Tag Archives: dance

Read, Hot and Digitized: Katherine Dunham and the Data of Dance

Read, hot & digitized: Librarians and the digital scholarship they love — In this series, librarians from the UT Libraries Arts, Humanities and Global Studies Engagement Team briefly present, explore and critique existing examples of digital scholarship. Our hope is that these monthly reviews will inspire critical reflection of, and future creative contributions to, the growing fields of digital scholarship.

How does a dance move? Where might a dancer go? Such questions most likely evoke images of choreography, references to physical steps performed or patterns made across the floor. But dance scholars Kate Elswit and Harmony Bench are tracking movement from a different perspective, following the touring and travel routes of groundbreaking choreographer Katherine Dunham and her dance company from 1930-1960. Their project, Dunham’s Data: Katherine Dunham and Digital Methods for Dance Historical Inquiry, funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council, documents not only Dunham’s own itineraries, but also accounts for “the over 300 dancers, drummers, and singers who appeared with her; and the shifting configurations of the nearly 300 repertory entities they performed.”

The Katherine Dunham Dance Company was the first African American modern dance company, touring extensively both internationally and across the United States, often disrupting the imposed structures of racial segregation. Dunham was also an anthropologist, author, and social activist, challenging the limited roles and opportunities available to Black women artists.

Dunham’s Data features three core datasets paired with both interactive and static visualizations and contextualized through accompanying essays and related media. Taken together, the materials “provide new means to understand the relationships between thousands of locations, and hundreds of performers and pieces across decades of Dunham’s performing career, and ultimately elaborate how movement moves across bodies and geographies.”

The Everyday Itinerary Dataset spans the years 1947-1960, logging Dunham’s daily whereabouts during a period of consistent international touring, including accommodations, modes of transport, and venues visited. Users can access and mobilize this dataset through an Interactive Timeline of Travel, tracing the global and durational scope of Dunham’s artistic reach. There is also a Well-being Timeline Collage, which I am particularly drawn to, that sequences clippings from personal correspondence, evidencing the emotional labor that undergirded Dunham’s career.

Interactive Timeline of Katherine Dunham’s Travel 1947-60, from Dunham’s Data
Interactive Timeline of Katherine Dunham’s Travel 1947-60, from Dunham’s Data

The Personnel Check-In Dataset encompasses the “comings and goings” of company members over time. The visualizations derived from this dataset, for example, the Interactive Chord Diagram, illustrate “who shared space and time together,” offering “a sense of the transmission of embodied knowledge across hundreds of performers.”

Interactive Chord Diagram of Katherine Dunham’s Dancers, Drummers, and Singers, 1947-60, from Dunham’s Data
Interactive Chord Diagram of Katherine Dunham’s Dancers, Drummers, and Singers, 1947-60, from Dunham’s Data

I find the visualizations related to the Repertory Dataset to be especially compelling. The Interactive Inspiration Map depicts locations that Dunham identified as sites of inspiration for choreographic works, enlivened by quotations from her program notes; and The Interactive Network of Dunham Company Repertory highlights connections across pieces and performances. These visualizations prompt me to consider the citational and iterative dynamics of choreography and creative process.

Interactive Network of Dunham Company Repertory, from Dunham’s Data
Interactive Network of Dunham Company Repertory, from Dunham’s Data

Elswit and Bench, along with a team of postdoctoral research assistants, manually curated the datasets from previously undigitized primary source materials held in seven different archives. User Guides explain the organization and decision-making processes behind each dataset, making clear that all data is inherently interpretive. Code and tutorials are available in Github repositories for a few of the visualizations, which were largely created by Antonio Jimenez Mavillard using Python and Javascript libraries and a range of other tools. Instructional resources and a preliminary Teaching Toolkit offer helpful ideas for engagement and entry points into what, for some audiences, might feel like dense material to dive into.

Overall, the project gives us a multi-faceted lens to explore how attention to moving bodies can expand and enrich historical inquiry.

Want to know more about Katherine Dunham? Check out these UT Libraries resources:

Dunham, Katherine., Vèvè A. Clark, and Sarah East. Johnson. Kaiso! : Writings by and About Katherine Dunham. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2005. Print.

 Dee Das, Joanna. Katherine Dunham : Dance and the African Diaspora. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017. Print.

Dunham, Katherine, and Paul Bieschke. The HistoryMakers Video Oral History with Katherine Dunham. Chicago, Illinois: The HistoryMakers, 2016. Film.

Allison Orr and the Dance of the Everyday

Choreographer Allison Orr finds her art in the places that most people overlook. Where some see the banal drudgery and repetition of daily life, Orr finds beauty, fluidity, originality and grace.

As founder and creative force behind Forklift Danceworks, Orr has made her mark by taking the seemingly ordinary and reframing it in extraordinary ways. To do so, she’s recruited a cadre of non-traditional performers to her various dance projects: Venetian gondoliers, Japanese baseball players, sanitation workers and roller skaters, to name a few — each opening their trade or passion to observation and interpretation through Orr’s choreographic vision.

Her first collaboration with public workers set a path for her career to this point.

In Case of Fire” enlisted the City of Austin Fire Department and featured thirteen Austin Firefighters from stations 11 & 17, two fire engines, and a ladder truck. The thirty-minute performance took place in 2001 as one of the most memorable parts of Fire Prevention Week in Austin.


To research for the piece, Allison virtually embedded with the firefighters for over a year — riding on calls, interviewing the firefighters, and incorporating as much knowledge as she could in order to understand the nature of the profession and the people who represent it.

Since that initial project, Orr has undertaken works to explore the movements of a traffic cop (“Traffic Maven”), employed five Elvis impersonators to recreate the King’s last concert (“The King & I”), teamed up with roller skate aficionados (“SKATE!”), and, most recently, choreographed a cast of 50+ city electricity workers complete with cranes, bucket and field trucks and a set of 20 utility poles (“PowerUP”).

Perhaps the work that had the greatest impact, though, was her 2009 project that elicited elegance from a type of work that is perceived as antithetical to such a notion. “The Trash Project” was Orr’s effort to recast popular notions of sanitation workers, taking the day-to-day work of a largely underappreciated city service and making it into an art form. The 75-minute industrial ballet featured 24 employees and 16 large sanitation vehicles from Austin’s Solid Waste Services Department (SWS), and attracted an audience of 4,000. “The Trash Project” won numerous arts awards, and was captured in Austin filmmaker and UT faculty member Andrew Garrison’s award-winning 2012 documentary Trash Dance.


SWS Director Bob Gedert was moved by the outcome: “The Trash Project” showcased our employees in a way that had never been done before. [It] helped boost employee pride and morale and garnered lots of positive media attention for the department.”

Orr’s artist statement provides perhaps the most concise window into her philosophy:

“As a choreographer, I am inspired by practiced and habitual movement that comes from people’s everyday life or work experience, for I see dance as being any movement that is performed deliberately in space and time. I am particularly drawn to authentic expressions of highly skilled and virtuosic movement performed by people not labeled as dancers. . . I believe that embedded in that movement are stories about who people are and what they care about.”

Finding dance in the everyday isn’t as difficult as it might seem when one is aware of Orr’s background. She has two degrees: one in choreography, the other — which helps to obviate her artistic works thus far — in anthropology. In an interview with Texas Highways, she states, “I want to choreograph untrained dancers to explore, as an anthropologist would, how communities function.”

fal-livingdance-forkliftAllison Orr will be the inaugural guest for a new speaker series at UT’s Fine Arts Library (FAL) on the state and fate of dance titled “Living Dance,” scheduled for 6 p.m., Thursday, February 19. Orr will share stories, thoughts and footage from the remarkable projects that have arisen at the intersection of dance and daily life including “Play Ball Downs Field,” “Play Ball Kyoto,” “The Trash Project” and “PowerUP.”

Beth Kerr, the FAL’s Theatre & Dance Librarian, hopes to use the “Living Dance” series to bring greater awareness of Austin’s rich dance heritage and to begin documenting its past, present and future. “Austin’s dance scene is vibrant, ever changing, and innovative, as it has been for quite a while,” says Kerr. “My hope is that this series will open up discussion of work these artists are doing and lead to focusing some national attention on this amazing pool of talent.”

“Living Dance” with Allison Orr of Forklift Danceworks takes place at 6 p.m., Thursday, February 19, in the Fine Arts Library at The University of Texas at Austin. The event is free and open to the public, and special event prepaid parking ($3 ) for the E. William Doty Fine Arts Building can be purchased at the Parking & Transportation Services website.

¡A Viva Voz! gets funky with Ocote Soul Sounds

Ocote Soul Sounds members Adrian Quesada (white shirt) and Marti
Ocote Soul Sounds members Adrian Quesada and Martin Perna. Photo courtesy Ocote Soul Sounds.


The Benson Latin American Collection is going to be “coconut rock” central next Thursday (4/8) when Austin-born psychedelic Afro-Latin funk band Ocote Soul Sounds throw down the beats as part of the eighth annual ¡A Viva Voz!

Featuring the bandleaders of Grupo Fantasma and Antibalas – Adrian Quesada and Martin Perna, respectively – Ocote Soul Sounds has been described as “sounding like a sun kissed Brazilian soundtrack from the ’70s.”

¡A Viva Voz! kicks off  at 7pm with a lite reception and presentation by dj t-kay of KOOP 91.7 fm before the band starts to jam and those so inclined shake it up on the dance floor.

Continue reading ¡A Viva Voz! gets funky with Ocote Soul Sounds