Memories of the transient body

Dance Archive of the Petőfi Literary Museum – Hungarian Theatre Museum and Institute

It is a cliché both in professional and lay circles that dance is an ephemeral genre, this being true despite the increasingly user-friendly technological inventions of recent decades as well as the lesser known and used traditional notation systems used to record movement. In the overwhelming majority of cases, dance performances are not preserved either in detailed scripts or scores.

’Dance works’ have no lasting physical manifestation apart from photographs and film footage of varying quality, which can at best be regarded as a kind of imprint of the space and the spatial relations of dance performances that cannot be fully captured and immortalised. These limitations fundamentally define the mission of dance archives across the world as well as the tasks of their staff, hence those of the Dance Archive of the Petőfi Literary Museum – Hungarian Theatre Museum and Institute too.

An obvious question arises: being fully aware of the fleeting nature of this genre, what is preserved in this dance archive and how?

Our special dance archive is one of the world’s most prominent dance collections both in regard to its size and content. Its sections pay tribute to performers and artists of the past and the present as well as to theoreticians, workshops and groups in an attempt to conserve and explore what cannot be captured, the mementos of a genre in which the ephemeral body is the ‘instrument’. Carefully protected here are unique objects and artefacts valuable in themselves and as documents, as well as records conceived through more or less ‘imperfect’ approaches yet ‘perfect’ in their own way as works of art. A great number of these (e.g. photographs, film footage, posters, programmes) are easy to identify, while the documentary aspect of some others – both everyday and unusual items – are difficult to recognise. Our material also includes various resources and intellectual treasures coming from other genres and disciplines linked to dance: volumes, essays, manuscripts, photographs and other mementos of fine and applied art, music and folklore, inextricable from particular artists, artworks and workshops.

While the archive’s main area of collection is dance performed on stage, we seek to expand the genre’s borders as much as possible: all forms and manifestations of dance are important and interesting to us from shaman dances through classical ballet to popular dances.

Our dance archive is the collection of the Association of Hungarian Dance Artists, which was founded in 1948 and re-established in 1954 as an independent social organisation. The exact time of its foundation cannot be determined but according to an agreement signed exactly thirty years ago – and not amended since then – it was annexed to the Hungarian Theatre Museum and Institute. The agreement stipulates that the collection “shall keep its complexity” and “shall be managed as an independent unit”.