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Jane Pritchard, ‘Archiving Dance’

A summary of her DANSOX (TORCH) and History Society event at St Hilda’s College on November 4th.

Jane Pritchard is Curator of Dance at the Victoria & Albert Museum. She co-curated the major ‘Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes’ exhibition in 2010. She has held positions as archivist of Rambert Dance Company and English National Ballet and is one of the most distinguished British historians of dance. She has written widely on the Ballets Russes and nineteenth- and twentieth-century dance and was recently awarded the MBE for services to the arts. 

Her lecture at St Hilda’s was packed out, with history students, those interested in dance scholarship and dance practitioners, as well as members of the English Faculty, the general public and interested parties in attendance. She gave a spectacular, illustrated talk – both erudite and entertaining. She focused on the V & A collections of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century material, showing the challenges and complexities of archiving dance before the widespread archival use of notation and film. Sources were particularly ephemeral and limited textual and material records remain.

Jane showed how the dance historian needed an essential ‘feel’ for what constitutes important information in evaluating performance and reception – including audience journals, theatre bills, photographs, musical scores, remnants of costumes, designs, choreographers’ notes and the inventories of theatre managers - if you knew that a certain artist was paid on a certain day then you could be sure that the performance went ahead. Telegrams gave an intriguing insight into the popularity of the ballet – such as one in which Diaghilev simply gave the name of Paris and a number – determining the audience capacity that night. Jane described the difficulties of modern-day reconstruction too, recounting her consultation on the recent revival of Robert Helpmann’s ‘Miracle in the Gorbals’ (1944) by Gllian Lynne for the Birmingham Royal Ballet. 

The discussion brought living history into the room when Karen Sellick (née Bliss) talked to Jane about her father, composer Sir Arthur Bliss’s music for this very ballet. Jane then led a lively and searching debate on problems of archiving in wider contexts of historical practice, which continued on into a sparkling reception after the lecture.

- Susan Jones, DANSOX

Listen to the talk here.