Archiving Dance:
Memory, Body, and Affect

Scholar Asim Siddiqui questions current approaches to archiving live dance

When we think of archiving dance, we begin with the general understanding of archiving a record. This record can be video recordings, photographs, posters, and other documentation of the performance. In the performing arts, which are about the live act of an artist, archiving could be an important way to address the otherwise ephemeral nature of performance. But this attempt to preserve is also where tension simmers between dance and archives.

If the dancer’s job is to bring alive the artwork through the presence of her embodied being, then is it possible for the archive to capture the presence of the dancer even in her absence? What is the nature of experiencing the live performance of a dancer vis-à-vis watching a video recording later and pretending her liveness? These questions lead us to the complex relationship that dance and archives share with time. For archives, events in the past are important objects to be recorded for historical purposes; memory can be fleeting and erroneous, and not entirely dependable.

The relationship between dance and time is crucial, and has been explored in different ways by Sundar and Joshua in this magazine. Sundar argues that dance’s relation to time and memory is central to our engagement with dance. Drawing on the sphota theory of meaning in Indian philosophy, Sundar argues that meaning emerges when memory is able to bring all the movements together as one whole. He further claims that these movements also get etched onto our bodies as we are moved by the art. The artwork leaves its traces in the dancer’s body, which has rehearsed the dance umpteen times, but also in the bodies of the audience, separate from their memory. 

When we think of archiving dance, however, we focus on documenting the visual experience of the performance as a historical object to be referenced in the future. Rarely do we think of the traces dance has left in the bodies of the choreographer, dancer, and audience.

Joshua highlights different aspects of memory and time that a choreographer/dancer engages with when creating work. He argues that the dancer needs to spend time and thought on developing her body of work. He hints that by continually engaging with the traces of motion in her own body and that of the audience, she would engage in deeper, necessary inquiry.

From a phenomenological perspective, it is these traces in bodies, rather than in memory, that are fundamental to an aesthetic experience. As the aesthetic experience is about both visual memory and embodied affect, the archive should also aim to engage with both components to do justice to its enterprise. However, the metaphysical assumption of archiving objectifies the performance as a historical event and limits it to a discursive frame. This objectification of a past event does not take into account the importance of the presence of the live dancer that gets archived in the bodies that encounter the dance.

The question that arises here is how do we, as archivists, engage with the traces of performance in bodies. Is archiving these traces beyond the scope of what archives can and should do, or does the limitation arise from a problematic conception of the past and memory in archiving? If archiving is sensitised towards the traces in bodies, will that also involve a rethinking of its current modes of recording, documenting, and storing? Taking these questions on archiving dance seriously would also raise universal questions about the method and discipline of archiving any past event. But the central question is of how we engage with the presence of an event that happened in the past, especially when that event is live dance, which inherently relies on the moving body to move bodies.

Asim Siddiqui is faculty in the Philosophy department at the School of Liberal Studies at Azim Premji University, Bangalore. In his doctoral research, he inquired into the philosophy of aesthetic pedagogy for ethical action. He is now focusing on dialoging Ambedkarite and feminist theories, as well as designing Arts-Humanities curricula and pedagogy for socio-economically disadvantaged students. He previously worked in the social sector and in technology start ups.

TABLE of Contents

‘Archive’ comes from the Greek ‘arche’, which is the ‘beginning’ or ‘origin’. We often think of archives as public records, rooms filled with stuff that is dusty and deteriorating. But if we think of archive as its etymology, we are offered a wider definition—a beginning could be anywhere.

Ligament’s December 2016 issue sifts through multiple archives, multiple beginnings for different dancers and dances—in the body, in the museum, in the home, in memory. And by unravelling these far flung repositories, the issues asks whether dance can ever have a singular archive, if it always has multiple beginnings.

Archived Within Me
Tishani Doshi

Writer and dancer Tishani Doshi speaks about her body as an archive with Sammitha Sreevathsa

He Fell Through History: Discovering Ram Gopal in Archives
Ajay J. Sinha / Ayisha Abraham

An artist and an art historian chance upon a forgotten dancer

We Are Like That Only
Naomi Kundu

Naomi Kundu

Documenting Dance in India
Alice Boner

A Glimpse of Alice Boner’s Archive

An Archive of Racial Fantasy
Rachel Mattson

Historian Rachel Mattson makes archive of Ragini Devi’s white American body

A Vow to Document
Avantika Bahl

Mumbai-based dancer Avantika Bahl reflects on her documenting process as part of “From somewhere in the middle”

Archiving Dance: Memory, Body, and Affect
Asim Siddiqui

Scholar Asim Siddiqui questions current approaches to archiving live dance


To pick up and run with a magazine that has had another life is never easy. There are those conflicting desires to find close continuity and to just scrap it all and start anew. Ligament 2016-17 reemerges from a half-way point. We want to build on the investigations and insights of the magazine’s past contributors and also find ways to say what they perhaps had wanted to say but could not, or forgot to, in that moment.

Ligament was founded to facilitate the articulation of an evolving language that encompasses the impulses of contemporary dance. The idea of “contemporary” is inherently bound to time, to a sense of history, rather multiple histories unfolding. In its 2016-17 iteration, we hope that Ligament can grapple with the idea of how dance might hold a place in-step with the patterns of active and forming histories, rather than remaining a canonised and pondered response to a bygone world. We’d like to embrace the immediacy of “contemporary”, and invite contributions from dancers, choreographers, arts practitioners, scholars, audience members, readers. In this way, we hope to reach for the intimacies, resistances, and fragilities that permeate the developing field of South Asian contemporary dance.

Articulating a medium as visceral, visual, and ephemeral as dance requires making connections to methods of thought and critique that lie outside evaluative language. So for Ligament 2016-17 we welcome, of course, the critical essay, but also audio, photographs, ekphrastic poems, interviews, and hybrid media of various kinds that might speak to us about dance, carefully and proximately. Like the anatomical connective tissue for which it is named, Ligament, we hope, can help us locate dance in tandem with the many bodies that produce and encapsulate it.

To those who find themselves here for the first time, welcome. And those whom we have met before, we are glad you are back.

—Poorna Swami, Editor

Get in touch with us at ligament@attakkalari.org