From The World, To The World
A host of objects from the RAD’s rich history appear in an illuminating museum display. How do the curators choose which stories to tell, and how to present them? David Jays investigates.
100 years is a lot of history. In the case of the Royal Academy of Dance, that’s 100 years of syllabi and exams, education of teachers and of their students, of competitions and performances, in the UK and far beyond. Even in the bulging confines of the archive in the RAD’s London home, there are paintings and sculptures, letters, photos and publications galore (including 90 years-worth of Dance Gazette). How do you boil down all that rich material and the stories they contain to a single exhibition for a non-specialist audience?
That was the challenge faced by a team of curators from the RAD and the Victoria and Albert Museum, who have combined on a major display for the Academy’s centenary year. I sat down in the museum’s deliciously tiled café to discuss the project with Eleanor Fitzpatrick (the RAD’s Archives and Records Manager), and with Jane Pritchard and Victoria Broackes (Dance Curator and Senior Curator in the V&A’s theatre and performance department). They made an elegant trio – respectively, dotted with silver, latticed in lilac and snug in violet-toned velvet.
Work on the show began over two years ago. Amassing and then editing down potential content is a mighty task. Fitzpatrick compiled a list of relevant RAD holdings, while Pritchard sifted through the V&A’s buried treasure. Winnowing down the selection took a considerable time. What makes it trickier is that most objects have to do more than one job – to be interesting or beautiful in themselves, but also advance the story of the exhibition and illuminate a facet of the RAD’s journey. ‘Some of the supporting objects have a story of their own and are fabulous,’ says Fitzpatrick. ‘Everybody loves the 1949 photo of the skeleton used for teacher training – it’s of its time but tells a whole story.’
‘You have to edit,’ Pritchard insists. ‘Really get it down to very clear storylines.’ So how would she define the core story of the display? ‘First, it’s celebrating the centenary of the RAD,’ she says. ‘Philip Richardson had this idea of bringing the different schools of dance training together, and over the years the RAD took that idea back to the world.’ Although the exhibition celebrates the great dancer-teachers who founded the RAD – including Adeline Genée, Tamara Karsavina and Phyllis Bedells – Pritchard especially wants to praise Philip Richardson, whose vision she believes was central. ‘He was very friendly with Phyllis Bedells’ mother and with Ninette de Valois’ mother – two dancers who deliberately went to different schools to get a range of training. He saw them benefitting from that variety, and realised the potential of putting together different elements to create something greater.’ Or, as she sums it up: ‘from the world, to the world.’
‘There are so many different aspects,’ Fitzpatrick explains, ‘and you desperately try not to leave anything out. Teacher training is a major strand, as are exams. Pritchard was also keen that we acknowledged the context in which the RAD came about – we shouldn’t suggest that the story of British ballet began in 1920.’
The V&A’s unrivalled costume collection is a great resource – almost too great. ‘When I curated the Diaghilev exhibition, I said the costumes had to audition,’ Pritchard smiles. In this case, she reveals, ‘many of the costumes were given to us by the RAD, so we’re already part of the story.’ Conservation can be a lengthy process – costumes do not simply hang in a wardrobe awaiting their big moment. Some of Genée’s own costumes will be included: ‘many of these are incredibly fragile and unlikely to go on display again – partly because silks used in the past deteriorate. The best you can do is stabilise them.’ Few of Genée’s costumes have previously been displayed, an added incentive for Pritchard. ‘There’s unlikely to be another suitable show for another couple of decades, so this is my one chance to get things conserved.’
When I ask Pritchard to select a favourite object from the show, she almost wails. ‘It’s like choosing one of my children! It’s actually impossible.’ Pressed, she plumps for a costume she’s thrilled to have conserved for display. ‘To me the most fascinating is possibly the simplest – the Genée dryad costume. I just love it. Originally, it was a real Edwardian tunic, but the version we have is a little later, showing the impact of the change of fashion during the war. Instead of this elaborate Edwardian bodice, it’s now very simple, in the style of Isadora Duncan or the Ballets Russes. In one object you see real historical change.’
Some eye-catching discoveries didn’t make the cut. Pritchard was thrilled to find the young Princess Anne’s ballet exam notes from the 1950s – only to realise that she’d trained with an ISTD teacher and not an RAD one – ‘no good at all!’ Nonetheless, she enjoys the editing process. ‘You go back and reassess things, ask another question and start investigating further. Every object has a story to tell.’
When I meet the curators, they are about to boil down their collective expertise for the captions – with a stingy 60 words per exhibit. ‘We have very strict restrictions,’ confirms Pritchard. ‘I look at an object and think: why have I put this here, what is it saying to me? It is a challenge, but a really useful exercise.’
Broackes’ expertise is in music – she was responsible for the V&A’s blockbusters about David Bowie and Pink Floyd, and as a music lover was especially tickled to learn about Benesh notation. ‘Although I did ballet all through my childhood, I had never known how you write it down. It’s ingenious and mystifying at the same time.’ As she observes, ‘we have to cater for both people who know nothing and people who know everything.’ Some visitors may bring a passion for music or fashion; others may wander into the galleries with no expectations. ‘The ones who’ve got lost,’ Pritchard exclaims, ‘how do we keep them there?’ She tells me that a colleague reminded her that dance fans will naturally relish the material and insisted, ‘you don’t have to worry about the dance community, they will come – you have to worry about the rest.’
No exhibition is a solo enterprise. Fitzpatrick, who often curates displays for the RAD’s headquarters in Battersea, admits she was surprised at how many people are involved. Pritchard, who previously worked at Rambert and English National Ballet, is now accustomed to collaboration. ‘You put forward ideas, but if the rest of the team don’t go for them you have to work round what they want while still trying to keep some of your original ideas. There’s a bit of give and take.’
Not everyone involved is a dance expert. ‘You need outside eyes,’ Pritchard argues, ‘people who will ask those questions that focus your mind.’ No outside eyes have been more crucial than those of the design team – the graphic designer Jon Abbott and Dean Brown, who often works in 3D. Abbott readily confesses he has no particular dance experience, but responded to the subject matter. He and Brown, wondering how to represent a live art form, started by investigating images of movement – including Eadweard Muybridge’s pioneering photographic studies, Norman MacLean’s abstract films and Anthony Gormley’s sculptures. ‘We looked at how we might evoke the fluid movement of a dancer,’ Abbott says. ‘We thought about how film shows movement frame by frame, and the way motion capture technology draws a line in space – which connected to the idea of the centenary timeline.’
The pair also visited RAD headquarters in Battersea, where they soaked up the atmosphere, browsed the archive and even, Fitzpatrick says, ‘took their shoes off and joined in a Benesh workshop!’ ‘It was nice to move around and make fools of ourselves,’ Abbott recalls cheerfully. ‘It becomes so much more real to see it with your own eyes, a window onto history.’
Dance is a live artform – so how to capture its essence in the necessarily static form of a museum display? ‘That is quite challenging,’ Pritchard admits. ‘All the time, you’re thinking about how to make it come alive.’ Extensive use of audio-visual material is a great boon. ‘We’re fortunate to be including so many audio-visual points,’ says Fitzpatrick, ‘using a mixture of archive and contemporary footage. Some we are making specially for the show, and material has been digitised for the first time.’ These are, she considers, her favourite elements in the display: ‘they include the earliest examples we have of how the syllabus was taught and how teachers were encouraged to think about their teaching, long before the RAD produced its syllabus videos.’
A feeling of movement has been worked into the exhibition. The slender, wavy display tables that Abbott and Dean designed to sit in each gallery have been dubbed ‘snakes’ by the curators. ‘In a static exhibition, they give a sensuous sense of movement,’ Abbott explains, ‘as if they are dancing off at each other in each room.’ Thin, shelf-like lines on the walls, supporting images and captions, are ‘more like a ballet barre. They will perhaps also evoke a musical stave, or lines dancing up and down.’ The feel, he hopes, is ‘quite contemporary’ – suiting ‘an institution with a rich history that wants to connect to new audiences.’
‘The design features are almost subliminal,’ says Broackes, ‘but we hope that people will pick up on them. As you walk in, I hope you’ll be lifted onto your toes and feel like moving through the space.’ It should be a unique way to move through history.
Reproduced from Dance Gazette, Issue 1 2020.