On any given day, you can walk into the dance division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and request to see the ballet slippers of the early-20th-century ballerina Anna Pavlova, or a silk flower garland that adorned the modern-dance pioneer Isadora Duncan, or countless other items in a vast repository of materials on dance.
Contemplating these artifacts or peering at a wealth of historical dance footage are a natural extension of the city’s vast cultural offerings. Just as important, the materials helped to preserve a fragile art form’s legacy.
It would not have been possible without the work of one woman, Genevieve Oswald. Oswald was the founder, and for its first 43 years, the curator and tireless champion of the library’s dance collection.
She died March 19 at her home in Santa Clarita, California. She was 97. Her daughter, Anne Johnston, confirmed the death.
In 1944, armed with a fresh undergraduate degree in music, Oswald came to New York to study singing. At first, she supported herself with a job selling train tickets at the old Penn Station, but before long, she was working at the New York Public Library.
Oswald began by cataloging the 375 dance-related books and three dozen boxes of dance programs and clippings then held in the music division at the library’s main building on 42nd Street.
She became curator when the dance collection was formally established in 1947. This year, it celebrates the 75th anniversary of the beginning of that tiny collection, which has grown to more than41,000 books, 26,000 films, 2,700 prints and many other things.
Alastair Macaulay, the former chief dance critic for The New York Times, wrote earlier this year that it was “the largest, most eclectic and most enterprising collection of dance materials anywhere.”
And it is open to anyone, without the need for credentials or scholarly affiliation. All one needs is a library card.
This freedom of access was central to Oswald’s project, as laid out in an article she wrote for the Times about the collection in 1954: “It is important that the public be able to get dance information, because the dance art can be considerably strengthened and more firmly established if its public is well-informed.”
Oswald, known as Gegi (pronounced “Gigi”), also saw herself as an advocate for a fragile art. There is no commonly accepted notation system for recording dances, which means that for centuries, before film, many dances fell out of the historical record.
“Gegi always talked about how she was collecting around the absence of the dance itself,” the current curator of the collection, Linda Murray, said in an interview. “That’s why she collected sculptures and shoes and photographs and musical scores.”
Oswald tirelessly pursued new collections, with a wide focus. After seeking out materials related to American modern dance — the library contains the collections of the dancer-choreographers Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman and Ted Shawn, as well as extensive material on Katherine Dunham, among others — she turned her attention to ballet, and later to Asian dance. She even sent raw film stock to dance companies in India, China and Japan, asking them to record their work and send it back for safekeeping.