American Ballet Caravan Intro: Identifying Datasets

This summer, I am doing test visualizations with data from American Ballet Caravan’s 1941 tour of South America, with specific interest in the affordances of various available tools. My work is supported by a Digital Humanities Summer Grant from the University of Bristol.

This tour is special for a few reasons. First, over the course of five months, the forty-six employees of American Ballet Caravan managed to pass through almost every country in South America, with the exception of Bolivia and Paraguay, playing ninety engagements in about sixty cities. These performances took on a variety of formats, from subscriptions and benefits, to lecture-performances for theatres unable to support full productions. This exceeded the touring scope of any previous North American or European dance company,and also got them stuck in a blizzard in the Andes mountains.

Second is the particular mixture of public and private support for such an undertaking. I was first drawn to this tour via my research on Sol Hurok, among whose papers appear several suggested itineraries. Hurok, however, is rarely mentioned by name in other archival caches of documents on the 1941 tour. The credit for organization tends to go to Nelson A. Rockefeller, a friend of American Ballet Caravan’s director, Lincoln Kirstein. As Coordinator of  Inter-American Affairs, Rockefeller supported a significant portion of the tour as a test case for the future use of dance in cultural diplomacy. In the final report, the question of official sponsorship is raised in terms of the tension between “commercial enterprise” and “good will.”

In this first post, I am going to explore the types of datasets available in the archives that I have had access to so far, and some of the challenges of organizing them for this spatial-history-based inquiry into the economics and backstage labor of transnational dance touring.

Key Types of Archival Documents Related to the 1941 ABC Tour:

  1. Suggested itineraries from Hurok’s people, organized by number of performances, given travel times and transit methods. (Note: None of these came to fruition, because the tour schedule was entirely reorganized two weeks before departure.)
  2. Contextual notes to accompany such itineraries (i), in particular by the South American management organization Sociedad Musical Daniel, whose annotations concerned everything from potential audiences to altitude.
  3. Formal reports prepared and submitted by Kirstein to Rockefeller before, during, and after the tour. These include reflections on the larger stakes of the endeavor, as in one report submitted four months into the tour, which addressed multiple categories of success (“financial return,” “reception by the press,” and “residual prestige”) on a city-by-city basis.
  4. Less formal letters and reports by Kirstein and others to Rockefeller and his colleagues. These include more piecemeal reports about reception and particular challenges encountered, as well as allusions to past and future plans.
  5. Personal documents by performers, including scrapbooks, photographs, and satirical writing.

These are all fascinating in themselves as historical stories that reveal the importance of infrastructures. For example, the tour was not only rerouted two weeks prior to departure, but it had to be rescheduled again once it was underway, due to weather and political conflicts (both World War II and the Ecuador-Peruvian War). In terms of means of transportation alone, a blizzard over the Andes cut off train travel and stranded the company in Mendoza for about ten days, before they were able to charter a private jet to Santiago. And while WWII would seem to have been taking place far away, Atlantic shipping schedules were thrown off, and the company ended up needing to take a Spanish refugee ship originally from Bilbao between Santos and Buenos Aires.

I am trying to break these stories down to “raw” data and classify them. In terms of a confluence of dates and places, there is no single authoritative travel plan for the tour since it ultimately unfolded between June and November 1941. Therefore, I have been categorizing the pieces of information in various documents as “prospective” versus “past,” although even seemingly-authoritative references to what already happened at times contradict one another! Some specific dates are clear, such as the opening night in a particular city. Others specify a range. For example, the company gave nineteen performances over a period of twelve days in this city, versus only two shows in another one. Seventy-one performances were supposedly done by the time of a report dated September 9th, but then again, the same report also makes reference to September 21st as in the past. It is not consistently possible to identify the difference between travel dates and performance dates, and we also know from complaints about performer fatigue that they sometimes also traveled in the day and performed the same night.

One of the techniques I have been using to smooth this data is to count the number of calendar weeks for the twenty-four-ish week tour. Although this is not necessarily representative of the number of shows on a city-by-city basis, it allows for uncertainty in terms of dates while still setting up a clear temporal sequence. That said, establishing a comprehensive, sequential list of locations is equally problematic. While eighteen cities are named in the reports and letters, there are references to a total of sixty cities. This suggests less than a third are accounted for, namely the locations in which the company stayed more than one night. Many additional cities appear in the planning documents and, while it is possible to speculate as to where they would fit geographically, there is no evidence the company ultimately appeared there.

Beyond performance and travel locations and dates, there are other types of data within these documents. In terms of logistics, we can note modes of travel (boat, train, plane, car); whether a given country offered a subsidy for the tours in their region; and the type of performance (subscription, benefit, regular, lecture-performance). Among other, more qualitative forms of data, we note where American Ballet Caravan reported gaining or losing money, and list the other international companies referenced as benchmarks for their reception in given places.

These datasets will be key to better understanding what John Urry would call the “mobility systems” of dance touring.