Dance archive isn’t just in books

By Julianna Parker
Norman, Oklahoma (AP) 2-09

A group at the University of Oklahoma has set out to create an archive of a famous ballet company, a feat that’s more impressive the more you know about it.

The archive, led by the University of Oklahoma School of Dance Director Mary Margaret Holt, will chronicle the ballet companies known by the name “Ballets Russes,” three companies spanning from 1909 to 1963.

Besides the long time span, the project is further complicated by the fact that the youngest of those who danced in the companies are now in their late 70s.

Perhaps the most difficult part about the task of archiving, however, is the nature of dance as an art form.

“Dance is the most human of the arts because the instrument is the human body,” said Camille Hardy, associate professor in the OU School of Dance. Dance cannot be copied into a book or preserved on a canvas.

As a result, dance history has only come about as a field of study since the late 1940s, she said.

Dance archives are available at the New York Public Library, Harvard, the Library of Congress, the University of Texas and now at the University of Oklahoma.

But these archives aren’t full of dusty tomes.

“The material that really gives you information is not just in books,” said Hardy, who has been gathering oral histories for the university collection by interviewing company members on video camera.

For the Ballets Russes archive, Holt, Hardy and assistant Peggy Chaffin are collecting all kinds of artifacts, including programs, tour itinerary, costumes, dance shoes and interviews with former company members.

“We have an amazing opportunity to collect materials associated with the companies and see that they’re not lost,” Holt said.

The women are going through the difficult process of archival so future generations of dancers and historians can learn about a company that redefined modern ballet, Holt said.

“Those companies changed the face of dance in the 20th century,” she said.

In 1909, Serge Diaghilev established the Ballets Russes, which came to Paris from Russia. That company performed until Diaghilev’s death in 1929.

In 1932, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo was founded. It performed until 1963.

In 1939, Colonel Wassily de Basil established the Original Ballet Russe.


The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo is the most well-known of the three companies in the United States, Holt said. It toured primarily in the US with dancers from all over the world.

“This is the company that very much brought ballet for the first time to smaller cities in the U.S.,” Hardy said.

During World War II, both Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and the Original Ballet Russe were effectively blocked out of Europe, Holt said. The Original Ballet Russe spent those years in South America, while the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo was essentially stranded in the U.S.

As a result, many Americans identify ballet with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, Holt said. Its style defined the style of ballet taught and performed in the US. Some of its members started schools of dance in the US, including in Oklahoma.

Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo dancers Miguel Terekhov and his wife, Yvonne Chouteau, were asked to teach a class in 1961 and stayed on to start what would later become the School of Dance at OU, Holt said.

There are more links between Ballets Russes and Oklahoma, too.

Five American Indian ballet dancers from Oklahoma performed in the companies and reached international fame: Maria Tallchief, Marjorie Tallchief, Yvonne Chouteau, Moscelyne Larkin and Rosella Hightower.

“That’s one of the things that put Oklahoma securely on the ballet map,” Hardy said.

Despite the connections to Oklahoma, Holt didn’t decide to start the Ballets Russes archive until a few years ago. She spoke with the makers of a documentary about the companies, Ballets Russes. She learned that no one knew what to do with their old memorabilia. They wanted to preserve the memories, but had no outlet, Holt said.

Since then, she’s found that people are eager to help with the archive when contacted about it. Often, former company members are happy to put their precious memorabilia to good use. Family members who received the items from deceased loved ones are also glad they can be useful somewhere, Holt said.

“To a person they all agreed to donate their archives for us,” she said.

Perhaps the most interesting contributions have been videotaped interviews with former dancers, she said.

“In addition to the historical side, it really does help us tell the human side of those dancers,” Holt said.

So far, more than 50 people associated with the Ballets Russes have contributed information and memorabilia to the archive, Chaffin said.

A room in the renovated Holmberg Hall has been designated to hold the archive. Pending further funding through grants, an archivist will be hired full-time for the project, Holt said. A volunteer fills that position part-time now.

The archival project is being paid for through private donations, with contributions and pledges totaling about $500,000 so far, Holt said. In order to maintain the collection, she said the school will need an endowment of about $1.5 million.

As each item is archived, it is also digitized so that people all over the world will be able to view the archive on the Internet. Other dance archives are moving toward digitization, but the OU one is moving faster because that is the goal from the start, Hardy said.

As it is created, the OU Ballets Russes archive will be an important contribution to dance history, Hardy said.

“This is a field that is very new and it’s exciting to be in because we have broken the ground, we have trained the next generation,” she said.