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Entrance doors to the Performing Arts Reading Room with exhibit artwork on wall and window showing a quartet performing in the Coolidge Auditorium and a vintage photo of Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge.
Entrance to the Performing Arts Reading Room, Library of Congress Photo, ca. 2015.

From Pioneer to the Performing Arts Reading Room: Vampira Treasures from the Lester Horton Collection

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Learn more about the Music Division’s connection to the cult icon Vampira, as created by Maila Nurmi.

The following is a guest post written by Morgan Davis, Music Reference Specialist, Music Division.

About a year ago, documentarian R.H. Greene contacted the Music Division’s reference team in search of a photo from the Lester Horton Dance Theatre Collection that was long believed to be lost. Only a month into my role as a music reference specialist, I was thrilled to have a good reference query to immerse myself in.

The photo that Greene was in search of was taken at a costume ball known as the “Bal Caribe”, an annual fundraiser hosted by Horton to fund his dance company. After tracking down the relevant box and folder, I combed through all the photographs of the “Bal Caribe” as well as other shows such as “Bolero” and “Salome” that may have been of interest and sent reference copies for Greene’s review. He enthusiastically replied, “This is EXACTLY the photo I’m looking for!,” in response to one particular photo. Among the reference copies was a photo of the contestants of the 1953 “Bal Caribe” costume contest, featuring the brilliant actress Maila Nurmi (1922-2008) dressed as a prototype of Vampira (on the far right of the photograph).

Seven individuals in costumes pictured in black and white image
Bal Caribe Costume Contest, 1953, Lester Horton Dance Theatre Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

This photo is the very first known, and potentially only remaining, image of cult camp-goth icon Vampira before Nurmi went on to star in the short-lived show by the same name. Influenced by the Addams Family matriarch, Morticia, Nurmi infused the costume with her own unique brand of macabre and satire that would soon become known as Vampira. Despite Nurmi’s tremendous talent and vision for the small screen, while living she would never receive quite the same acclaim that other camp icons who were undoubtedly influenced by her aesthetic, such as Cassandra Peterson, famously known for her portrayal of Elvira.

The Music Division acquired the Lester Horton Dance Theatre Collection in 1996 from Larry Warren who also wrote one of the earliest biographical accounts of Horton, Lester Horton: Modern Dance Pioneer (1977). Beyond the hundreds of one-of-a-kind photographs that can be found in this collection, there are also significant amounts of correspondence, teaching materials, business papers, and costume and set design sketches that provide rich insight into both the personal and professional sides of Horton. Much like the pioneering Nurmi, Horton’s work was largely unknown during his lifetime. Horton’s approach towards dance was not only innovative in its influences and reflective of his unique perspective on movement, but also because of its inclusivity. Horton founded the first racially integrated dance company in America which included such talents as Alvin Ailey and Janet Collins. Horton’s perspective on movement was informed by a profound appreciation of the synergy between culture and drama. He was one of the first choreographers to center racial and cultural themes in their work.

The Music Division is home to several one-of-a-kind collections and brimming with treasures just waiting to be unearthed. Throughout the process of learning more about this photo, Greene generously agreed to sit down for an interview. During that conversation, Greene shared the following: “In a sense, I told you that you had this and that’s so great. Because the nature of the Library of Congress is that it’s this magical repository, but it’s really up to [the public] to use it. In using it we can find things in it that the world doesn’t know are there.”

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