Scott deLahunta - On Dance and Data Creation

As part of this project, we invite expert users from different domains to engage with our work in progress and also connect it to their own ongoing thinking. Many thanks to Scott deLahunta, Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Dance Research (C-DaRE) at Coventry University, and Co-Director of the Motion Bank Institute, for sharing his thoughts on Dunham's Data.

I received the invitation from Harmony and Kate to write a blog entry for Dunham’s Data following a conversation we had in July about some of the writing and visualisations coming from the project. In their invitation, they asked me to situate Dunham’s Data in the context of my own research. My interest lies in deepening the understanding of dance as a form of embodied knowledge and choreography as a skilful bodily practice. The aim of this is twofold. Firstly, to contribute to and reinforce the meshwork of relations the dance community establishes for itself; secondly, to bring this understanding as a unique research perspective into connection with other disciplines. Documenting dance has always played a key role in this work for two main reasons. Firstly, dance practice generates its own records, or, depending on one’s perspective, leaves them behind. In dance these tend to range from hand written notes to video recordings. When there is a study being conducted into dance practice, such as those in which I have been involved, additional records are created (e.g. interviews and annotated videos). The persistent question is for whom are these records of bodily practices meaningfully accessible, that is to whom do they make sense and why. Embodied knowledge is at least in part entangled with skilful bodily practices as they are being done or experienced. This experience can only be, at best, inferred from an encounter with whatever recordings persist in its afterlife. One acknowledged way of doing this is through the history of one’s related experiences generating a felt sense of the contents of the recording.

My research has tended to focus on the passing of movement ideas from body-to-body in the training, creation and performance environment of theatre and studio spaces. The starting point for this, generally, are the practices and processes that take place in these spaces, often documenting them with the aim of sharing them with others (e.g. https://threadedfine.motionbank.org/#/). One of the key properties of these dance-related processes are that they are experientially continuous, one moment of sensation and feeling falling into the next. I first encountered Harmony and Kate’s dance and digital humanities work in their Movement on the Move project (https://movementonthemove.osu.edu/) for which they were collecting details from existing touring records of several dance companies from the first half of the 20th Century, and cataloguing these to create a database comprising locations, people, dates, performances, roles, troupes and works. From this curated dataset, they explored various ways to dynamically visualise the traces of touring companies, on the move from one city and country to another (https://mappingtouring.osu.edu/ ). What ‘Mapping Touring’ offered me was an expanded way of thinking about the transmission of movement ideas by including in the dancer’s experience not only what happens inside of the studio, but also in all of the everyday business of getting from one of these spaces to the next.

With the current project, Dunham’s Data, Harmony and Kate continue to collect and catalogue touring details as the core content of their database and to develop visualisations of the touring traces. This was the basis of the conversation we had in July 2020, and my memory of that is similar to what is described by Sarah Whatley in her 2 October blog post. There seem to be at least three main datasets emerging from database, into 1) personnel flow, 2) repertory and 3) timeline of touring (See Whatley’s blog post and these video explanations https://www.dunhamsdata.org/blog/work-in-progress-videos-1). In their recently published essay in Theatre Survey titled ‘Katherine Dunham’s Global Method and the Embodied Politics of Dance’s Everyday’, Harmony and Kate analyse and interpret their astonishingly detailed dataset, also published, called ‘Everyday Itinerary, 1950-53’. This dataset tracks the whereabouts (city and country) of Dunham for 98 percent of her days in this four-year period, and it includes information about the venues she and the company performed in. I recommend reading this in-depth essay, in part because the two authors, having built this database manually from scratch, are arguably in the best position to write it.

Given that my interest is in understanding what occurs in the practice of dance making, rehearsing and performing, I read the essay with this perspective in mind and noted several relevant parts. There are ample references to the corporeal aspects of the everyday business of touring, but there is not much explicit information regarding the content of Dunham’s dances. This is, I assume, will be coming in another in-depth essay based on the Repertory Network Dataset which includes details about more than 240 pieces they have catalogued as Katherine Dunham’s choreography into pieces, containers, named dances inside of other dances, etc. See the video explanation of this dataset and its visualisation as a work in progress: https://vimeo.com/403433473. What is evident from the video explanation is that Dunham’s dances seem to made of components that could be easily shifted around, something Harmony comments on “… because Dunham is constantly repurposing elements [emphasis added] it is hard to come to a definitive answer about what constitutes a work in a fundamental way” (00:40). And Kate refers to this network as a “body of knowledge, an interconnected set of gestures, rhythms and practices…” (1:35). What I do discover in reading their analysis of the Everyday Itinerary, 1950-53 dataset is a reference to Dunham “changing repertory with short notice” because “performing works that did not receive an enthusiastic local response was not a luxury she could afford” (Bench & Elswit 2020, 315), “Dunham’s uncanny ability to fill scheduling gaps with additional performances” (317) and again her “ability to rearrange her repertory” (320).

The current visualisation of the repertory dataset shows, as Sarah Whatley describes in her blog entry, “how the data can be worked with to reveal dance principles and vocabularies, and which then invite questions about Dunham’s particular choreographic methods and how she sourced from traditional dances; passed from body to body”. Taking into consideration the above essay quotes about her ability to make changes to her dances, I wonder if Dunham’s choreographic methods (at least between 1950-1953) could be described mainly as adaptive or locally responsive to place, culture and circumstance. In the Theatre Survey essay, there is also a reference to Dunham’s international travel beginning with “her anthropological work in the Caribbean in 1935-6 which served as an inspiration for her later choreography” (309). In the Dunham scholar Halifu Osumare’s video presentation, also on the website’s blog, she refers to the concept of Dunham’s “research-to-performance method” and the transfer of her “dance repertoire and the knowledge of afro-diasporic genres” to dancers with many different backgrounds. I go back to the Repertory dataset visualisation and I see the name of a piece called Shango. I google Shango and find video material on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7rRqbFZGDM8) of this Cuban dance form. The same is the case for Batucada (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LYKx3cGGPCw), a substyle of samba, which is also in the Repertory dataset visualisation. I feel some initial excitement. It was as if one could research and source these traditional dance forms, as I imagine Dunham did at some point, but this time via the digital circulation of these forms. Harmony has written about this new kind of ‘movement economy’ in which digital dance circulates via social media to ‘produce and proliferate performances’ (Bench 2017, 166). There are also recordings of both Shango (https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200003834/) and Batucada (https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200003808/) as performed by Dunham’s company accessible, in the more traditional sense of an organised archive, online through the Library of Congress. In addition, there is a video of Dunham talking about Shango (https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200003834/).

Hetty Blades and I recently published a chapter in Routledge’s Handbook of Research Methods in Digital Humanities in which we make some proposals how digital methods might be used in dance studies. Our suggestions rely on having the capacity for data creation, in part because the dance field does not have “the same kinds of born digital resources that much of digital humanities focuses on, collecting and analysing data from computer networks or accessing already digitised archives and collections” (Blades & deLahunta, 42). We reference this work of Harmony and Kate as exemplary in this regard. What I have not quite seen the evidence for, but feel the potential for, is where and how skilful bodily forms of practice make themselves present in this research. Perhaps this will come in the upcoming essay based on the Repertory Network Dataset. I am really looking forward to follow what comes next with their work, and if they do manage to trigger a “rethinking of embodiment in digital humanities” (Bench & Elswit 2020, endnote 11)

Bench, H. (2017) ‘Dancing in Digital Archives: Circulation, pedagogy, performance’. Transmission in Motion: the technologizing of dance. Ed. Bleeker, M. London: Routledge, pp. 155-167

Bench, H. & Elswit, K. (2020) 'Katherine Dunham’s Global Method and the Politics of Dance’s Everyday'. Theatre Survey 61.3, pp. 1-25. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0040557420000253

Blades, H. & Delahunta, S. (2020) 'Digital Aptitude: Finding the right questions for dance studies'. Routledge Handbook of Research Methods in Digital Humanities. Eds. Schuster, K. & Dunn, S. London: Taylor and Francis, pp. 31-45.