A Guide to online Dance History Resources

One of the things I love most about my job is a huge range of archives and libraries I get to visit, however during the current pandemic institutions are closed, and all in person research has become impossible. So instead museums, archives and libraries are turning to their digital collections to engage with audiences and assist researchers.

Over the years I have made use of a variety of online resources which are now proving invaluable. On this post I have created a guide to some of my favourite resources, and hope this will prove useful to other researcher and dance lovers. Most of these sources have very strong Ballets Russes collections which is my personal focus but don’t let this limit you – play around with search terms and see what you find.

1. NYPL Jerome Robbins Dance Division – Digital Collection

The NYPL Dance Division is a wonderful collection and one of my favourite things to do in NYC is to visit the reading room and exhibition spaces at The Lincoln Center. The Dance Division also has a fantastic Digital Collection which includes high-resolution images of photographs, designs, programmes and ephemera.

The landing page for the Digital Collection has a keyword search box – to show the range available I searched for ‘Ballets Russes’.

Here is the results page – to the left is a panel with drop down menus which you can use to limit your search. This is very useful if you are looking for a particular type of media or have a specific date range; for example, photographs between 1912-1916. While this function can be helpful I would suggest looking outside your date range as well, because sometimes items remain undated.

Keyword Search Tips

I would suggest keeping your search terms broad to begin with. If you are looking for a certain dancer, for example, it is possible that they might not yet be identified in a photograph or programme; so by only searching for their name you are eliminating a broader range of sources that may be useful. I would suggest starting with the name of the company or ballet. I would also suggest playing around with spellings, for example historically Anna Pavlova was often billed as Anna Pavlowa or variations of this.

2. The Library of Congress

The Library of Congress has a fantastic digital collection and is particularly strong in material relating to Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. The Ballets Russes de Serge Diaghilev Collection webpages are a great places to start. The first tab ‘About this Collection’ gives an overview and features a selection of material.

The next tab ‘Collection Items’ provides a full list of available resources. The panel on the left, like the NYPL page, provides options to narrow your research results.

You can view designs, photographs, and programmes, as well as letters, notes and other items of ephemera. One of my absolute favourite items in Serge Grigoriev’s photo album from approx. 1928-1938 – you can view the entire thing here. Grigoriev (b. 1883 – d. 1968) was the régisseur (rehearsal director) for both The Ballets Russes de Serge Diaghilev and The Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo. The snapshots in this album are a wonderful insight into the offstage lives of the dancers.

This is great site to just play around with and explore – scroll to the bottom of the page to see the ‘you might also like’ bar which I found really helpful and interesting.

3. The Archives at Jacob’s Pillow

Jacob’s Pillow is the longest running dance festival in the USA celebrating its 88th season this year. The archives website is a great way to explore the festival’s history and the impressive range of dancers who have performed there. Photographs, programmes and a selection of costumes are available to view here.

The top right corner contains a search box and this is the best place to start. To show how I use this archive I searched for ‘Ruth St Denis’. The results will open the following page:

The next thing I do is to click ‘Full Results’ in the right corner.

This ‘Full Results’ page allows you to sort and filter the results – I find the ‘sort order’ tab very helpful. You can also limit the results to show only ephemera, costume, or photographs etc. Due to copyright the Moving Image (video footage) listed on the archive website is not available online; you can, however, see a range of clips on Jacob’s Pillow Dance Interactive. If you click the menu icon on this page you will also see a section entitled Themes/Essays which contains a range of essays using sources drawn from the archives.

4. TROVE – National Library of Australia

TROVE is a fantastic tool that allows you to explore a range of Australian archival sources.

Once again the landing page has search box in the centre. Here I searched for ‘Ballets Russes’ and a huge range on online accessible sources came up – see the image below. You can refine your search results on the left-hand side. At the bottom of this list you can select sources that are ‘freely available’. A huge range of photographs, pamphlets, programmes, and even some oral histories are available for free online.

The NLA holds a wealth of material relating to the 1930s-1940s Ballets Russes Australian Tours which is well worth exploring.

I hope you find this guide helpful and enjoy some of my favourite online resources. Next week keep a look out for my guide to Ballets Russes Costume Research during lock-down.

Please note that as well as being a Travelling Historian I am also a Dyslexic one. I have a wonderful editor and lots of software to help me but sometimes spelling and typing errors do get through.