Making It Happen: Postcards from the Ballets Russes

Seven years ago, a private screening of the popular documentary Ballets Russes sparked a project at the University of Oklahoma: a specialty archive that will preserve historic Ballets Russes treasures and make them available to students and researchers.

In a discussion after that screening, Yvonne Chouteau, a native Oklahoman and former Ballet Russe ballerina who was featured in the film, asked, “What are we going to do with all of our memorabilia?”

Chouteau and her husband, the late Miguel Terekhov (see “In Memoriam”), also a Ballet Russe principal, had founded OU’s dance program in 1963. As with dozens of Ballets Russes artists who settled in the U.S., their efforts to build audiences and train dancers supported the expansion of dance in America.

Chouteau’s question prompted OU School of Dance director Mary Margaret Holt to create the Ballets Russes Archive, a repository for rare materials from three Ballets Russes organizations: Serge Diaghilev’s company, de Basil’s troupe (founded with René Blum), and the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Letters went out to former dancers and their family members across North America, seeking everything from contracts, correspondence, and programs to photographs, film footage, and costumes.

Camille Hardy, a former Dance Magazine critic who is now an OU dance history professor, became the project’s principal researcher. To date, about 70 people have contributed materials, with frequent new arrivals.

Many items in OU’s archive do not exist anywhere else. Examples include a scrapbook documenting Chouteau’s career and a series of interviews that include Terekhov detailing the Original Ballet Russe’s five-year tour of South America.

But some materials are deteriorating, and none can be used until they have been restored and catalogued, with finding aids and an interactive database to lead researchers to what they need.

To that end, Hardy joined forces with OU’s School of Library and Information Studies. She received a $100,000 research grant—a coup for dance in a competitive, university-wide applicant pool. The grant funds positions for two graduate assistants in library science and a graduate dance scholar who will assist in the long-term goal of digitizing the entire collection. It’s a true group effort, with input from Mary Cargill, dance reference librarian at Columbia University, and Patricia Rader, cataloger for the New York Public Library’s Jerome Robbins Dance Division.

By June 2013, Hardy expects to have these resources available to OU dance majors and dance history minors, as well as scholars from outside of the university. At that point, she plans to begin digitizing the collection. Eventually, it will be accessible worldwide from any place with an internet connection.

But benefits are already evident. In March, the Dance Heritage Coalition awarded Tara Davis, an OU library science graduate assistant, a fellowship in preservation and archiving. Davis is as fascinated by tour itineraries, rehearsal schedules, and daily correspondence as she is by letters from Tamara Karsavina and Alexandra Danilova.

Striking studio photographs convey the companies’ glamorous image; but the candid snapshots taken backstage or on the beach, Davis says, reveal more personal emotions: “It’s something the dancers are sharing with each other. It makes my imagination run wild, and wonder what it was like behind the scenes.”

Hardy feels that the archive revivifies the Ballets Russes legacy in a region where its tradition is already strong. “It’s about accessibility,” she says. “We have treasures here and we want everybody to have access to them.”

 

Eugene Collins and Paula Tennyson in Swan Lake. Photo by Maurice Seymour, Courtesy Ron Seymour; from the Margery Beddow Collection.

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