Our recent event brought together ballet fans with Wikipedia experts to improve the online encyclopedia’s articles on choreographer Kenneth MacMillan.
When was the last time you used Wikipedia? With the online encyclopedia receiving more than 6 billion page views a month in more than 250 languages, ‘very recently’ is likely to be your response. Wikipedia provides a unique way for almost anyone anywhere to find out more about the world. And it is almost entirely the work of volunteers, dubbed ‘Wikipedians’.
But because the content is determined by volunteers’ interests, Wikipedia’s coverage of certain subjects is better than others. Dance is one of those areas that needs improving, which is why the Royal Opera House teamed up with Wikimedia UK to host our second ‘editathon‘ – an event bringing together ballet fans with experienced Wikipedia editors to work together on improving the resource, and so share our passion with a wider audience.
Last year our focus was Frederick Ashton, Founder Choreographer of The Royal Ballet – so this year it only made sense to look at the life and works of Kenneth MacMillan. MacMillan was one of the greatest choreographers of the 20th century, and a key figure in the history of The Royal Ballet.
We were hugely lucky to have with us two key MacMillan experts: Jann Parry, dance critic and author of Different Drummer, the definitive MacMillan biography; and Dame Monica Mason, former Director of The Royal Ballet, who created the first of her many roles for MacMillan aged just 20. With them were ROH archivists Laura Brown and Catriona Cannon, who presented historical items from the ROH Collections.
For Cheryl Agyei, ROH Student Ambassador at UWE, the event was an ideal way to find out more about her favourite choreographer and the workings of Wikipedia: ‘Before I knew it the day was over and I had not only edited my first article on the dancer Tetsuya Kumakawa but had also created one on Michael Coleman, who created a role inElite Syncopations – the first ballet I ever watched, and which had me hooked from the start.’
The highlights for dance writer Laura Dodge were: ‘Monica Mason and Jann Parry’s personal tales of MacMillan, including about his early rehearsals with Darcey Bussell, the content of his personal diaries and his attitude to creating ballets. It was fascinating to hear from two real MacMillan experts and get an insight into the choreographer’s personality behind the scenes.’
Edward Hands, a leading Wikipedian, was able to bring together Jann’s expert knowledge with Wikipedia’s unique advantages: ‘Creating an article about Margaret Hill, Kenneth MacMillan’s first muse, was challenging as there is very little documented. Fortunately his biographer Jann Parry was on hand. Jann’s account brought her to life, and although she explained that everything she could find is in her 2009 book, one name was inadvertently misspelled. With a book you have to wait for the second edition – with Wikipedia there’s a new edition every second.’
Jonathan Cardy, GLAM (Galleries, Libraries and Museums) Organiser for Wikimedia UK, summarised: ‘Wikipedia is an astonishingly large encyclopedia, and well on the way to achieving the Wikimedia movement’s target of “a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge”. But we have gaps, gaps in our coverage of the pre-internet era, and gaps because most of the volunteers who write Wikipedia are male. One of the lovely things about this event at the Royal Opera House is that it addressed both of those problems.’
Laura and Catriona said: ‘It was great to see the editors using the materials provided and including information from ROH Collections in their Wikipedia pages about MacMillan’s ballets and The Royal Ballet dancers. We can’t wait for the next event and for new people to explore the collections.’
By the end of the day the team had made major improvements to existing articles and created innumerable new articles for dancers and major works. But there’s still so much work to do.