Sarah Whatley - Reading the Screen: On Dunham's Data

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. We’re so grateful to have this first piece by Sarah Whatley, Professor of Dance and Director of the Centre for Dance Research (C-DaRE)at Coventry University

Why am I excited by Dunham’s Data? Several reasons. Mostly it is the striking nature of the prototype visualizations that are emerging from the project, which show how computational processes can be ‘put to work’ to reveal untold stories of dancers and the dances they make. I also learn more about the working life of choreographer Katherine Dunham. And the visualizations show how historical dance data can be shared in novel ways to stimulate new modes of analysis and new thinking about how dance content can be archived and accessed.

I was happy to be invited by Kate and Harmony to spend some time exploring their work in development on Dunham’s Data. Their meticulous archival research and careful curation of the data have enabled them to build dynamic visualizations that provide a wealth of information about aspects of Dunham’s career from the 1930s-60s. Two unpublished essays authored by Kate and Harmony provided some broader context and proved a helpful guide into the visualizations. The writing helps to situate Dunham’s career within a broader cultural, artistic and social framework, and illuminates the processes employed by the research team, and the broader aims and intentions for the project. Their reference to ‘visceralisations’ underscores the attention given to how the dancing body is core to the data, which can sometimes be lost in projects that bring dance and technology together. The three visualizations cover important aspects of Dunham’s work; ‘what’ she did, ‘where’ she did it, and with ‘who’.

Working (or playing) with visualizations needs time, and an adjustment in how to ‘read the screen’. A visualization organises data in non-linear, non-didactic ways. Readers can feel ‘blinded’ by too much data or have expectations for more complex interactivity than would properly serve the content. The reader may want to find answers to questions, or new questions may emerge because of the visualization. The visualizations in Dunham’s Data are attractive and richly informative whilst providing space for the researcher to develop their own enquiries. As well as the project’s contribution to dance history research, each show in different ways, how the abstraction of the creative process of choreography can uncover aspects of embodied cognition that can inform other domains of knowledge.

I viewed a draft of the ‘Visceral Data for Dance Histories’ and the three related interactive visualizations. The Personnel Flow (Sankey diagram) visualization is startling in its complexity and in the density of information. 200 names appear on screen– all connected with Dunham as dancer or musician. Reading the names draws me closer to wondering about the lives of the people behind the data. I can trace the way embodied knowledge transmits between and across company members, and across time. I wanted to trace an individual’s journey more clearly but I realise I need to be more expert in my navigation and ‘clicking’ to be able to reveal the story as clearly as I wanted – who did what, and with whom, when and where? The visualization invites a questioning mind.

The Repertory network visualization focuses on Dunham’s dance ‘works’ and the body of work as a whole (the repertoire) as a complex structure. The interconnections of circles and lines that move as I click on different nodes resemble a body of work in constant motion, helping me to grasp the way each dance work references, quotes or builds on another.

Component parts of each work are designated as ‘piece’, ‘container’ etc, showing 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. Clicking also means I can pull out a node to see the connections more clearly within the mesh work of dance terms. I need to work at remembering the relationship between container/piece/dance, which dances are named ‘inside’ other dances, and how the arrows work to show sequencing. I wonder if the size of the circle signifies anything. Playing with the data prompts questions about the naming, about each individual choreography, and to question the extent to which the complexity and interconnecting of diverse sources, which travel across and between works, is unique to Dunham. 

The third, the Interactive timeline* appears as a 3D globe and visualizes Dunham’s tours; where she visited and performed, and for how long, and – interestingly – also where she didn’t go. The interface is more ‘game-like’; I can click to highlight a particular trip, and notice multiple trips, and appreciate her extensive touring schedule. The design built around a globe provides an effective visual anchor whereby readers can gain insights to the work needed to organise such global touring in the early-mid 20th Century, and imagine the physical demands on Dunham and her company (and the precarity embedded in those experiences).

Collecting, curating and organising dance data for digital platforms needs thought about design, interactivity and navigability. In each visualization, the interactivity is carefully designed to provides a balance between ‘play’ and access to information in a clear and accessible way. They make clear the extensive research behind the data. I was able to have insight to the more ‘hidden’ aspects of a choreographer’s life; those aspects that are rarely documented or drawn into analyses and how that may enable comparisons to be made with other choreographers. Each visualization focuses on a different aspect of Dunham’s career. Layering the data about the flow of personnel in her company, her repertoire and her touring schedules could help to see more patterns and make further connections. Together, they tell us more about how the professional dance world was (and still is) an itinerant, fluid community. We learn more about how dance travels, how ideas travel, how dance is a lens through which diaspora can be perceived, and in this contemporary time of ‘contact tracing’ how a digital process of contact tracing shows how the dancer’s life is built upon what links, moves and comes together.

*note: a demo is not yet publicly available for the 3D globe