We must continue to value and preserve Rambert’s heritage… for everyone
I joined the Rambert Archive in October 2015 as a trainee on the National Archives’ Transforming Archives programme.
With little experience of archives but a lifelong interest in dance and dance history, I was looking forward to working at Rambert, but I was completely unaware that an archive is so much more than a place where collected ‘stuff’ is held and preserved.
The Rambert Archive
The Rambert Archive is the first performing arts archive to be awarded Accreditation by the National Archives. It documents the unique history of Britain’s oldest dance company – 90 this year! Preserved in the archive are administrative records, costumes, theatrical designs, film footage and photographs, music and notation scores, programmes, posters… the list goes on. Important personal collections are also held here such as those of Marie Rambert and her husband Ashley Dukes, Walter Gore, Andrée Howard and Diana Gould. The archive is an invaluable and accessible resource for anyone interested in the development of British ballet, contemporary dance and the history of Rambert.
What is most striking is the way the archive can quickly divert its user. Looking for a particular document or object, a researcher can soon stumble upon numerous other fascinating items that demand attention, and from which emerge new ideas and alternative questions. One such diversion for me was a 1917 trench map of Loos in Northern France.
The map, with its colours still distinct, is a wonderfully preserved resource for anyone interested in the battlefields of the First World War. I came across it in the Ashley Dukes collection. Dukes was married to Marie Rambert, and was an Army Captain during WWI. The map shows clearly the positions of the front lines, gun emplacements and observation posts, along with other important information such as the location of power stations, cemeteries and quarries. It puzzled me why many farms, lanes, alleys and woods featured on the map had English names, such as Devon Woods or Bakers’ Lane. A quick ‘Google’ revealed that soldiers familiarised the area by replacing French names with place names from back home, or with those associated with their regiment.
To-Night at 8.30 by Noel Coward
Still in the Ashley Dukes collection, but a world away from the trenches of WWI, I discovered a Play Pictorial magazine from February 1936. With Gertrude Lawrence on the cover, this beautiful publication offers a superb photographic and textual record of the world of theatre in the 1930s.
Inside are various articles, reviews and stylish period advertisements. The featured production is To-Night at 8.30 – a new play written by Noel Coward – who is pictured in a full-page portrait, complete with his ubiquitous cigarette holder. Accompanying the picture is a short piece written by Coward in which he discusses his new work. This volume feels particularly significant as the editorial piece comments on the recent death of King George V and the theatrical world’s reaction to it. As historically important as it may be, I suspect it was the review of Murder in the Cathedral by TS Eliot at the Mercury Theatre that motivated Ashley Dukes to keep the magazine for as long as he did. Dukes transferred the Eliot play to the Mercury Theatre, London (Ballet Rambert’s first home, founded by Dukes and Marie Rambert) and in doing so established its reputation as a centre for serious dramatic works.
Art for Theatre and Ballet exhibition
Whilst searching for costume designs I was lucky enough to come across an exhibition catalogue from 1940. Entitled Art for Theatre and Ballet, this exhibition (sponsored by the British Council) took works of art by designers of theatrical sets and costumes to audiences in Australia. Works by Rambert’s Nadia Benois and Sophie Fedorovitch were featured. Both artists were notably influential in the development of British theatrical design and both fledged at Rambert. Its clear why this item is worthy of preservation by Rambert but it offers us much more than information about art from the first half of the 20th century; the foreword gives a fascinating insight into attitudes around art, culture and cultural heritage during WWII.
The introduction, written by the then Chairman of the British Council, urges Australian audiences to enjoy the exhibition and suggests that Britain is not being frivolous in concerning itself with art at “a moment of such crisis in the history of civilisation” but that freedom must be strived for as it is under such conditions that the arts can thrive and flourish.
An intriguing envelope
Another intriguing discovery was a small envelope on which Marie Rambert wrote, “Sophie Fedorovitch made this”. Inside is an unidentified accessory made of tiny diamantés on a black plastic crescent. This is a small and beautiful reminder of the creative talent that Sophie Fedorovitch nurtured whilst at Rambert. Fedorovitch is a central figure in the history of Rambert as she designed Frederick Ashton’s A Tragedy of Fashion, the work which marked the birth of the Company. This was Fedorovitch’s first commission in design, but marked the beginning of her influential career and a lifelong artistic collaboration and friendship with Ashton.
Access the Rambert Archive
So, five months into my placement, the archive has shown me how it is so much more than a place where collected ‘stuff’ is held and preserved. Not only does it tell us about the history of Rambert and British dance but reveals how dance is mutually connected and bound to the social, political, cultural and even technical aspects of life. After all, the creation of dance does not take place within a vacuum – as with other art forms it is generated within a given context and therefore reflects the influences, values and boundaries of its time. The archive speaks to everyone who reaches into it and each dialogue is different. But, always, it shows us how unique it is and why we must continue to value and preserve Rambert’s heritage… for everyone.
Access to the Rambert Archive is free. You should arrange your visit in advance by emailing, telephoning or calling in to make an appointment with the archivist, Arike Oke: arike.oke[ATSIGN]rambert.org.uk | 0208 630 0608.
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