Ann Arbor, Michigan
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 Smith Photography
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
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.