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Some Thoughts on Dance Archiving

Original text: William Chan

Translator: Claudia Law


From 《舞蹈手札23-1》



In recent years, the idea of ‘decluttering’ has become more popular. This makes us think about what to keep and what to get rid of. Nevertheless, when we decide what we will or won’t keep, the decision doesn’t only hinge on the sentimental value of the old items, we have to consider their cultural and historical value as well. Take the century-old underground service reservoir in Shek Kip Mei. Today it seems like just an abandoned place, but when we look into its design and architectural value, we all agree that it deserves conservation. Whether for objects or buildings, we need space for preservation. As for the performing arts, especially dance performances, with their fleeting nature, how can we record and archive them so as to aid researchers in the future?


The limitations of video-recording as archiving


First, we have to clarify a few concepts. For many people, in an age where everyone can record videos on their phone, shouldn’t we just record live performances on camera for archival work? Of course, this serves the purpose of leaving a record. The camera can record live performances on stage with high resolution, yet the video recording cannot capture the performance as a whole with the same clarity. After all, a crucial element of live performance is the rapport between the performers and the audience, and dance also emphasizes the relationship between body and space. The current 2-D form of filming and projecting on screen cannot capture the alternation of rhythms in a 3-D space, not to mention how the camera movement and editing affect the perception of the viewers.


Due to the limitations of the 2-D form and image size, the spatiality of the performance on stage is weakened. If we are not on site, viewing the performance solely through the camera may sometimes be an alienating experience. The energy of the performers will be unavoidably lost. Besides, watching recorded performances on digital devices will be different from watching them live in terms of sound and image. We may all understand that music and sound recording for live performance requires professional equipment and techniques. But when dance performances are filmed on camera, the significance of sound recording is often neglected. We mainly focus on the dancers’ gestures and movements on stage. Therefore, the recording doesn’t really address all five of our senses. Moreover, there is a stark contrast between viewing on screen and on stage – the colour tone transmitted through the camera is sharper, the light contrast is stronger – which makes the recording watched on screen more theatrical.


Organizing a comprehensive range of records for archiving


As a result, recording on camera is only one way of archiving dance performances. When we wish to extend the afterlife of a dance performance, allowing people to revisit the piece, we need to collect records from different stages of the production. This enables us to archive (verb) and thereafter organize the materials into an archive (noun). These records include but are not limited to the artistic concepts, creative notes, movements or rehearsal records (both in videos and photographs), drafts of the scenography, set and costume designs, the details of lighting, sound and projection design, as well as the prompt book prepared by the Stage Manager etc. Many of these materials from the early stages of production are disregarded and disappear after the performance has taken place. Even if the dance companies file such materials, there are not enough resources for continuous and systematic filing to further archive the materials for people to browse, revisit or research. They can only lie in a drawer gathering dust to wait for people with sufficiently keen interest to uncover them.


So, how can we organize these materials which come from dance performances? How can we file and archive them? This requires specialized skills. One method of archiving is to first organize the records into different categories, then label them with metadata, just like the way we label hashtags in our posts on social media. The labelling process serves to indicate the theme, authors and relevant key words etc. To build a successful archive, the researchers must have unified checking tools and a shared mentality. They have to insert metadata for all sorts of materials collected, which will help archive and research work in the future. Thus, while building the archive or even before the archival materials are produced, we have to imagine how future researchers will utilize the archive.


Preserving history: mentoring and oral history


Dance performances differ from theatrical or musical performances. Records of drama and music can be preserved through video, audio or text. For dance, the inner state of the dancers and the subtlety of their movements cannot really be recorded. Hence, in order to archive dance classics, preserving the materials that come from different stages of production is not enough. That would mean putting a living work into a dead box. We have to keep the work alive in order to preserve it. Dance can only be passed down through mentoring by previous generations. New dancers will learn the movements and rhythms. Bodies serve as the transmitters of history.


To build a dance archive for a city, preserving performances alone is not enough. More importantly, we have to let more people view the materials, so we can explore the history of dance from a wider perspective. This will involve relevant parties sharing knowledge, or independent researchers writing. Awareness of this has recently grown. For example, in 2019 two books were published – Dialogues on Dance: Hong Kong Dance Oral History (1950s – 1970s)[1] and Hong Kong Contemporary Choreographers Research 1980 – 2010: Hong Kong Contemporary Dance History, Aesthesis and Identity-Searching[2] - which are important for local dance history. Since oral history relies on the interviewees’ memory, it is hard to trace back in terms of accuracy, but at least it captures the historic development when archival materials are lacking. It is also about preserving those memories before they fade.


Building a Performing Arts Archive


To preserve historical materials, extra resources are needed. Yet, as this is not financially profitable, it is often neglected. Funding bodies won’t give extra grants for this kind of work. Local universities do not have relevant institutional units. So at present it is almost impossible for us to work on dance archiving in Hong Kong. For a long time the local performing industry has called for the creation of a performing arts archive, providing a space for the industry and researchers to organize various materials. They have aimed to curate various events to raise public awareness of performing arts. Nonetheless, the arguments put forward have failed to persuade the government to take any action.


While an official archive is yet to be established, in the short term all we can do is to rely on arts organizations and individuals to preserve materials on their own, and to publish the resources online later on. During this time of the pandemic, arts organizations around the world have come to understand the significance of online archives, especially in using them as a way to connect with audiences. The only concern is that production contracts might not include the terms and rights of online distribution. Many dance performances use music which is not original. So when the work is shown online, this involves another round of administrative work to deal with copyright issues.


[1] Joanna Lee Hoi-yin, Lam Heyee. Dialogues on Dance: Hong Kong Dance Oral History (1950s – 1970s). Hong Kong: City Contemporary Dance Company and Hong Kong: International Association of Theatre Critics (Hong Kong), 2019.


[2] Man, Kit-wah (ed.) Hong Kong Contemporary Choreographers Research 1980 – 2010: Hong Kong Contemporary Dance History, Aesthesis and Identity-Searching. Hong Kong: International Association of Theatre Critics (Hong Kong), 2019



轉載自 《舞蹈手札22-4》



今年城市當代舞蹈團的暑期合家歡舞蹈教育劇場——《實習魔法師的生命練習題》,是圍繞一位實習魔法師追尋生命咒語的故事。稱為「舞蹈教育劇場」,相信教育有著重要的位置。 作品嘗試教育舞蹈的知識?還是以舞蹈教育作為知識生產的方法?究竟創作者藉表演教育了觀眾什麼?又可以是什麼?




舞蹈佔據大部分表演的時間,有部分舞段演員亦要參與其中。但整體而言,教育意義的傳遞,並非依賴舞蹈;故事劇情、角色的經歷、心理轉變與覺醒是意義傳遞的重要部分。若抽走故事,幾段舞蹈在風格、服裝、音樂編曲各異,難成一體:因為劇中的舞段是舞團其他作品的選段,因此段落之間關係甚微。本故事的框架與神話學家約瑟・金寶(Joseph Campbell)提出的敘事公式「英雄旅程」相似:一個踏上冒險旅程的英雄,他會在一個危機中贏得勝利,然後昇華轉變或帶著戰利品歸返到原來的世界。旅程分三個階段,「啟程」、「啟蒙」及「歸返」,其中英雄會遇上各式人物與事件,一步一步引領他覺醒。舞段就是這英雄旅程中,他所遇到的人物或事件的體現。例如《拼圖》選段的群舞,舞者在舞台上圍圈跑,象徵了主角鍥而不捨地去追尋。《雙雙》的選段則可以代表啟蒙,舞者樂知靄與黃振邦的雙人舞展現了由衝突到諒解之間的變化:一開始放大了爭執時的身體動作及探戈的運用,到後段的慢版,向對方伸延的動作。兩人讓主角看到連繫與愛,是他失望之際的當頭棒喝。




藉演出教育舞蹈再順理成章不過,但舞蹈本身,作為教育的一種方法又如何?舞蹈相比其他藝術形式,與身體的關係最為密切。日常深植在身體裡的習慣與反應,當中有受社會的契約、保守的文化及各式歧視所影響。學習與觀賞舞蹈,能否更進一步解放身體裡的記憶?由鼓勵自省與改變身體動作開始,長遠地去建立更多元、更進步的社會?在此想分享社群藝術家Dan Baron Cohen 在巴西的「Rivers of Meeting」,其中他協助當地女孩建立了社區舞團AfroMundi: Pés no Chão。當地女孩承受著家庭及社會的暴力,視身體為家庭甚至國家的附屬品而不自知。通過學習各種舞蹈,一同「認識自身,反思他們早已習慣了的身體語言,漸漸自發地創造,發展出探索自身的舞蹈。」[1] 解放了身體的桎梏。她們的舞蹈作品保育非裔原住民的文化,亦探討發展造成嚴重的河流污染。將舞蹈動作放回在適當的文化脈絡底下檢視、拆解與重構,其意義不證自明。




[1] 引文擷自「社群藝術論壇:文化保育」網頁: https://bit.ly/33h5yym