Announcing the Maxine Glorsky Collection: Saving the Light

The following is a guest post from K. Mitchell “Mitch” Snow, a scholar-volunteer in the Music Division. Dance Archivist Libby Smigel introduces him.

Last August the Music Division was delighted to receive a major gift of career papers from award-winning stage manager Maxine Glorsky. While the Library of Congress is widely regarded as the destination for serious research on Martha Graham’s dance legacy, this special collection titled the Maxine Glorsky Papers Relating to Martha Graham provides a different perspective from those of choreographers or dancers: the practical vantage point that ensures that the show does go on. Happily, Mitch Snow had just joined the Division as a scholar-volunteer, and his familiarity with the dance and music of this period has made him an invaluable partner in readying this wonderful collection for public access. Below, Mitch shares one of the stories that can be found amongst the Glorsky papers.

 

In the spring of 1977, the Martha Graham Dance Company was preparing to take over the stage of Broadway’s Lunt-Fontanne Theatre for a month of performances. The season there promised to be memorable. Rudolf Nureyev was engaged to dance the role of the Revivalist in Appalachian Spring (1944) and the Penitent in El Penitente (1940) during the first week of performances. British ballerina Margot Fonteyn would join Nureyev for a pas de deux from Romeo and Juliet for a gala performance, which would also feature the premiere of Graham’s O Thou Desire Who Art About to Sing, dedicated to the memory of company collaborator and sculptor Alexander Calder. Expectations were running high for everyone involved in the production.

Cover photo of invitation to the Graham company 1977 gala performance featuring Martha Graham, Rudolf Nureyev, and Margot Fonteyn. Maxine Glorsky Papers Relating to Martha Graham, Music Division, Library of Congress.

In the run-up to the opening, young lighting designer Craig Miller took a moment to drop a note to his colleague Nick Cernovitch, whom he was going to assist in lighting the production. They were both working there as affiliates of the Technical Assistance Group (TAG) Foundation that Maxine Glorsky co-founded in 1971.

“The files we have are amazingly complete,” Miller advised Cernovitch. “It’s fascinating to note how very regular the set-up stayed.” These “amazingly complete” files have now joined the collections in the Library of Congress Music Division, where researchers will be able to judge for themselves how well Miller and Cernovitch were able to sustain the continuity that marked the illumination of Graham’s choreography. These papers are a gift from Glorsky who worked as the Graham company’s stage manager from 1976 to 1981.

If dance is famous for being an ephemeral art, stage lighting for dance would seem to be doubly so. As I rehoused and prepared the Glorsky papers for public access, I recalled a time past when I sat with Mexican choreographer Gloria Contreras in rehearsals for the premiere of one of her works and the constant dialogue—conducted by shouts across the auditorium—she held with her lighting designer Jorge Solares as the work unfolded. I asked myself then how in the world he could possibly remember it all. My encounter with the cue sheets, focus charts, hook-ups and plots that Glorsky collected from her predecessors and created for her own use now allows me to answer that question. Those with a technical bent, and a bit of familiarity with the world of the theatre before computers became ubiquitous, can delve into the Glorsky collection to understand how Graham’s landmark works were lit in various theaters across the nation, and across the world, for nearly half a century.

Excerpt of instructions for installing Isamu Noguchi’s set for Frontier in Maxine Glorsky’s 1977 Stage Manager’s Notebook. Maxine Glorsky Papers Relating to Martha Graham, Music Division, Library of Congress.

The earliest papers in the Glorsky collection document the work of Jean Rosenthal, who began her stage career working for Graham in the 1920s and would go on to create the lighting for such Broadway hits as West Side Story (1957), Fiddler on the Roof (1964), and Cabaret (1966). Although Glorsky and her partners at TAG had worked with the Graham company on and off since the ’60s, the 1977 appearance at the Lunt-Fontanne would be the first major Broadway stint whose operations she oversaw for them. In her role as stage manager, Glorsky thoroughly documented Graham’s season at the theater, down to the receipts covering the regular mopping of the stage floor and Nureyev’s expenses incurred for meals at New York’s Russian Tea Room, all of which can be found in her papers.

Example of Glorsky’s portfolios converting a blueprint light plot into a storage folder for other technical and design documents associated with the performances. This folder documents the company’s 1979 tour of the U.S. Maxine Glorsky Papers Relating to Martha Graham, Music Division, Library of Congress.

Glorsky also created a notebook for the Graham Company’s proposed 1977 season that is rich in materials such as prop descriptions and set assembly instructions for each of the proposed works on the program at the Lunt-Fontanne, along with a few interpolations from later appearances. Later in her work with the company, she created a more personal method for keeping the many different documents she needed to have at the ready during a performance. Neatly turning down one end of a folded light plot, she converted it into a kind of a folder that carried everything from cue sheets and focus charts to performance programs. Some of the packages she would create for the Graham company’s national tours could be particularly dense with materials. For conservation purposes, and to make it easier for researchers to access their component parts, we have disassembled these portfolios, still keeping the items as a unit within an individual folder. Included in each folder is a photocopy-image of the original overstuffed appearance to help convey a sense of how Glorsky carried out her backstage work.

Computerization began to change the way theater technical staff operated during the course of Glorsky’s career. The light cue track sheets for the production of Graham’s Appalachian Spring she stage-managed for the Juilliard School in 2003 will likely be more familiar to a contemporary stage manager than the handwritten materials that Jean Rosenthal created in the 1940s. Even so, materials from both eras still convey the information needed to recreate the theatrical lighting that added depth and beauty to the performances of the Martha Graham Dance Company. The Glorsky papers help to capture that light for future reference.

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