This box, made for Lillian Moore, contains a ribbon from the shoe of the Romantic era ballerina, Marie Taglioni, for the ballet La Sylphide, and is accompanied by a note from Cornell to Moore on how to care for the piece.

6. Models for Balanchine’s Orpheus

Maquettes for Orpheus paper and polyurethane 1948 Isamu Noguchi Jonathan Blanc/The New York Public Library

Isamu Noguchi made many gifts to the Dance Division. Our collection includes his correspondence with choreographers in addition to costume and set designs. These two maquettes were made for Noguchi’s collaboration with Balanchine and Stravinsky on Orpheus (1948), the only time the three worked together. Orpheus so impressed the producer Morton Baum that it inspired him to invite Balanchine’s company, Ballet Society, to become the company in residence at City Center under the new name of New York City Ballet.

7. Pair of Boots from Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo

Brown leather western style boots with heels worn by Agnes de Mille in Rodeo leather c.1942 Courtesy of The New York Public Library

The niece of the famed film director Cecil B. DeMille, Agnes de Mille was exposed to the arts early in her life and worked in the film industry as a young dancer and choreographer on her uncle’s production of Cleopatra. The costume on display here is from de Mille’s breakout 1942 ballet, Rodeo, which was created for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. It was this ballet that earned her the commission for the musical Oklahoma!. The ballet foreshadows the work that de Mille would do with the dream sequence in that musical by having the choreography develop a psychological terrain for the characters. The Dance Division's founding curator Genevieve Oswald and de Mille were very close friends and de Mille was incredibly supportive of the Division’s mission. As Oswald said, “She understood exactly what we were doing. She was a born archivist.”

Linda Murray is the Curator of the Jerome Robbins Dance Division at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

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