Note: This is material from a presentation given at The Ohio State University in Oct. 2017 and at University of California, Riverside in Nov. 2017.
For those of you who have read my previous work, you might be surprised by the focus of my talk, since I am mostly known as a dance-media scholar. But I am interested in how movement moves–not just how people move their bodies when they dance, but how movements, gestures, and dance steps migrate from one location to another. Most of my work has been looking specifically at dance in digital and social media contexts, which allowed me to think deeply about how dance circulates, and the role digital technologies in particular play in that circulation. For example, this meant examining how dancers learn choreography from music videos and then proliferate that choreography on YouTube, or thinking about the values gamers come to embody when they learn choreography from a videogame like Dance Central, or even just thinking about how dance practices circulate through networked digital cultures. I wanted to approach this idea of dance’s circulation from a broader historical perspective to ask, in a very literal sense, how does dance travel?
There are many analytic frameworks in the field of dance studies for thinking about how dance moves between populations, with dance pedagogy and diasporas formed through colonization and migration foremost among them. But for my own research I wanted to retain a technological focus as my pivot point. So for this project, I have shifted my attention from a media communications terrain of internet, television, and cinema, to a transportation landscape of trains, planes, and automobiles. My presentation today draws from two intersecting but distinct projects, Mapping Touring, which gathers dance touring data, and Dance in Transit, a collaboration with Kate Elswit, which analyses and puts that data to use for humanistic inquiry.
I want to note at the outset that I am not trained to do any of the things I’m attempting in this talk. I am not a geographer; I am not a historian; there is not a quantitative bone in my body. However, my background in performance studies has equipped me very well for methodological infidelity, which has allowed me to meander into intellectual and disciplinary territory with which I’m quite unfamiliar, building up skills and finding (many) collaborators along the way. If I needed to locate today’s presentation, I would say that it is very much a digital humanities and dance studies or even dance history project, its concerns are aligned with mobility studies in human geography, and it represents a performance studies orientation to technology in its social functions.
What Kate and I are trying to think about is the impact of transportation technologies on dance touring, because the history of touring is the history of transportation. As Jonathan Grossman observes in Charles Dickens’s Networks, “In organizing the circulation of living bodies, [transportation] refines the form of other systems–economic, political, religious, and so on, which all compel people’s circulation–into its contents” (8). In other words, turning toward the phenomenon of transportation is not turning away from questions of political economy or cultural identity in favor of technicity, but is a way of approaching these questions from a different angle. For this presentation, I am looking at the period of American history where cars and buses superseded railroads. Even though highways and streets connect cities more extensively than railroads ever did, from anecdotal experience, that increased connectivity does not appear to have resulted in increased touring. Instead, the locations to which artists tour seems to have decreased. There are many factors that might contribute to a decline in concert dance touring, including the economics of travel, the market for live performance with competition from film and television, the rise of residential dance companies, or social expectations regarding personal and professional stability, particularly after WWII. Right now Kate and I are isolating transportation as one component of a much larger system of forces that promote, demand, inhibit, or prevent mobility among dancers and dance practices.
On the Rails
According to railroad historian John Stover in The Routledge Historical Atlas of the American Railroads, the US railway system reached its peak expanse in 1916 (52). 1920 saw peak passenger service with over 1.2 billion passengers traveling 47.4 billion miles in that year alone. But by 1929, supported by the growing federal highway system, automobile passenger miles were 5x greater than railroad passenger miles (Stover 56). Even as passengers continued to rely on trains for a third of their travel through the 1950s, over the course of the 20th century, the railroad system significantly contracted in terms of overall area served.
With their large groups of 10 to 50 people, touring dance companies especially relied on train travel. Anna Pavlova, for example, boasted over 100 dancers and musicians. So what are the implications of a changing transportation landscape for touring artists and for what audiences they were able to reach? Did touring artists favor large cities as they seem to now, or did they travel to small towns via railroad? Did they stop touring to smaller towns as railroad lines contracted or did they reach these same venues by car or by bus? How did railroad policies governing who could travel when and in what class impact the choices artists made regarding their destinations as well as modes of transportation? For example, we know that Katherine Dunham’s African American company members were repeatedly refused access to sleeper cars, not to mention hotel rooms, so what does that mean for either the cities they toured to or the physical hardship of travel when compared with their white counterparts? Looking beyond the scope of this particular presentation, how did the growth of the airline industry impact touring in terms of further increasing the efficiency of travel and further narrowing the destinations served? Have transportation technologies been influential in consolidating artistic communities in urban areas, or incidental to it?
To begin exploring these questions, I have created some visualizations drawing on data collected for Mapping Touring. One set of visualizations below utilizes historical railroad maps digitized and made available by the David Rumsey Map Collection, and the other uses census data made available through Social Explorer. I selected two tours each by two dance companies: the 1924-25 and 1927-28 tours by Ruth St. Denis, Ted Shawn, and the Denishawn Dancers, and the 1956-57 and 1958-59 tours by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Each map is shown below. Larger versions of the Denishawn and BRMC maps are also available offsite.
The maps I had access to determined my choice of time frames and therefore my choice of dance companies, because I wanted the tours to be as close as possible to the time periods represented on the maps. Denishawn and BRMC toured extensively and were also fairly long-lasting, and I decided to map out two tours each so that any patterns of touring would be reinforced on a preliminary level, while the overall data would remain manageable on a human scale. I selected U.S. tours because my geographic familiarity makes it easier to catch and correct errors.
To use historical maps to study these tours, I first had to geo-reference the maps. Every map literally contains a worldview, and there is some work required to match up printed maps that have represented the world’s spherical surface as a flat plane with digital maps that reflect the perspective of satellites and GPS. Once geo-referenced and transformed, I loaded these maps into Carto where I had uploaded extracts of location data for the touring dance companies.
Given the differences in the map projections there were still some incongruities that needed to be reconciled. So what you see here is a railroad map from 1924 that has been geo-referenced and transformed, and location data that, once loaded, I manually relocated to accurately correspond to the printed map. There are almost 400 performance engagements total for these two tours. I animated one of these tours so you can see not only the performers’ destinations, but also their path of travel. Predictably, the touring artists follow the railroad, but in plotting all of the location data on the map of railroad destinations, I discovered around twenty cities and towns where Denishawn performed, but those locations were not listed on the map. This could mean that there are some discrepancies in the map or that the company performed in places they had to reach by some means other than the railroad.
As automobility began to present serious competition for railroading, there were efforts to integrate these transportation technologies, with paved roads feeding local automotive traffic to railroads for long-distance travel. We might be seeing that when Denishawn toured to small cities via railroad, they also traveled to nearby towns that did not have a railroad stop. In other words, this might show that railroad connectivity allowed artists to serve both small cities and even smaller towns, as well as the large cities that we would expect. Some other things to note from this map are the lack of performance engagements in parts of the country that are not connected by railroad, mostly in the West, but also the presence of engagements in small towns that are served by the railroad, such as those in Montana and North Dakota. It is worth emphasizing that Denishawn is performing the same program in Billings, Montana and Mobile, Alabama as in San Francisco and New York City, and that the second tour shown here is right after their so-called Far East tour, which took them to Japan, China, India, Java, and elsewhere. So as they are traveling, what do they carry with them? What gestural information do they gather and what do they leave behind?
If we look at the two tours by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in the late 1950s, we see a bit of a different picture, but perhaps not as different as might be expected given the atrophy of the railroad system by this point. There are just over 300 performances between the two tours. We still find that the tours are dominated by locations in the Midwest and Eastern states. Grand Junction, CO and Boise, ID are a couple of surprises here. And we have a handful of destinations that do not appear to be served by the railroad where the BRMC is nevertheless performing–though nowhere near as many as the Denishawn group.
If we look at all four tours together, we see how the touring destinations begin to accumulate and cluster in certain areas. We start to see Los Angeles emerge in importance on the West Coast. New York City and Chicago are no-brainers, but also look at Norfolk, VA, Montgomery, AL, Detroit, MI, Miami, FL, and Houston, TX. What is going on in these areas in terms of industry, economic growth, local arts scenes, or even interpersonal relationships that is attracting these artists? I’m also surprised that not one of these four tours hits Minneapolis given the prominence it has an arts center in the Midwest.
So, what can the population of the touring destinations tell us? The visualization below is using 1930 census data for the Denishawn tours and 1960 census data for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. (Click here for the dynamic version of this comparison.)
If we compare each company’s two tours against a backdrop of census data, it looks like a couple of things are happening. One is that BRMC seems to target cities with higher population, whereas Denishawn performs in places with lower population density. It’s only when BRMC visits the less dense Western states that we see a dip in the populations of the cities they tour to. This could simply be attributed to population growth in the 30 years between the two sets of tours. In other words, it could be that Denishawn and BRMC travel to basically the same cities, but that those cities got bigger with the post-war baby boom and urbanization. I think that’s certainly part of it. But that doesn’t explain why Denishawn performs in areas with lower populations even when they are not in the West–for example, in New Hampshire and Virginia. We could say, well, Denishawn is giving about 50 more performances per tour than BRMC, and so we see these performances in smaller towns because they are just giving more performances overall. Or maybe we could also argue that a ballet company needs a certain kind of stage, and only cities of a certain size are going to be able to provide theatrical venues appropriate for pointe shoes and balletic sight lines. But during this time period, dance as an art form in its own right was not yet assumed. Dancers could not be so picky about where they performed–even the most respected performers on the concert stage did nightclub gigs or stints in Hollywood or on Broadway in addition to performing in dance companies, so we can’t say that differences in touring location are attributable to a certain balletic snobbishness. In fact, if we dig into the data, we see that both companies perform in large proscenium theaters, both companies perform in university auditoriums, and both companies perform in high school gymnasiums–it’s just that Denishawn does a lot more of this last one.
My instinct is that a lot of what we see happening in the U.S. in terms of narrowing audience access to concert dance is fueled by changes in the transportation infrastructure, but we will need to look at a lot more tours and specifically international tours by a lot more companies to really be able substantiate that. In the work Kate and I are pursuing, we are beginning to look at Katherine Dunham’s tours in South America and Europe alongside her American tours in the 1940s and 1950s. This will help us further evaluate the impact of local transportation cultures on the reach of touring dance artists, and will also help us understand how touring artists account for the politics of race in their travels.
Transportation and communications networks exist inside and alongside each other, and my hope is that by looking at transit networks as both precursors to and contemporaneous with current communications technologies such as the internet, we can develop a better understanding of dance’s network behavior more broadly. While continuing to value interpersonal networks and co-present dance transmission, can we articulate how dancers leverage all sorts of technologies to mediate and proliferate dance practices? Can we historicize the media and information networks that currently seem to dominate, and contextualize them within multiple layered and residual networks that continue to shape how dance travels? And can we continue to insist on the cultural politics of each of these networks, the pathways they make available, the frictions they introduce, and the cumulative effects of their flows?