Peter Sparling

Dancer/Choreographer/Screendance Artist/Educator
Ann Arbor, Michigan
www.petersparling.com

A native of Detroit, Peter Sparling has been a dancer, choreographer, and educator for over 45 years. Currently, he is the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Dance at the University of Michigan, where he has taught dance technique, composition, theory, and screendance for 30 years.  He is also co-creator of the U-M Ann Arbor Dance Works. A graduate of Interlochen Arts Academy and The Juilliard School, Peter was a principal dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company from 1973 to 1987, and has performed and staged Graham’s works worldwide. The Graham Company will perform his own work, Notes for a Voyage, this fall in New York City.   In recent years, Peter has turned his focus to the hybrid art form of screendance, the composition of movement imagery specifically for the screen His screendances have been featured at festivals around the world, and he lectures on dance for the screen at academic conferences and guest residencies. Among Peter’s recent screen productions is Last Man at Willow Run, “an elegiac tone poem for the post-industrial age,” shot in the Willow Run Bomber Plant just months before its demolition.  He also served as artistic director of the Dance Gallery/Peter Sparling Dance Company during its 15-year run in Ann Arbor.  Peter resides in Ann Arbor with his partner of 24 years, visual artist John Gutoskey.

Peter Sparling

Peter Smith Photography

FAVORITES

Most memorable performance: Rudolf Nureyev in Roland Petit’s Paradise Lost at the Masonic Temple, Detroit, 1968.

Sanctuary: the north woods behind Bay View, Michigan

Motto: Who ever said it would be easy?

Destination: back into thin air

THE QUERY

How old were you when you started dancing?

My first attempt was when I was about eight years old. I begged my mother for dance classes and it lasted for six months at Rose Marie’s School of Dance until I decided to become a violinist. I picked it up again eight years later as a student at the Interlochen Arts Academy.

Why has dance been your life’s work?

When I began dance lessons in high school, I found it absolutely liberating. It allowed me to ground myself in the world, and to engage space and time physically and poetically as if they were clay to be molded. It has granted me membership in a very elite and devoutly committed community of like-minded artists who share and create together a dynamic and precious legacy. Dance gives me the means to communicate with others and share my visions.

How would you describe your creative process?

Instinct, lots of lists, trial and error, a dance of random with the pre-conceived, calculated risk, technique, obsession, the ability to block out any distractions, giving into a flow, defying authority, the odds, and my own worn-out habits. Expecting everything from my dancers as I do of myself, giving everything to the moment and to the movement… then being able to step back, and to edit, edit, edit. Choosing good collaborators who share my vision and respect the process.

What was your experience of working with Martha Graham?

Martha was witty, temperamental, ruthlessly demanding, and stubborn. She challenged me to reveal and express very deep parts of myself.  I will remember her most as a supreme master and poet of the body who chose me as an instrument for her creations and taught me how to navigate the cruel, lovely waters of a life in dance.

Is the Graham technique still relevant?

As Modern Dance turns 100, Graham’s technique continues to set the standard as a complete system of modern dance technique and provokes little revolutions among the ranks, just as Graham and her generation revolted against what came before them. To understand embodiment as a practice vs. a theory requires the in-depth engagement and exploration of movement production and initiation that Graham’s technique demands. One cannot understand release or flow without an understanding of resistance, command, and sheer willpower.

What led to your intrigue with the art form of screendance?

Fourteen years ago, my colleague Terri Sarris and I decided to teach a screendance course together that merged our interests and disciplines. I had experimented with video since the early 80s and was anxious to expand my own and my students’ options for expression. I also was intrigued by the shift in scale: of a few minutes or hours moving for the camera vs. weeks or months sitting and editing on Final Cut Pro. The results were something more permanent, lasting, and material.

What is the most challenging part of making dances for the screen?

Our experience witnessing dance live and on stage involves what John Martin called metakinesis, a kind of kinesthetic empathy. Movement on a screen is flattened, risks being one step more remote, and is lost in the proliferation of visual information that gluts and creates our pictures of our world and our participation in it. My challenges are to manipulate scale and motion, camera and editing, performance specifically for the camera, and to evoke immediacy, visual excitement, and visceral connectivity.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve learned about the body?

The body has an ancestral memory and a lively intelligence that sustain me when I respond to it with trust, respect, and receptivity. It causes me terror and fear… fear of injury, of aging, of immobility. I think of Blake’s Tyger, tyger, burning bright, of the body’s fearful symmetry. But the body is temporal. I must learn to give it up.

Who has served as your most important mentor?

No one person. Martha Hill, the founder of Juilliard; the first degree-granting dance programs in colleges and universities; the great dancer/choreographers Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, and José Limon; Rudolf Arnheim, the great explorer of film, art and perception; and my partner, John.  Norm Herbert.  Paul Boylan. The poet Robert Hass.

What do you enjoy most about choreographing others?

I am ecstatic when I see a complex system that I plotted in my mind and body materialize in front of me on other bodies. What a high. That said, the purest pleasure of the process for me is allowing for coincidence, chance, and the unexpected contributions of dancers to take the dance to places I’d never imagined and that mirror or make into metaphor the strange and wonderful workings of the universe. Craft opens into something greater, more comprehensive.

Where do you find inspiration?

When in the creative zone. Also music, film, books, articles about literature, the sciences, the brain, nature, long walks, lectures by colleagues, and long talks with smart people. Occasionally performances of theater or dance.

If you had not become a dancer, what might you have done with your life?

I might have become an English teacher or a violinist in an orchestra. I might have moved to France and become a painter.

What’s next for Peter Sparling, the dancer?

If I still even consider myself a dancer, I’d say it is to preserve what mobility I still possess, and continue to perform movement improvisations for the camera until I drop. I will pass on my knowledge to other dancers and continue to serve the U-M Department of Dance until I retire in three years. Then I plan to paint, write, and make videos. 

Stephanie Rowden

Sound Artist/Radio Producer
Ann Arbor, Michigan
www.stephanierowden.com

Stephanie Rowden is a sound artist whose portfolio spans installation and radio documentary. Her work has been presented in a range of contexts, including a portrait gallery in the Brooklyn Museum, the vaults under the Brooklyn Bridge, a public library outside of Chicago, as well as numerous galleries in New York City and Chicago. Stephanie’s projects include sound design for a collaborative performance project with author Anne Carson, a documentary audio project highlighting a block in downtown Detroit, and an audio essay produced for the Peabody award-winning Studio 360 from Public Radio International.  She is also co-curator of Michigan Radio’s Sounds of the State series featuring brief audio vignettes. Her installations with sound have been presented at the Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York, and Littlejohn Contemporary in New York City. Stephanie serves as an Associate Professor at the University of Michigan Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design. She lives in Ann Arbor with her husband, Andy Kirshner, son, and a black dog with one white paw named Thisbe.

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Andy Kirshner

FAVORITES

Book:  The Principles of Uncertainty by Maira Kalman

Most treasured possession: The audio recordings I’ve made of friends and family who are now gone. 

Sound: My son’s voice

Motto: If I had one, it would probably have something to do with harnessing the power of curiosity, wonder, or stick-to-itiveness.

THE QUERY

When did you first realize that you were fascinated with sound?

It started as a happy accident when I was in college. I decided to add some sound effects as part of a sculpture installation. Afterward, I couldn’t stop thinking about the power of sound to conjure images in the mind’s eye.

How did you get your start as a sound artist?

Looking back, it was just clunky trial and error — portable cassette recorders and cheap microphones.  In 1980 there weren’t a lot of visual artists working with sound. And definitely no sound art classes. 

Why does this form of artistic expression suit you?

The intimacy in the experience of listening — both as I’m making my work, and also in the experience I try to create for others.

How did you develop the concept for your piece Klezmer in Krakow?

It developed from a project I did with cultural anthropologist, Erica Lehrer, and graphic designer, Hannah Smotrich. We created a participatory public art in Krakow, adjacent to the Festival of Jewish Culture. We were interested in the role Poles are playing in reviving Jewish culture in Poland — a place where Jews and Jewish culture have been mostly absent since the Holocaust. The voices of the visitors that I recorded as part of that public installation were complicated and very unexpected.

What’s the most surprising thing that has happened during a recording session?

The microphone invites surprises all the time. Or maybe it just creates a different quality of listening to the world or even to oneself. When I was in Krakow recording interviews related to the city’s Festival of Jewish Culture, one man suddenly decided to tell me a family secret about his Jewish roots which he hadn’t had the courage to share with his teenage daughter (who was only a few yards away). I think I heard the radio producer, Jay Allison, once say that interesting things arise out of silence. Very true.

What do you always hope to provide to the listener/visitor?

I think a lot about the transporting qualities of sound and story — not only about the way they can carry us outward beyond our own experiences, but also inward toward imagination and contemplation.

Is there a project that stands out as most memorable?

Each project sticks with me in some way, pushing me up against the limit of what I know how to do.

What types of projects are you working on these days?

I am finishing a long audio essay about a care-giving circle I stumbled upon that coincided with my own experience of recovery from illness. I’m also inching toward a stop motion animation with sound.

Where do you find inspiration?

People who imagine their lives in unpredictable or joyful ways. The other day I saw a guy on a loading dock doing his job while singing at the top of his lungs and fearlessly busting out some great moves. 

What three things can’t you live without?

Moments of solitude in my studio. Times three.

Who has had the greatest influence on your life, and why?

I’ve had so many influences. Family, friends, teachers, and artists I’ve never met. We have so many selves in one lifetime — maybe each one has its own greatest influence?

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Just start again.

When you’re not working, what do you like to do?  

A long leisurely dog walk to daydream or have a deliciously rambling conversation with a friend.

Jean Buescher Bartlett

Bookbinder/Artist/Designer
Founder/Owner, Bloodroot Press
Ann Arbor, Michigan
www.bloodrootpress.com

Jean Buescher Bartlett is the founder and owner of Bloodroot Press, an Ann Arbor-based studio and bindery.  For the past 25 years Jean has published and produced a range of limited edition, letterpress printed, illustrated books, including The Day the World Began by Fay Weldon, Porch Swing by Alison Swan, and An Alphabet Book that contains 26 original gouache paintings. She hand bound the 175 copy deluxe edition of Zingerman’s Guide to Better Bacon: Stories of Pork Bellies, Hush Puppies, Rock ‘n’ Roll Music and Bacon Fat Mayonnaise by Ari Weinzweig. Jean’s work is housed in major collections worldwide, including the New York Public Library, Dutch Royal Library, Stanford University Special Collections, and the Victoria & Albert Museum. The University of Michigan Special Collections houses a complete collection of all of the books and broadsides produced by Bloodroot Press. Jean has been teaching Book Arts and the History of Modern Design at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit since 2006.  She resides in Ann Arbor with her husband, Tom.

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Sean Carter

FAVORITES

Book: A Childhood: The Biography of a Place by Harry Crews, Eucalyptus by Murray Bail, and Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson.

Sanctuary: My bed and my garden.

Museum: The Asian Art Museum in Seattle, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Cooper Hewitt and The Cloisters in New York City, and Sir John Soane’s Museum in London.

THE QUERY

How did you get your start as a book artist?

I saw an exhibition of the Guild of Bookworkers at the Boston Athenaeum in the mid 1980s. I was captivated by the idea of the handmade book — by its profundity, compactness, intimacy, and completeness. I then enrolled in the MFA Program in Book Arts at the University of Alabama — still one of the finest programs of its kind in the country — and immersed myself in acquiring the very best binding and letterpress skills I could. I went on to apprentice at the Yolla Bolly Press in Northern California before moving to Ann Arbor and establishing Bloodroot Press.  

Why does this form of artistic expression suit you?

It combines my love of reading, writing, handwork, repetition, and mindfulness. It’s rather slow and deliberate work, which is my preferred mode of operation. 

What led to the creation of Bloodroot Press in 1990?

Wanting to focus on producing limited edition, letterpress printed, illustrated, and hand bound books with quality and integrity.

Do you have a particular approach [or process] as you begin a book?

There is usually an anchor, often the text. After that, it’s just one decision at a time until everything falls into place. Doing a mock-up that changes and evolves is essential. 

What materials do you typically work with?

Handmade papers, Japanese and German bookcloth, oil-based letterpress inks, and linen sewing thread.

Whom do you collaborate with on your projects?

Writers, poets, calligraphers, and papermakers.

Which three tools of the trade can’t you live without?

Press boards, blotters, and weights. Just the right bone folder. Surgical scissors.

How do you define creativity?

Unbridled and unabashed curiosity.

What types of projects are you working on these days? 

Renovating our 1927 Dutch Colonial home and studio next to Eberwhite Woods. Collages inspired by Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons that have spilled over into one-of-a-kind artist books. A series of conceptual works on paper entitled Small Acts of Violence.

What are your artistic influences?

Joseph Beuys. Japanese and German art and design. Karl Blossfeldt’s photographs. Contemporary architecture and crafts. Walter Hamady’s bookwork. Signage and typography.

Is there a book or a film that has changed you?

Vincent Ward’s film, Vigil.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

To have faith in what I’m doing and to stick with it.

What’s right with the world?

The tenacity of human creativity.

Geoffrey Michael

Owner/Founder/Recording Engineer
Big Sky Recording
Ann Arbor, Michigan
www.bigskyrecording.com

Geoffrey Michael is the founder and owner of Big Sky Recording, an Ann Arbor-based recording studio. In the 14 years since he opened the studio, Geoffrey has worked with hundreds of recording artists and performers, including The Verve Pipe, Hot Club of Detroit, The Electric Six, Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise, Great Lakes Myth Society, George Bedard, Al Hill, Jeremy Kittel, Joshua Davis, and Chris Buhalis.  Big Sky has also recorded hundreds of studio sessions for Michigan Radio’s Acoustic Café with the likes of Iron & Wine, Death Cab for Cutie, Alejandro Escovedo, Barenaked Ladies, Shawn Colvin, Suzanne Vega, and Dar Williams. In addition to his studio work, Geoffrey has managed to carve out time to get a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s degree in sustainable systems.   He resides in Ann Arbor with his wife, Graceann Warn.

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Paul Engstrom Photography

FAVORITES

Book:  The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkinsand Born to Run by Christopher McDougall which got me back into running.

Piece of music: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot [Wilco]

Motto:  How hard can it be?

Most treasured possession: My 1943 Gibson SJ-45 guitar

THE QUERY

How did you get your start as a recording engineer?

I played guitar in rock bands and jazz band in high school and was also a computer and electronics nerd, so it was natural to combine the two.  I was in a band with Ben Grosse and we had a studio in his basement which later became Pearl Sound.

Why does this form of artistic expression suit you?

I like crafting the sound and feel of a song.  As an engineer or producer you make lots of small decisions or suggestions that shape the final recording.  I lost interest in my own guitar playing, but I’m still interested in the production of music and the psychology of getting the best out of musicians. 

What led to the creation of Big Sky Recording in 2000?

In the late 1980s I was a freelance engineer.  I worked at a few studios such as the Tempermill in Detroit and Solid Sound in Ann Arbor.   In the early 1990s I started a small studio with Rob Martens  [owner of Solid Sound] called Al’s Audio Diner.  By 2000, I was looking for a larger space with windows in the control room.  I really couldn’t stand being in a windowless room all day. 

Is there a studio session that stands out among others as a favorite?

It’s hard to pick one session.  Sometimes it’s the Acoustic Cafe sessions where I get to record some amazing artists.   But for me the process of fixing a song that isn’t working is the most satisfying - breaking it down and rebuilding it into something great.

What three things typically come together in the best of recording sessions?

Listening. There are two kinds of sessions: a live session where the whole band is playing together and a session where tracks are overdubbed layer by layer.  In the best live sessions musicians listen to and play off each other.  Overdub sessions work best when you are really listening to what’s already recorded, and evaluating new parts.  You’ve got to be willing to scrap a part that isn’t working.

A great vocal (or solo).  It doesn’t have to be spectacular, but it’s got to be believable.   It can be really hard to get a vocal that conveys the feeling of the song and seems meaningful and real.   Frequently a vocal sung “just as a reference” is hard to beat.

Luck.  Sometimes a little mistake or a weird sound becomes a cool new part. 

What types of projects are you working on these days?

We have a nice big room, so we do tracking sessions like Acoustic Cafe or jazz recordings with everyone playing together.  Besides that, it’s a mix of different styles and a number of ongoing longer projects that spread out over months or years.  We’re also building gear to sell. Our new studio manager [Zach Lizzio] and I built a new vacuum tube mic pre-amp based on the famous Beatles console at Abbey Road.

Describe three pieces of equipment in your studio that you couldn’t live without?

1) My Neve compressors make vocals sit nicely in a mix.  2) The Neumann U67 tube mic that sounds great with most people.  [It’s a mic that’s been used on so many classic recordings that your ear just recognizes the sound as right].  3) A few mics with figure 8 patterns that allow me to record someone singing and playing guitar at the same time and mix it later without going nuts. 

But the truth is, I could work without any of these things because it’s not about any particular gear. It’s about the musician’s performance and getting the song to work.  Performance is always the most important thing.

How do you envision the state of the recording industry in the next five to ten years?

People will always want to make great sounding recordings.  But if they’re not making any money from selling them, it may limit the recording budget.  I think there’s a trend toward the Spotify/Pandora model, and now Apple has purchased Beats Music. Also, I think the home recording trend will continue.  In fact, most of my clients do some home recording so Big Sky becomes the place to put it all together.  We’ll always need studios for mixing and recording things like drums that are difficult to capture at home.

What’s the most surprising thing that has happened during a recording session?

I was working with the great local blues band, “Big Dave and the Ultrasonics,” and we were obsessing for hours over some tedious part.  I turned around and one of the band members was dancing on the couch with his pants down.

Which musician has had the largest impact on your life?

For me, it’s more producers than musicians.  I was lucky to do a couple of projects with producer Jack Douglas [John Lennon, Aerosmith].  He was really thoughtful at manipulating the studio to get the best out of the musicians, and making the session seem special and important. 

As a business owner, what’s the most important lesson you’ve learned along the way?

It sounds cliche, but good people on your team make all the difference.  Chris DuRoss [who recently moved to Grand Rapids] was our manager and engineer for six years.  Clients loved him, and he really helped make good decisions for the business. 

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Moderation in all things, including moderation.

Who has had the greatest influence on your life, and why?

My Dad was a professor at the U-M.   When I was growing up, he would always ask me to come up with explanations for things we’d see or questions I had.   He wasn’t interested in the right answer so much as making me think through the problem.  I still tend to think that way. I want to try out every possible solution.  So in recording I try not to have a sonic stamp.  I like to try to experiment and find the best way of recording each project.

When you’re not working, what do you like to do?

I play tennis with my wife, Graceann, and I’m also on a team. We have the Tennis Channel on a lot at home.  I love to windsurf, but there aren’t many windy days in the summer.  So windy days can lead to some hastily rescheduled sessions!

What’s one big question you’d like answered?

How can we keep increasing the global standard of living and still protect the environment?

Brian Polcyn

Chef/Restaurateur/Author/Culinary Instructor
Milford, Michigan

Brian Polcyn has been working in the culinary industry for over 37 years.  Currently, he is chef/owner of the Forest Grill, an American bistro in the triangle district of Birmingham, Michigan. Brian also serves as a full-time culinary instructor at Schoolcraft College Culinary Arts School in Livonia, Michigan. Until recently, he was chef/owner of Five Lakes Grill [one of the original farm-to-table restaurants] in Milford, Michigan, having sold the restaurant earlier this year to focus on new endeavors. Brian has co-authored two cookbooks, including Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing, and Salumi: The Craft of Italian Dry Curing with noted food author, Michael Ruhlman. He resides in Milford, Michigan with his wife, Julia.  

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Photo @ Joe Vaughn

FAVORITES

Cookbook:  How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman

Destination: Europe, Italy specifically

Motto:  Cook with love, all hail the pig a most noble beast.

Pastime:  Riding motorcycles

THE QUERY

Why did you decide to become a chef?

Early on, I found that cooking came easy to me.  I realized that I would be working for the rest of my life, so I wanted to be happy doing whatever it was that I would spend so much time at.  I set my sights on becoming a chef.

What is your greatest strength in the kitchen?

Being able to teach and explain method and technique to my cooks.  Also, understanding ingredients — especially how they interact with each other.

How did you become interested in the craft of charcuterie?

Chef Milos Cihelka, at the Golden Mushroom in Southfield, Michigan, introduced me to the craft in 1981. From that point on, I’ve been on a journey of discovery and I haven’t stopped yet.

What led to your co-authoring two cookbooks on the subject?

Michael Ruhlman had featured me in his book, The Soul of a Chef, along with Thomas Keller and Michael Symon. He suggested we do a book together and I said, “You bet.”

Is there a chef or restaurateur that has influenced your career? 

Chef Milos Cihelka. He taught me the fundamentals, but more importantly, he taught me to think like a chef.

What three ingredients can’t you live without?

Pork, pork and one other…let me think — pork.

Do you have any interest in writing another cookbook?

Yes. Michael Ruhlman and I are talking right now about continuing the series of books, starting with France: Charcuterie, Italy: Salumi, and soon we will probably look closely at the meat and sausage of Spain.

What is it about teaching the culinary art form that suits you?

Sharing knowledge with people that are interested in food like I am.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

Cook from your soul.

Who are your heroes?

Chef Milos Cihelka, André Soltner, Daniel Boulud, Neil Young, and Eric Clapton.

Is there a meal you’ve had out recently that was memorable?

I do a lot of traveling and I’m very impressed with the enthusiasm and skill set of the next generation of American chefs. Every city I go to, I find great food.

When you’re not working, what do you like to do?

Ride my Harley.

What’s next for Brian Polcyn, the chef?

I’ve partnered with Jack Aronson from Garden Fresh Foods and we are going to launch a line of sausage, smoked meat, and charcuterie nationally.