Over the past several months, two other undergraduates, Emily Liptow and Christine Ghinder, and I have been working on a project for OSU Department of Dance professor Dr. Harmony Bench. The project is to create an interactive database for scholars to more easily access data pertaining to early twentieth century dance artists, such as Ted Shawn, Ruth St. Denis, and Diagheliev’s Ballet Russe, specifically surrounding their touring and program information. Before last week when we travelled to the New York Public Library’s Jerome Robbins Dance Division in New York City, my work consisted mainly of transcribing tour chronicles by Christina Schlundt and Lynn Garafola along with pictures of programs from digital collections and an earlier trip by Dr. Bench to the NYPL into Excel spreadsheets. The goal of the trip to the NYPL was then to find the physical programs and materials to help fill gaps, clarify questions, document new relevant items, and confirm existing information.
My focus was on Ted Shawn, and later Helen Tamiris, who have been the two artists I have spent the most time with this year. I had my first experiences, sometimes battles, with microfilm, microphotographs of documents on a length of film, which could only be viewed on a variety of outdated, rudimentary machines. I’d like to say I grew to like them, but I would be lying. Shawn and Tamiris both had 50-75ft long microfilms in their collections to work through, meaning I spent many consecutive hours scrolling through newspaper clippings, photographs, and thankfully, programs. Below you can see a program from microfilm. Pictures of this screen did not turn out well, but there were other microfilm machines more conducive to image capturing.
Half of the fun of working in the library was figuring out how to turn up new materials that might have something relevant. As any researcher knows, using good search terms and successfully navigating the online catalog is an art in itself. It was exciting to come across a program marking a performance not yet recorded or an unexpected collaboration or connection. When materials were not pertinent, however, there were often interesting pictures, notes, or advertisements about the artist or other artists from that era, like Trudi Schoop and her Comic Ballet. Who is she and what did her ballet look like? I can begin to have an idea from the advertisement that features her.
The larger purpose of the project became clearer from our trip, mainly from further articulation by the ever eloquent Harmony Bench. Emily, Christine, and I have all ran into difficulties explaining what it is we do to our friends and families.
We can now tell them that we are about to revolutionize the dance history field.
But really, the potential use of a database containing this sort of information could really effect how dance research is conducted, at the very least by increasing access so that non-experts can do original research. Dance being an ephemeral form, effective documentation has long been a difficult issue. Video capture works now, but how do we save those sorts of important bits of information about works from the first half of the 20th century and earlier? Program and touring information capture important information by presenting real places, people, dates, and works that can be traced and verified. Easy access to these bits of information can allow scholars to draw connections between artists, perhaps from a shared time spent in a place or a shared collaborator. That opens the possibilities for tracing the influence or effect of those potential overlaps.
To better make the information accessible, we have also been working with how best to make it interactive through various data visualization software, like Google Maps and Tableau. These interactive tools enable pedagogical possibilities for dance educators we are considering as well. You can interact with this Tableau Public map here.
This trip presented a great opportunity to experience dance research with the tangible materials that underlie larger dance history conversations. Each program, photo, and announcement builds a much larger narrative surrounding a subject that can then be connected to so many other ideas! The possibilites are innumerable. I’m so pleased I got to do this kind of research as an undergraduate student. It was a great preparation for the myriad of materials I will be engaging with at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival as an Archive intern this summer. In addition to working, just getting to spend time with Emily, Christine, and Harmony was a nice change. It is fortunate that we all get along and work well together. Here is a last picture of Emily and Christine at our usual spots in the reading room, with some materials poised for inspection: