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Let’s Dance!

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This article also appears in the July-August issue of the Library of Congress Magazine.

Garth Fagan is known around the world for bringing Simba, Mufasa and Scar to life as choreographer for Broadway’s “The Lion King.” More than 100 million people have seen the beloved musical since its debut a quarter century ago, either on Broadway itself or in one of 25 global productions.

But Fagan’s renown extends well beyond “The Lion King.” Over the decades, he has developed a unique form of American dance combining the strength training and precision of ballet with the Afro Caribbean rhythms and movements of his native Jamaica.

When the Library acquired Fagan’s papers earlier this year, they joined, and built on, Music Division collections of an array of dance luminaries: Martha Graham, Alvin Ailey, Bronislava Nijinska, Katherine Dunham and the American Ballet Theatre to name a few.

The Library’s dance-related materials cover the American art form from Colonial times to the present. Early on, materials came into the collections mostly by virtue of their connection to other subjects — dances depicted on sheet music covers, for example, or instructions and commentary in books.

But dancing can be hard to document, dance curator Libby Smigel said: “Transmission is often through person-to-person teaching and coaching.”

Most choreographers and dancers did not maintain personal collections until the mid-20th century, a fact the Library’s holdings reflect.

Programs, photos and recordings form the core of most dance personal collections, along with scrapbooks assembled by a loving relative or fan, Smigel said. “I’m excited when we get a special prop.”

Two of her favorites: the umbrella Judith Jamison danced with in Ailey’s “Revelations” and fans and masks from Java that dancers from the Denishawn Company used in South Asia.

Six colorful Asian theater masks against a white background, showing grotesque faces in an array of expressions
Some of the Denishawn Company masks. Photo: Shawn Miller.

A concerted effort to acquire dance at the Library grew out of a pilot program in the 1980s with the nearby John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The pilot aimed to advance knowledge about dance and inspired the Library’s purchase of multiple collections.

Early acquisitions document pioneers such as Russian-born ballet choreographer Nijinska and modern dancer Ruth St. Denis, co-founder of the Denishawn Company.

In 1998, the Library purchased the eagerly sought-after archives of Graham, followed by acquisitions of complementary collections — some 20 of them, including those of dancers from her company.

“The Library is a cornerstone for serious research on Graham now. You can’t really do without it,” Smigel said.

Even before acquiring her archive, the Library had a special relationship with Graham.

In 1942, Library benefactor Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge commissioned a collaboration between Graham and composer Aaron Copland to produce a ballet. “Appalachian Spring” premiered in the Library’s Coolidge Auditorium on Oct. 30, 1944.

Graham danced the role of the bride in the tale of 19th-century rural Pennsylvania newlyweds. Erick Hawkins, a dancer from her company (whose papers the Library also has), played her husband — a role he later assumed in real life.

Black and white portrait of Martha Graham, head-and-shoulders, facing left. Her hair is in a bun, her right hand under her chin and eyes looking upward to her right
Martha Graham in 1959. Photo: Unknown. Prints and Photographs Division.


The ballet earned Copland a Pulitzer Prize for Music and has continued to resonate with audiences ever since.

To celebrate the acquisition of Graham’s archive, the Library presented a 54th-anniversary performance of “Appalachian Spring” in the Coolidge Auditorium by the Martha Graham Dance Company.

“It was a really moving way to honor Graham’s relationship with the Library,” Smigel said.

Graham’s collection includes some 100,000 items in more than 400 boxes: photographs, recordings of rehearsals and performances, music, posters, Graham’s choreographic notes and her correspondence with major 20th-century figures, as well as her personal papers. Researchers can access these collection items at the Library along with magazines, books and films that shed light on Graham’s legacy.

A particular strength of the Library’s dance holdings, Smigel said, is the rich context in which they exist: alongside other collections that deepen understanding of productions.

The American Ballet Theatre’s production of “Fall River Legend” is Smigel’s go-to example.

Agnes de Mille choreographed the ballet, which premiered in New York City in 1948. It interprets the story of Lizzie Borden, famously acquitted of hatchet-murdering family members in Fall River, Massachusetts, in 1892.

The Library also has costume designs by Miles White and the papers of set designer Oliver Smith, breakthrough lighting designer Peggy Clark and composer Morton Gould. (His scrapbooks contain a Life magazine story that reprints photos from the original crime scene.)

But the Library also has publicity photos of the original cast by Louis Melancon, news stories from across the country about the Borden murders, a book de Mille wrote about her research to create “Fall River Legend” and another book from 1893 by journalist Edwin H. Porter, who made a case for Borden’s guilt.

De Mille relied heavily on Porter’s book to research the Borden story, Smigel said. And contrary to the jury’s conclusion, de Mille ends “Fall River Legend” with Borden’s hanging.

“Each of these pieces comes from a different collection,” Smigel said. “You can’t tell any story with just one piece of information or one person’s papers or special collection.”

Now, Smigel is looking forward to the stories that will be told from Fagan’s materials. “How did he transform his start-up company in Rochester, New York, into the company that did ‘Lion King?’ ”

“At long last,” Smigel said, “we’ll have the material to celebrate his achievement.”


Comments (2)

  1. This is such a beautiful article about a love you don’t get to see every day, the art of Dance!!

    If I could move to DC, I would try and work for the Library of Congress just to see these beautiful pieces of work on a daily basis. Thank you!

    • Thanks for such a kind note! The LOC is indeed a house of wonders.

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