Beloved dance historian, writer and archivist David Vaughan passed away today at the age of 93. His extensive archival work for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company set a new standard for dance preservation. In tribute, we offer this profile, by Siobhan Burke, which appeared in our December 2015 issue to celebrate Vaughan's Dance Magazine Award. Even then, at age 91, he was still performing.
At 91 years old, David Vaughan could pass for a much younger man. He's writing a book (his fourth), holds monthly film screenings at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and recently went on tour, as a performer, to the Montreal Fringe Festival. These ventures are just the latest in a lifetime of dedication to dance. His indelible contributions to the field—as a writer, historian and archivist—only continue to deepen.
A latecomer to ballet class, Vaughan began formal training at 23 in his native London, though he'd been "obsessed with dancing," as he puts it, from a young age. He moved to New York City in 1950 with a scholarship to the School of American Ballet, where he met a modern dance teacher named Merce Cunningham. When Cunningham opened his own studio in 1959, Vaughan became the secretary, which helped to supplement his modest income as a performer in off-Broadway musicals.
That side job blossomed into more. At John Cage's invitation, Vaughan coordinated the Cunningham company's 1964 world tour, a reputation-building milestone for the group. His affinity for collecting and organizing company ephemera—programs, press, photographs, letters—earned him the formal role of company archivist in 1976, created through a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The position was unprecedented for a dance troupe; as Vaughan says, "I had to invent the job as I went along." Cataloguing the company's developments—his original index card system, he says, still rivals any computer—he ensured that its history did not fade into the past.
His ingenuity rippled out. "He paved the way for so many of us," says Norton Owen, head of the archives at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, adding that Vaughan set the "gold standard" for dance archiving practices. "In a way, he's still leading the pack."
Vaughan's warm, enlightening prose can be found in Frederick Ashton and His Ballets, his celebrated biography of the British choreographer, and the journal Ballet Review, to which he has contributed since its first issue in 1965. Having poured his vast, meticulous knowledge of Cunningham's oeuvre into the breathtaking book Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years, he's now at work on a biography of another mid-century renegade, the underexposed choreographer James Waring.
And his performing career? He and his 30-year-old friend, the dance artist Pepper Fajans, plan to return to Montreal in January for a reprise of their award-winning Fringe Festival duet. "We were a big hit!" Vaughan says. He's earned the bragging rights. —Siobhan Burke