Chicago Dance History Project archives the current momentIrene Hsiaoon May 5, 2020 at 10:45 pm

Founded five years ago and recipient of a 2019 Ruth Page Award, the Chicago Dance History Project has steadily built a digital archive of original and collected research documenting theatrical dance in Chicago, hosted and produced numerous public events exploring topics in Chicago dance, and amassed a large collection of performance footage and other historical materials. “We’ve been working with a sense of urgency to capture as many dance histories of Chicago as we can, while we still can, through recorded oral history interviews primarily. So far we’ve interviewed 131 people,” says CDHP executive and artistic director Jenai Cutcher. “Now that it isn’t quite possible in the same way, I’m working with the same urgency to make our materials as accessible as possible.”

These materials reflect the range of CDHP’s broad investment in the Chicago dance community, with interviews with Chicago dancers and dancemakers from a variety of genres, as well as administrators, educators, photographers, philanthropists, and producers participating in a field defined by generous parameters. (“What is theatrical in an age when we can’t gather in a theater? My barometer is whether or not an audience is required or intended,” says Cutcher.)

In addition to the interviews, each documented with a two-camera shoot and supplemented with photographs and other materials, CDHP’s collection includes scans of programs, letters, choreographic notes, manuscripts, and more, including over 700 hours of performance footage and 60,000 digitized files. “Indexing, cataloguing, assigning metadata, file management–the amount of work that goes into processing materials is astounding,” says Cutcher. “For over two years, we’ve been publishing excerpted clips of our interviews on our website, Vimeo channel, and social media. That’s the bulk of what’s public facing, but anyone can request to see a full oral history interview, read a transcript, or watch an event if they missed it.”

These events, produced in partnership with a variety of organizations, investigate topics in Chicago dance history through panel discussions, exhibitions, and lecture-demonstrations. Numbering 35 in total, the events cover such subjects as founding and sustaining a dance company (with the artistic directors of Ensemble Espanol, Joel Hall Dancers, and Natya Dance Theatre, all founded in the 1970s), the history of Chicago tap dance, prominent women in Chicago dance, and more.

Though little in living Chicago history can be compared to our present moment, Cutcher notes that resilience and creativity are persistent themes in CDHP interviews. “Finding freedom within limitations is something artists do, and stories like that come to me all the time. Now is no different. Artists learn how to be resourceful. Think of the original Links Hall. It was right by the el tracks, so everybody paused when the trains went by. There was no backstage or wing spaces so they used the closet doors. The collaborative spirit of the Chicago dance community is something else I think about. Folks have always worked collectively to address the needs of the community and to take care of each other–a good example of that is the inception of Dance for Life”–the annual concert founded in 1991 by Keith Elliott, Todd Kiech, Harriet Ross, Danny Kopelson, and Gail Kalver that raises funds for dancers living with HIV.

To capture history as it unfolds, the CDHP has begun collecting materials for a Dancing Under Quarantine collection. “If this [pandemic] had happened 100 years ago, we wouldn’t be able to shift our connections technologically. Now we’re able to maintain a sense of community digitally,” notes Cutcher. “We’re hoping to collect any sort of material that reflects the reality of the situation at this time, whether a dance in your living room, written thoughts, a video message, a recorded Zoom class, anything that you are creating or expressing that serves as bearing witness to this time we’re all in together. People are finding all kinds of ways to remain active, connected, and creative. We’re not selecting, we’re not curating. If you submit to the collection, it’s in–it’s a community archive.” To submit, dancers and dancemakers can send materials and contextual information to [email protected] with the subject heading “Dancing Under Quarantine.”

“CDHP has been and was always meant to be a resource for everyone,” says Cutcher. “Now more than ever, because we can’t escape to a theater to see live dance, I hope people might enjoy combing through CDHP’s archive and learning about the companies they can’t see live right now or explore any of the rich and vast history of dance in Chicago.” v

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