Dance in Transit at the Women in Data Science Summer Camp

I feel so fortunate to have been able to lead a workshop on data visualization and storytelling for the Women in Data Science Summer Camp this summer at Ohio State. This free program, directed by Jenna McGuire and hosted by the Translational Data Analytics Institute, offers young women (grades 8-10) in Columbus an opportunity to explore data science through presentations and workshops with OSU faculty, staff, and students.

I was able to put together a hands-on workshop for these young women using materials that Kate Elswit and I have collected and generated for Dance in Transit, focusing just on African American choreographer Katherine Dunham’s touring in 1950. Using TimelineJS designed by the Knight Lab, the workshop participants created their own digital timelines representing the data they gathered on Dunham’s travels and activism in 1950. This includes her lawsuit against a hotel in São Paulo, Brazil for racial discrimination, and her premiere of the controversial work Southland in Santiago, Chile.

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The task of creating a timeline was fairly simple, but I asked workshop participants to use copies of archival documents and historical materials to create their data set. I provided them with copies of concert programs from Paris, New York, and São Paulo, newspaper articles, and letters, all from 1950, so they could piece together a Dunham story of their own. In the process of putting together a digital timeline about a single individual, they learned a little about working with archival resources, creating data sets from historical documents, understanding the history of racism in the Americas, and recognizing the ways arts-based political activism can fuel social change.

This workshop was hugely gratifying for me, and I enjoyed sharing ways that the arts, humanities, and computing can be complementary modes of research. I hope this camp inspires these young women to further develop their interests in data analysis, and I hope to see them at Ohio State in a few years!

AHRC grant awarded for Dunham’s Data: Katherine Dunham and Digital Methods for Dance Historical Inquiry

Kate Elswit (PI, University of London, Royal Central School of Speech and Drama) and Harmony Bench (CI, The Ohio State University) have been awarded over £566,000 by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) for their research project Dunham’s Data: Katherine Dunham and Digital Methods for Dance Historical Inquiry. Elswit and Bench are co-authors of the first essay on digital analytics for dance history, and Dunham’s Data extends their previous development and implementation of archival databases and digital cartography. Together—and with international academic partner projects and UK industry partnerships with One Dance UK’s Dance of the African Diaspora and the Victoria & Albert Museum—they will pioneer the use of data analysis in dance history through a project that centres on the case study of African American choreographer Katherine Dunham (1909-2006).

Dunham is an exemplary figure for analysing the ways dance moves across both geographical locations and networks of cultural, artistic, and financial capital. She worked across five continents in many contexts, and also spent over one third of her life on tour. The scale and distribution of datapoints necessary to research the transnational circulation of an artist like Dunham pose a challenge for traditional scholarly approaches. Using digital research methods and data visualization in the context of dance history can catalyse a better understanding of how dance movements are shared and circulated among people and continents, and the networks of support and influence that undergird artistic and economic success. While digital methods have altered the landscape of most humanities and arts disciplines, the field of dance studies has yet to fully identify how it can benefit from these analytic approaches. Therefore, this project is not only devoted to the specific line of research regarding Dunham, but also to the original problems and questions of dance history that can be advanced through an innovative critical mixed methods approach that includes geographical mapping and network analysis.

On the Rails: A data visualization approach to 20th century dance touring

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?

Summer 2017 at the Library of Congress with Baylie MacRae and Kat Sprudzs

This past summer, I spent just over a week at the Library of Congress with Baylie MacRae and Kat Sprudzs, both of whom are dance majors at The Ohio State University. Baylie and Kat have joined the Dance in Transit and Mapping Touring teams as undergraduate researchers, thanks to funding from a Battelle, Engineering, Technology, and Human Affairs grant with matching funds from the College of Arts and Sciences. Over the summer, a generous Undergraduate Research and Creative Inquiry Fellowship and a Virginia Hull Research Award enabled me to take them to the Library of Congress to conduct original research for these projects.

Anyone who has ever spent time in an archive knows the peculiar mixture of thwarted expectations and serendipity that accompanies archival research. We had gone with a very specific intention: to work in the Katherine Dunham Collection to analyze the life, work, and travels of this mid-century African American choreographer. We intended to examine performance programs, correspondence, and newspaper clippings. We also wanted to examine the film footage in Dunham’s collection, including her own artistic work and her ethnographic documentation of dances throughout the Caribbean that were digitized as part of the Library of Congress’s Legacy project. We were going to leave the archive prepared to collaboratively author an essay on Dunham’s international touring, drawing our primary evidence from the collection. The best laid plans…

When we arrived, Dance Curator and Archivist Libby Smigel, who was an incredible help and advocate, informed us that the Katherine Dunham Collection was truly a collection–that is to say, there was some of everything and not a whole lot of anything in particular. The collection was being re-processed, and the new draft finding aid made even more items in the collection discoverable, but much to our disappointment, the programs and clippings we had gone in search of were not there. The videos of Dunham’s repertory and ethnographic fieldwork did prove to be an invaluable resource, but were of varying length and quality. We had to switch tactics.

Since this work was to serve the objectives of both Dance in Transit as well as Mapping Touring, we considered all of the dance collections housed at the Library of Congress, and set about gathering performance programs across the collections. We gathered materials from Lester Horton, Martha Graham, Erick Hawkins, and Bronislava Nijinska. Erick Hawkins’ collection was fastidious and comprehensive; Martha Graham’s less so, despite her unparalleled importance for American modern dance, but her included choreographic notebooks. Nijinska proved an avid dance spectator, collecting programs for dance concerts by her contemporaries as well as her own. Horton’s materials included vast quantities of correspondence.

While I scoured the Dunham films for relevant information, Baylie and Kat sorted through these other collections, and they began to develop their own interests on the basis of what they discovered. Kat plumbed the Lester Horton Dance Theater Collection, following the drama of what happens to dancers’ performance rights after a choreographer’s death. Baylie became fascinated with Pearl Lang, who danced for Martha Graham as well as created her own choreography. As a requirement for their funding, Baylie and Kat compiled reports on their research at the Library of Congress. I have posted these in full–here for Baylie, and here for Kat.

After some time watching the films in the Katherine Dunham collection, several of which are available online, I came across a 1960 German television broadcast of Dunham’s company performing a group of works under the title Karibische Rhythmen. The 28-minute program included excerpts of familiar numbers such as “Choros” and “Cakewalk,” but one that I had not frequently seen in previously gathered performance data was “Afrique.” The piece premiered in 1949, before Dunham had ever traveled to Africa.

Katherine Dunham in Afrique. Image from New York Public Library.
Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library. “Afrique (Dunham)” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 194.

It is well known that Dunham drew from her ethnographic research to represent cultural practices onstage, and that she also abstracted some of these practices in her own creative imaginations of movement and culture. What is less clear from reading dance critics’ responses to Dunham’s work is the boundary between these two approaches, since 20th century American dance critics did not widely possess movement literacies with a global reach. This makes the film and video resources in the Katherine Dunham Collection all the more valuable.

“Afrique” demonstrates the complexities of Dunham’s choreographic works and their sources of information and influence. While we had to shift our vision of a culminating project for this research, we are excited to unpack “Afrique” as a choreography and to put it in the larger context of Dunham’s global touring. I have never co-authored an essay with students, and I’m delighted to see where it leads!!!

We’d like to extend our sincere thanks to Libby Smigel for her incredible help. This research would have been impossible without her assistance and guidance at the Library of Congress. Thanks also to Battelle, Virginia Hull, and the Office of Undergraduate Research and Creative Inquiry for financially supporting this work.

Research Team at Library of Congress
Harmony Bench, Kat Sprudzs, Libby Smigel, and Baylie MacRae at the Library of Congress. July 2017.

Frank Eng: “Protector” of the Lester Horton Legacy by Kat Sprudzs (Junior in Dance, OSU)

This past July, I spent 9 days in Washington, D.C. studying archival material at the Library of Congress. Under the monitoring and direction of Dr. Harmony Bench, myself and one other fellow undergraduate spent roughly six hours per day sorting through copious amounts of documents. Our original intent was to focus on Katherine Dunham and her collection, looking for and consequently documenting via photo anything that would pertain to a performance her company gave. We had a specific hope to ascertain information about her South American tour of Southland, one of her more controversial and racially charged works. Unfortunately, the majority of the documents the Library had in its collection were from the 1980s-2000s, and that specific work was performed in the mid 1950s. After coming to the realization that the print materials the collection had to offer were not going to be particularly relevant, Dr. Bench assigned my colleague Baylie MacRae and I to other subjects. I specifically researched the Lester Horton Dance Theater and Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation collections respectively, but as a team we also explored the Erick Hawkins, Martha Graham, and Bronislava Nijinska collections. As Dr. Bench explained to us during our research training, aside from the fact that it’s pertinent to her Movement on the Move project, going through the performance programs first is a great way to familiarize yourself with the repertory the company was doing at different times, as well as names of performers and choreographers. This was the approach I took with the Lester Horton Dance Theater collection.

After going through two full boxes of programs that had been roughly sorted chronologically, I had made a couple important realizations and connections, on top of making mental note of their most long- and short-lived repertory. First, I found it absolutely endearing that Alvin Ailey, one of the most notable names to come out of the Horton group, was first billed as an “auxiliary dancer” who “doubled as stage crew.” I watched him climb through the ranks, slowly being cast in more and more principal roles, until he eventually choreographed his first work on the company in 1954 after Horton passed away. There was a gap of a few years in the programs and suddenly in 1960, the programs were all that of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. I thought to myself, “what a wonderful and seamless transition of power and leadership!” It was at this point that I first thought his meteor-like rise might be of interest.

On my second day in the LHDT collection, I called up the boxes labeled “Publicity,” being not wholly sure what to expect. One box contained hundreds of newspaper clippings, and this was the one with which I decided to start. I was highly overwhelmed and exhausted by lunch, unsure if I had even made the right choice in devoting that much time to them. That being said, I couldn’t find a good reason not to at least finish the box. Things got interesting in the folder containing the 1950s. Up until then, every single article I read raved about Bella Lewitzsky, Horton’s principal female dancer, as well as his co-founder—but all of the sudden after that point, her name was nowhere to be found. Carmen de Lavallade burst onto the scene with her debut in Salome, in a role Lester Horton created for her. To me, this very public “clean” break seemed only to imply that the break had been anything but. Secondly, I remember noting from the day before that a man named Frank Eng had eventually become the managing director of the company. Here I was today, reading his early reviews of the company in the Daily News. I conceptualized this as another “rise from within” that is so typical of contemporary and modern companies…and if I had chosen to end the research there, that is probably the impression I would have been left with. However, the next day I called up the box titled “Correspondence” and began to see a different side of the story. Over the span of approximately forty years (1955-1996), I came across instance after instance where a former Horton dancer would make an attempt to continue on the legacy, and Frank Eng, having inherited all the rights to Horton’s entire body of artistic work, would either shut it down preemptively or criticize it heavily after the fact.

First in 1956, Alvin Ailey requested the rights to perform Orozco and/or The Beloved. Eng listed his many requirements regarding the set, the movement, and how the piece would be credited, but agreed to allow them to perform Orozco. After consulting with James Truitte, another former Horton member, Eng decided that there was no one in New York qualified to set The Beloved and therefore, they would not be granted the rights. In 1965, in a letter to Barnes & Williams, Eng made it clear that Ailey was not to be considered a maverick of Horton technique or repertory, and reiterated that he controlled all the rights. By 1972, Eng had had his lawyer Ed Mosk write to AAADT “demanding that he stop using Orozco in his repertoire,” on account of him “exploiting the material.”

Joan Kerr as well, became an “enemy” of the Lester Horton “state” in 1972. She sent a relatively informal project proposal to the National Endowment for the Arts as a way to gauge their interest in funding a film that would help to codify some exercises in the Horton technique. She consulted fellow ex-LHDT member Don Martin about this, and he encouraged her to go ahead and at least see if it was plausible. Martin most likely told Truitte who in turn told Eng, and Eng had a serious problem with this. He wrote Kerr, reprimanding and insulting her, attacking her dancing on top of her morals. Further yet, he equated her with previously black-listed member Ailey, calling them “prime Horton misrepresentatives,” accusing them of “selective plagiarisms” and “ego-balming distortions.” Separately, he wrote the NEA and demanded that no such project go through. After multiple chastising letters to from Eng to Kerr, she finally “found the strength” to reply. She apologized and explained her intentions were only good, promising that she planned to involve Eng as well as Truitte and Martin if the project had been picked up.

Perhaps the most severe of all the situations in which Eng sprung on the defensive, was the restaging of Salome on Cincinnati Ballet Company by James Truitte in 1973. Up until this point, Truitte had been one of the dancers Eng frequently mentioned as someone he trusted the Horton work with. Eng told Bella Lewitzsky via letter he was “so excited about [the restaging] I can probably fly there sans jets on my own.” This was not the tone of his tune after the production was put on. He once again berated Truitte, going on and on about everything that was wrong with it. Eventually he demanded that they either change the way the piece was billed, or have a full re-haul of the choreography with consultation from himself or Don Martin.

Further betrayal was to come in 1974, when the “Horton Reconstruction Committee” was formed. They contacted Eng, speaking highly of Lester Horton and expressing their desire to do right by him and his legacy, while also acknowledging that in order to do so, they would need Eng’s cooperation and help. Unfortunately, he was insulted by their existence and the work they had set out to do, asking if they were “aware of the presumptuousness of [their] title.” He spoke poorly of the two former Horton members who were on the committee, claiming they did not have the credentials to carry out the tasks they proposed, completely refusing to take into account the very extensive list of names the committee initially said they were interested in having be involved. In the end, he was “honored” and yet somehow still offended, and there is no evidence that the project lived on to any degree.

In correspondence to the Joyce Trisler Danscompany in 1996, Frank Eng rejected their request for the rights to Liberian Suite, despite the fact that Carmen de Lavallade was the Producing Director of the company, and Bella Lewitzsky was their Artistic Advisor, listing “debacles like the early-70s Cincinnati Ballet Salome” as his reasoning, on top of his overall feeling that everyone who had left the theater in L.A. after Horton passed had “only served themselves rather than Horton, his work, or his methods.” He mentions that Truitte never had the rights to anything. Apparently this had just gotten out in the New York dance community, as Dance Theater of Harlem also contacted Eng in that same week apologizing to him, saying that they had been under the impression Truitte had been allowed to set The Beloved, going so far as to pay him royalties during his setting of the work on DTH.

Doing primary research at the Library of Congress was an absolutely amazing experience. I read an incredible amount of material, felt overwhelmed at various times, but eventually trusted myself enough to let the information simmer and congeal into a personal research project I feel really proud of (with the encouragement of Dr. Bench all along the way.) I plan on getting at least a Master’s degree in Performance Studies or something related, and research is a huge part of that process. Even though we did not find exactly what we originally went for, I am glad it turned out this way. It seems as though sometimes you have to reframe your focus to fit what you find, working with the materials at your disposal. I cannot wait to continue on the broader aims of this project as the school year begins, and thank the Office of Undergraduate Research & Creative Inquiry for this opportunity.


Immersion, Identity, and Inspiration by Baylie MacRae (Senior in Dance, OSU)

The initial impetus for conducting research at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. was to garner more information about Katherine Dunham and her effect on the global stage. However, her collection at the Library was sparse with information from the specific era we wanted to investigate which lead to other avenues of research. This caused us to switch emphasis onto other collections like Erick Hawkins, Martha Graham, and Pearl Lang. Our findings were concentrated on dance programs that contained information about choreographer’s works in relation to what they premiered, where it took place, and who was involved. I inquired further into Pearl Lang’s career to uncover a powerful figure who represented a strong Jewish female on the concert stage. My summer research experience allowed me to gain new information about Pearl Lang, a significant dancer and choreographer, as well as learning how to navigate an archive and the value of documentation within the dance field.

At one point during the trip, I read a correspondence from Martha Graham to Pearl Lang in which she wrote to Lang on September 8th of 1949 “[…] The worst of it is that no one can ever take your place. Your glow and your dedication to what you do and your gifts as a dancer and a stage being of rare powers cannot be found in anyone. […]” Upon this discovery, my interests in Pearl Lang was ignited. In studying Dance history, I have learned about Martha Graham as one of the Mothers of Modern dance yet some of her colleagues remain relatively unnoticed. Graham’s legacy is prominent in the history books of my field for her accomplishments are impressive but it was a delight to research the impact of another choreographer from that era.

With further investigation into the career of Pearl Lang I found she was well connected in the dance field. She was a resourceful woman who focused on dancing, choreographing, and teaching. A portion of her career was dance education where she taught at Julliard for thirteen years and in the department of Drama at Yale university for twelve years. Her students include Madonna, Christine Dakin, and many other dancers of renown. Her contributions to the dance field are important and worthy of study as she represented Jewish identity along with strong feminist values portrayed in her choreography.

Pearl Lang began her dancing career with the Martha Graham company in New York City during 1941. Later she would begin her own company in 1953 however she would continue to appear as a guest for the Martha Graham company until 1970. In fact, Martha Graham, entrusted Lang with performing her Solo works once she retired. Lang was originally from Chicago where her parents had immigrated from Russia. She changed her name from Lack to Lang after a remark from notorious dance critic Jon Martin that she lacked nothing and that would need to change. In an interview, she remarked that she had picked up a book by Andrew Lang and decided to change her name for the stage. While growing up she went to Albany Park’s Workmans Circle where Yiddish and dancing were taught. Her parents were from a Russian-Jewish background and always supported the arts. Lang remembers her mother taking her to go see Isadora Duncan perform which had a major impact on her decision to become a dancer.

The school she attended would also have a significant impression on her dance and choreographic career as she would create several works like Song of Deborah, The Possessed, and Psalm, Song of Songs based on biblical stories she had learned. In an interview, Lang remarked how her upbringing translated into her dancing.

“It was a revolution in the Jewish religion. They considered the act of dancing and singing more holy than reading the biblical text and participation in the ritual. If you jumped and jumped high enough you were closer to god. If you sang you sang a melody without words. The spiritual quality is holier if you are not using the tongue and the lips. It is a very strange kind of puritanism. The dancing has deteriorated into happy dancing now. It is not Hasidic for me unless it has an ecstatic inner tension.”

Her Jewish background would continue to influence her career. She would restage Song of Deborah three times after its first premiere in 1949 for significant Jewish organizations. During 1957, it was performed at Madison Square Garden for Bonds’ Chanukah festival, In 1967 for Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company, and again in 1970 for the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. The choreographic work was a means to translate Jewish history through the body to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences while refocusing on the history of woman’s achievements.

Song of Deborah was a significant choreographic work with themes of survival and heroism which made it accessible to audiences. She chose the specific story of Deborah because she was an autonomous and influential figure. It allowed Lang to use her body as a means of communicating a strong female leader on the concert stage. She could replicate and transcend the “exotic jewess” which was a stereotype of the time as an aggressive, intelligent, and sexual being which epitomized male fears about castration, as well as the Christian trepidation about the degeneracy of Jews.

The work delivered a concrete message unlike Graham’s which was symbolic with more emphasis on Greek mythology. However, she could not escape comparison to Graham’s style and critics focused more on the aesthetic rather than the actual work. Lang’s Jewishness and dancing were not distinguished and the piece was categorized as a modern dance with biblical themes like many of Martha Graham’s works. This caused Lang’s work to go relatively unnoticed and unappreciated for representation of a Strong Jewish female onstage demonstrating her cultural inheritance. Song of Deborah was used to connect American Jews to Israel past and present with representing the heroic past. The work was classified as Jewish by significant Jewish organizations. Lang was unable to shine outside of Grahams shadow and for this reason I ascertain her choreography was not widely acknowledged for its artistic, political, and feminist merits during her life time.

Learning about Pearl Lang in the archive at the Library of congress was an accomplishment I had not predicted would come from our investigation. The amount of information I received and the uncovering of evidence about her career was significant.

The research implemented in Washington D.C. helped to further my education about dance history and conducting research in the field. There was an extensive amount of time spent in the archive where I learned the procedures necessary for conducting research. The process was informative to understanding how crucial organization and documentation is for the proper dissemination of information. The quality of information available depends on the amount of materials the Library has collected and catalogued properly.

The research opportunity was an incredible experience that will remain impactful in my dance career. It has helped me glimpse the past of great choreographers and informed me about their creative process and how vital it is to network within the field to create a thriving and successful career. Understanding ones’ history allows for a clear understanding of how to navigate the future of dance. I now have a better understanding of dance lineage and the choreographic ideals that have been presented onstage. I spent time in four different collections while at the library and gained insights about Katherine Dunham, Erick Hawkins, Martha Graham and Pearl Lang. While I reviewed the information about each choreographer I learned that choreographing is most impactful if you create from a place of knowing.

Every choreographer I researched taught me something valuable. Katherine Dunham was one of the first people to use anthropology as a way of creating which impacted her style as she referenced the various social dances she observed on her trips to Haiti and Jamaica. Erick Hawkins created repertory drawing on his ballet background, knowing the rules and traditions he tossed them aside to create movement from an abstract frame. He also used his influence from Native American cultures in his work as he had been connected to them since he grew up in Colorado. Martha Graham used her passion for myth to help create work rich with archetypal themes that continue to be performed on stage after her passing. She had many notes about character details and what each dancers part meant creating nothing trivial. While Pearl Lang choreographed from her cultural heritage to present works rich with identity and support of a strong female. Each choreographer has made an impact in dance history and taught me that creating from a place of knowing is authentic.

The summer research visit has imparted on me knowledge, understanding, and dedication to the dance field. My choreographic career will be influenced by the insights obtained while at the Library of Congress. The information I gained about Pearl Lang and her commitment to be authentic to her heritage while empowering woman by portraying a strong female on the concert stage is inspiring. To explore and learn about so many great choreographers will help me to connect my dancing past to the dancing future. In the future, I plan to take all the information and share it with my colleagues to help inform, instruct, and inspire.

Mapping Touring leaps forward

The 2016-2017 academic year represents a turning point for Mapping Touring. Thanks to a Battelle, Engineering, Technology, and Human Affairs grant, with matching funds from the College of Arts and Sciences at The Ohio State University, we were able to take a giant step forward. Of particular importance for Mapping Touring are the database built by Dustin Perzanowski and beta-version data visualization built by Chris Britt. These are now available on a website built by Michael Seufer that will grow with the many projects that will evolve under the larger umbrella of what we are now calling Movement on the Move–a research collaboration between myself and dance scholar Kate Elswit. My sincere thanks go to the Application Development team at ASCTech under the leadership of Mike Hardesty for their work.

In the summer of 2016, Kate and I spent several days at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, which houses one of choreographer Katherine Dunham’s many archives. For Mapping Touring, I photographed all of the concert programs in the collection, as well as Dunham’s scrapbooks.[1] I brought these back to OSU for processing by the fabulous undergraduate researchers that joined Mapping Touring.

Kylee Smith spent the whole academic year working with the Dunham materials, culling information about performances given by Katherine Dunham and Her Company from the programs. Of her foray into archival work and building a dataset of Dunham’s appearances, Kylee writes:

“It was incredible to see the breadth of Dunham’s work, and it truly complimented what I had already learned about her in my dance history courses in the Department of Dance at Ohio State. It was especially moving when I was able to view one of the programs from the second and last performance of Dunham’s Southland. While I was working on this project, I felt a unique connection to the past and was especially cognizant of the work of the Black women choreographers who have paved the way for me to be the artist that I am today. I initially thought that this would be a quick process, but Katherine Dunham’s company traveled all over the world regularly and the number of programs from the Southern Illinois University archive was quite numerous.”

Three additional OSU undergraduate students, Sheila Zeng, Gabë Wiltz, and Baylie MacRae, each spent a semester organizing and collating datasets, with particular emphasis on Katherine Dunham and Her Company, Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. As the Mapping Touring datasets have grown, I have recognized a greater need for clarity of organization and attribution. Sheila was instrumental in sorting through performance programs for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, Anna Pavlova, Ruth St. Denis, and Ted Shawn and bringing some much-needed order to the project. Sheila notes that she “learned a lot about the different dance ‘hubs’ of the 20th century and how internationally driven these dancers were during this revolutionary time. This project has also increased my interest in dance history and brought greater awareness to the globalization of dance in the 20th century.” Gabë began the process of determining which choreographers, performers, and even works had been assigned Virtual International Authority File (VIAF) numbers to assist cross-referencing. She took on this work after we made the astonishing discovery that while Dunham’s suite of dances called Primitive Rhythms was repeatedly presented in her concerts and is well-known among dance scholars, it has not been assigned a VIAF number. However, similarly titled works by white choreographers of the same era–Primitive Rhythms by Ted Shawn and Primitive Rhythm I and II by Hanya Holm–are accounted for in this authority file. We are hopeful that collating information about choreographers and their works in a publicly accessible database will not only facilitate their discovery by researchers, but will also fuel greater and more inclusive representation of dance artists and works in authority indexes.

Baylie, who will continue with Mapping Touring for the 2017-18 academic year, notes:

“Working with the Ballets Russes and Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo documents has allowed me to recognize the impact of these companies in the dance community and world. I was astonished by the amount of performances that were presented. While I had learned from dance history that they were popular companies, it was impressive to discover how many shows were done monthly with matinee and evening performances. It was also interesting to investigate the countries they toured to.”

Julia Nichols, an undergraduate student at the University of San Francisco, was also a vital contributor to Mapping Touring. She spent several weeks in the archives at the Museum of Performance and Design in San Francisco collecting approximately 350 performance programs for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, in addition to programs by a few other companies.

Working with undergraduate researchers remains a priority for me as Mapping Touring grows. It is unusual for faculty to be able to mentor students as part of a research team in the humanities, but because Mapping Touring builds from archival research to drive digital tools of discovery that can in turn support new scholarly interpretations, it is much easier to incorporate students into the process as a whole. As a digital humanities project, we cannot jump straight into contextualization, analysis, and interpretation. Instead, we have to build Mapping Touring, and this building of datasets holds immense pedagogical value for students just getting to know the performance histories they have inherited.

Photograph of undergraduate researchers.
Undergraduate researchers Gabë Wiltz, Kylee Smith, and Baylie MacRae. Not pictured: Sheila Zeng and Julia Nichols.

[1] Kate and I additionally collected correspondence, address books, receipts, and other materials that will help us think through Dunham’s touring alongside her travel for other engagements, networking, tourism, and the like. Our collaborative project Dance in Transit analyzes systems of transportation and communication networks that pertain to Dunham’s tour in South America, where she premiered her controversial work Southland.

“Mapping Movement on the Move: Dance Touring and Digital Methods” in Theatre Journal

Theatre Journal has published “Mapping Movement on the Move: Dance Touring and Digital Methods” as part of its special issue on Theatre, the Digital, and the Analysis and Documentation of Performance. This article, co-authored by Kate Elswit and Harmony Bench, provides an intellectual foundation for the work pursued across print and digital formats with the larger series of joint projects gathered under the umbrella of  Movement on the Move.

Article abstract: A better understanding of the transnational networks of dance touring is critical to placing dance within larger theatrical and cultural systems. This essay demonstrates how digital research methods can work in tandem with more traditional scholarly methods to manage the scale and complexity of data truly necessary to account for what we call “movement on the move.” Drawing on the authors’ research on dance touring—namely, South American tours by Anna Pavlova’s company during World War I and the American Ballet Caravan during World War II—the essay focuses on the database and the map as tools that expand the capacity to trace “dynamic spatial histories of movement.” It argues that larger questions of mobility, transportation, infrastructure, and cultural transmission are central to studying dance touring, and that digital methods of research and representation can greatly assist scholars in the comparative analysis and interpretation of this phenomenon. Considered are debates in dance, theatre, digital humanities, geography, and cultural studies to advocate for the use of digital methods in dance history research.

Mapping Touring: Jacob’s Pillow Archives

July 18-28, 2016, I was able to go to the Jacob’s Pillow Archives with Archer Porter, a graduate student at UCLA who served as my research assistant. Our visit was supported by both a Research and Creative Activity Grant from The Ohio State University as well as a fellowship from Jacob’s Pillow. I am extremely grateful to OSU and to Pam Tatge and Norton Owen for their support. Our visit was part of my larger Mapping Touring project. We were there to focus on the appearances of Ted Shawn–with Ruth St. Denis, as a solo artist, and with the Men Dancers. We wished to verify previously collected data from performance programs held in the New York Public Library and those collated in Christena Schlundt’s chronicles.

In the process, we discovered some fun artifacts that help us in the project of documenting and mapping Shawn’s tours: Frank Overlees kept track of at least six of the Men Dancers’ tours in route books, and then he drew these routes on a very large map of the United States. The photograph of the map in its entirety isn’t very good, but with the image details, you can see that Overlees has labeled the cities and then connected the dots between them, including arrows to indicate where the dancers were departing from and where they were headed. He did this for each of the six tours in different colors. Unfortunately, the lighter colors have significantly faded, but the point is that Overlees had constructed in analog form what Mapping Touring is doing in digital form, and I find that exciting!

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Here is what Archer says about our time at Jacob’s Pillow:

Our path to Jacob’s Pillow wound through the lush landscape of Western Massachusetts, houses barely visible in the full foliage of summer. At some point, the paved roads turned to gravel ones and lanes narrowed. We found ourselves wondering how a vibrant archive and performance venue—one that is important to national and international dance touring circuits, both historically and currently—is nestled in, what seemed like, the middle of nowhere.

Archer Porter in the Jacob’s Pillow Archives.

Despite these initial impressions, our time at “The Pillow,” as it is affectionately called, introduced us to a place that maintains a lively interface with a vast community of dance patrons. Though there were many people to watch and meet, and much to do and see, we spent most of our time in Blake’s Barn, the locus of archival materials and library collections. Norton Owen, the Director of Preservation and archive extraordinaire here at The Pillow, helped us tremendously by locating and contextualizing numerous collections of Ted Shawn’s and Ruth St. Denis’ professional and personal documents. With Norton as our guide, we sifted through the collection of Mary Campbell, the long-time pianist to Ted Shawn. This collection proved the most extensive store of programs, particularly for a period of time that was previously missing from our records, 1930-1932. Other collections that offered documents relevant to the Mapping Touring project included the Betty Poindexter Collection, Dennis Landers Collection, Wilbur McCormick Collection, Marion Rice Collection, Larry Humphries Collection, and Jacob’s Pillow Collection. Together, these collections yielded approximately one hundred programs that we then documented.

Our efforts here at the Pillow proved to be productive toward the goals of the Mapping Touring project, while also allowing us to admire the charms of this cultural and historical landmark.

I thank Archer for her hard work on this project and Norton and everyone else at Blake’s Barn for their assistance.






Battelle Engineering, Technology, and Human Affairs grant award announcement

I’m very happy to announce that I have been awarded a two-year Battelle Engineering, Technology, and Human Affairs (BETHA) grant to pursue a second phase of the “Mapping Touring” project. This phase includes a substantial collaborative component with dance scholar Kate Elswit, which we are calling “Dance in Transit.”  (See Elswit’s Moving Bodies, Moving Cultures for additional context.)

An excerpt of the proposal:

“Dance in Transit” is a digital humanities research project that applies the tools of data analysis to the domestic and international touring of dance companies circa 1900-1950. In particular, this project emphasizes the necessary relation between touring performers and the modes, networks, and infrastructures of transportation that link cities, countries, and cultures. “Dance in Transit” asks: How does culture travel?

The phenomenon of big data is swiftly changing research in the sciences and social sciences, and, increasingly, in the humanities. Mass digitization efforts have created immense literary corpuses and visual arts collections that can be parsed and analyzed computationally, and geo-spatial information increasingly informs the interpretive work of cultural historians. Such projects, however, have largely overlooked the performing arts–particularly dance. “Dance in Transit” seeks to address this oversight by employing the tools and methods of data analysis to pursue humanistic inquiry within the fields of theater, dance, and performance studies. This project contributes to recent trends in the emerging field of cultural analytics[1] by advancing historical research at simultaneously macro-[2] and micro-levels, focusing on the dynamic interplay between what occurs on- and offstage in cultural transmission.

I’m really looking forward to continuing this work and to further developing the collaboration with Elswit, who is an absolute star. We will be creating a new website to gather our research, so please watch for details and announcements.


[1] A concept introduced by Lev Manovich in 2007, cultural analytics is described as “the use of computational and visualization methods for the analysis of massive cultural data sets and flows” (

[2] See for example Franco Moretti, Distant Reading, London: Verso, 2013 and Matthew Jockers, Macroanalysis: Digital Methods and Literary History, Champaign: U of Illinois Press, 2013.