Photo Caption: Katherine Dunham and her daughter Marie Christine board an airplane in New York bound for Rome, 1953. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection. Library of Congress.

This research project seeks to explore the necessary relation between touring performers and the modes, networks, and infrastructures of transportation that link cities, countries, and cultures. Combining science and technology studies, data analysis, digital humanities, and archival research, we focus on the ways in which technological systems facilitate both the production and transmission of culture. 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.

Dance in Transit seeks to make visible the itinerant lives of mid-century choreographers and dancers, bringing focused attention to modes of transportation and transmission--as well as the relational infrastructures--that enable the global spread of dance. The initial focal case study is African American choreographer Katherine Dunham, whose artistic and ethnographic work included research trips throughout the Caribbean, global travel for her work in the Hollywood film industry, as well as the domestic and international touring of her dance company. In particular, we examine Dunham’s touring circa 1950-1953, which includes her premier of the controversial work Southland in Chile in 1951 and its reprisal in France in 1953. Widely considered Dunham’s most political choreography, Southland’s concluding scene depicts the lynching of a black man accompanied by the song “Strange Fruit.” In Dance in Transit, we place the tours around Southland in tandem with ship, train, and automobile routes/roads, as well as other spatial and infrastructural networks. Analyzing Dunham’s touring and choreographic work at the cusp of the Civil Rights Era allows us to consider both the transportation systems upon which she relied and the racism she and her mostly African America company members faced when engaged in travel. We further address the ramifications of presenting this work for Dunham’s future funding and support.

Dance in Transit is currently in progress. You can find earlier phases of research as well as project developments at Kate Elswit’s website Moving Bodies, Moving Culture and Harmony Bench’s website Mapping Touring: Dance History on the Move Preliminary work is also discussed in our co-authored essay “Mapping Movement on the Move: Dance Touring and Digital Methods” (DOI: 10.1353/tj.2016.0107) in the December 2016 issue of Theatre Journal.

In addition to a Virginia Hull Research Award and assistance from the Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity Office at The Ohio State University, Dance in Transit is supported by a Battelle Engineering, Technology, and Human Affairs (BETHA) Grant.


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