A Treasure Trove of Dance
The National Ballet of Canada Archives
February 4, 2022
Karen Kain and Katherine Wilson. Photo by Karolina Kuras.
The National Ballet of Canada Archives is a treasure trove of information for the company’s artists and staff, as well as the public, to discover more about the company’s development over the last 70 years. Established in 1975, the Archives collects, documents and preserves physical and digital materials ranging from Founder Celia Franca’s papers, to the Prince Florimund costume worn by Rudolf Nureyev in The Sleeping Beauty and all the video content being produced today.
Your Ballet 365 donation helps the National Ballet maintain its own Archives – one of the few ballet companies in North America to do so – as well as a professional full-time Archivist.
Katherine Wilson, the National Ballet’s Archivist and Digital Asset Manager, speaks to the importance of the Archives, how it helps company members and contributes to scholarly work on topics related to dance.
What comprises the Archives?
The Archives involve several different collections. The first is what I refer to as the "physical" archive: photos, posters, house programmes, marketing material, media clippings, scores, video tapes, DVDs, stage management notes, administrative files and other documents pertinent to the company are collected, arranged and stored. We have a classification system to ensure that all records are easily accessible as company employees refer to them often. We also have a digital archive that includes photos and videos that are easily accessed through our database.
The Archives is also home to the Erik Bruhn Library, a collection of books relating to dance that is accessible to all artistic and administrative staff at the National Ballet. Finally, there is a costume archive. Most costumes are reused year after year and the National Ballet's Wardrobe Department is amazing at maintaining these but when a production is retired (Celia Franca's The Nutcracker or Erik Bruhn's Swan Lake, for example) the Archives will receive and preserve the costumes.
Rudolf Nureyev's costume, Prince Florimund, Act II, The Sleeping Beauty. Rudolf Nureyev in The Sleeping Beauty.
Who does the Archives serve?
Of the requests, 80% come from internal users, while 20% come externally. Internal requests often include things like looking up dates and casting for past performances, pulling photos and videos for Publicity and Development projects, and providing fact checking for articles and media. External requests are normally a bit more involved as they are often researchers looking for specific information relating to topics in dance.
Is there a special project that you were proud to work on?
For the 2019/20 season I wanted to commemorate Karen Kain's 50th Anniversary with the company by hosting an exhibition that celebrated her career. This was the perfect opportunity to showcase a lot of pieces in the Archives that the public does not often get to see, including production video, archival photos and costumes. I also included a selection of fan letters written to Karen over the past 50 years. I was delighted when a staff member from Campbell House (where the exhibition was held) emailed to tell me that a woman visiting the exhibition with her daughter was moved to tears when she spotted her own fan letter written to Karen years ago. It's moments like this that remind me how impactful the Archives can be.
Karen Kain Exhibit, Campbell House, 2020. Photo by Karolina Kuras.
What new demands are there for the Archives?
One of the biggest changes to the Archives in recent years has been the explosion of digital content created by the company. It can be challenging at times to keep up with the amount of content the company produces but I am fortunate that members of the Communications and Development departments help keep things organized. I’ve put strong processes in place, so although I’m never fully caught up with the number of records that need to be created, I am confident that I know where everything is.
Celia Franca's pointe shoes. Celia Franca.
Are there other challenges that you're tackling right now?
As with most other departments, the biggest hurdle right now is how the Archives functions in a remote environment. I'm lucky in that our photos and video collection is entirely digitized and I also have access to things like a performance history database and some production information remotely. Most of the collection going back to 1951, however, still only exists as a paper record housed in the Archives at The Walter Carsen Centre. Even before the pandemic hit, I was looking into ways to try and digitize important parts of the collection. I still would like to pursue a digitization project specifically for our house programmes which are the most requested items by both internal and external users.
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