Tracing a Record of Artistic Movement in Los Angeles

Dance & Theater

A one-of-a-kind collaboration between the USC Libraries and the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance is capturing a digital record that highlights the creativity and variety of dance and artistic movement traditions in Southern California. 

The project is supported by a generous grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. In the past year, USC digital librarians and USC Kaufman faculty have collaborated to identify more than 150 recordings of dance performances, rehearsals, and other materials for digitization and publication in the Dance Heritage Video Archive of the USC Digital Library. They join more than 1,200 video recordings digitized previously by the Dance Heritage Coalition that largely document work by New York and other East Coast dance artists and organizations. 

The newly added Los Angeles recordings include original pieces by dance artists such as Ali “Legendary” Shabazz, Heidi Duckler, Bella Lewitzky, Dawn Stoppiello, Johnavalos Rios, and George Willis and performing companies such as Body Weather Laboratory, Hysterica Dance Company, Kayaman Ng Lahi, Pacifico Dance Company, and Viver Brasil. 

Since the fall of 2019, USC dance preservation and digital projects librarian Javier Sepúlveda Garibay has been sharing short clips via the USC Libraries social media channels, including Heidi Duckler’s memorable 1991 performance on the Cal State L.A. campus, “Groomless,” pioneering hip hop dancer and choreographer Ali “Legendary” Shabazz improvising movements in his own living room, and the Pacifico Dance Company’s lush performance of “Mexico: Magia y Color.” 

In identifying and conducting outreach to L.A.-area dance artists, Garibay works closely with USC Kaufman faculty members Patrick Corbin and Alison D’Amato and draws on his own background as a dancer and the director of Loyola Marymount University’s Grupo Folklorico. 

“One of the most rewarding aspects of this work, especially for me as a dancer,” said Garibay, “is visiting these artists and hearing the stories behind the videos.” 

“By far,” he added, “I think the biggest need in the dance world is digitizing videos of performances in communities of color. Especially since we’re focusing on L.A. dance, this wouldn’t be a truly representative archive of Southern California dance history without making a conscientious effort to reach out equally to a broad spectrum of different communities.”

One of the challenges of preserving Southern California’s dance heritage is that many original recordings exist only on fragile, obsolete media such as Betamax, VHS, Hi8, and Umatic video tapes. Since these media decay significantly over time, we lose a little more of this visual record of human movement with every passing year. These performances are also largely invisible, since very few people have VHS or other specialized playback equipment in their homes. 

The USC Libraries and USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance joint project offers a stable environment for long-term digital preservation of the recordings in the USC Digital Repository and reliable access for dance artists, educators, students, and the public via the USC Digital Library. It draws on the expertise of USC digital librarians Deborah Holmes-Wong and Wayne Shoaf as well as USC Kaufman faculty. 

The Mellon Foundation-supported project is also leading to innovative cultural programs that connect the memories and histories in archives to the creative potential of human movement. 

Patrick Corbin and Alison D’Amato of USC Kaufman and Tim Stanton of the USC Libraries organized a USC Visions & Voices event, Dancing the Archives: Emerging Choreographers and Living History on Feb. 13. Through site-specific performances on the USC campus, L.A.-based choreographers Chris Emile, Jinglin Liao, and Marina Magalhães explored rich historical collections like the Dance Heritage Video Archive, ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives, and the Los Angeles City Archives and the architecture of Doheny Memorial Library.

Dancing the Archives was such an exciting opportunity to see how an embodied archive can translate into the present moment through a diverse range of choreographic practices,” said D’Amato. “Each artist found a totally unique way to engage with the materials, illuminating how rich they can be in terms of stimulating new creative perspectives and discoveries.”

More than 100 USC students and dance aficionados from the L.A. area attended the dance performances, which culminated with a public conversation with Emile, Liao, and Magalhães led by pioneering choreographer Bebe Miller.

Miller is a New York-based dance artist who has long been interested in archives and memory. As Miller writes about A History (2012), which she created with her longtime collaborators Angie Hauser, Darrell Jones, and Talvin Wilks, “A History is remembering remembering. As such, it is an archive of our practice, an incomplete and completely subjective accounting built on ideas, movement and conversations from the past 10 years.”

Building on her view of the human body in movement as “a record of thought, experience, and beauty,” Miller is increasingly interested in documenting, archiving, and sharing the dance-making process through initiatives like her dance company’s Vault project. 

Entering its third year, the collaboration between the USC Libraries and USC Kaufman is now capturing a digital record of L.A.’s collective dance memory and helping to activate it for emerging artists like the 3 choreographers invited to participate in the Dancing the Archives event. 

You can explore the growing collection of dance performances in the Dance Heritage Video Archive in the USC Digital Library or Calisphere. Southern California-based dance artists and organizations are also encouraged to contact Javier Garibay for details about how to nominate their video recordings for digitization and long-term preservation and access via the USC Libraries’ digital collections.