Peter Sparling
Edited by: 
Alicia Samson

Q:  Can you talk when you first became interested in dance? How did it grow from there?

It was kind of in two phases. One, I was in second grade and I became enamored with dancing. I begged my mother for dance lessons. She took me to a studio in Northwest Detroit. I was fitted for tap shoes and ballet shoes. I went into my first ballet class and I was the only little boy there. It was so terrifying that I cried in the dressing room. I remember that, but I stayed with it. I only stayed with it for about six months because I was then tested for musical abilities in my public school and chose instead to begin violin lessons. So, I had to drop the dance. I returned to dance when I went to Interlochen Arts Academy for high school. I went there as a violinist in 10th grade. I took an Introduction to Dance class in order to get out of Physical Education. I stood at the barre in second position and was told to bend my knees. The teacher gasped and said, “Oh my god, you have such turnout. You're a natural.” I said, “What's turnout?” By my senior year I had become so interested in choreography and the fact that my body could be my instrument. I didn't have to hold the violin under my chin to make music. I could create imagery, with or without music, using my body to draw shapes in space. And so, in my senior year I became a dance major. I auditioned at various schools and was admitted to The Juilliard School. That sealed it. I went to Juilliard, and I just decided that I was going to become a professional choreographer. I figured, quite soon, that if I wanted to be a choreographer, I should probably learn how to dance. So, I became involved in the whole cult of technique. I had to figure out what classical ballet was versus modern dance, what Limón was versus Graham, what my body was best suited for, etc.  It was really at Interlochen Arts Academy that I became very interested in contemporary dance. Interlochen gave me a huge head start to a life in the arts.

Q: Can you talk about how you came to the Graham company, and then a little bit about working with Martha herself and what that was like? And some real concrete memories that you have and how you've carried on the tradition of Graham and kept it alive?

It's interesting that you asked me about Graham. I just, two hours ago, finished a video for the Martha Graham Dance Company that they will use online for their Martha Matinees in May. So, I still have a very strong connection with that company. In 1973, I was a senior at Juilliard. I was dancing in the Limón Dance Company, touring under the State Department sponsorship of Soviet Union, Europe, while  I was also dancing with the Graham Apprentice Company. This company was begun by some of Martha's senior members when she was in the hospital and extremely ill. After classes, I remember, I would get on the crosstown bus at W. 65th Street near Juilliard to the Graham School on East 63rd Street. There, I would rehearse and learn repertory with a group of younger dancers alongside some of the senior members of her company.  I had danced in Martha's “Diversion of Angels'' as a student at Juilliard. I had also been studying Graham technique while at Juilliard under some extraordinary performers and dance teachers: Helen McGehee, Ethel Winter, Bertram Ross, Kazuko Hirabayashi. And while dancing with José’s company, José passed away from cancer in December of 1972. In March of 1973, I was asked to come to the Alvin Theatre to cover for one of Martha's dancers who was dancing in the season but had been injured. I was asked if I could cover him, just in case. I sat in the audience at the Alvin Theatre and watched the company. Fortunately, I didn't have to go on stage because the dancer was able to perform. It gave me the opportunity to really witness the company. I remember watching performances of “Clytemnestra” with Pearl Lang and Mary Hinkson in the lead role,  and the other terrific dancers. I was awestruck by the power and the visceral quality of the movement. I found that my gaze was drawn to their pelvises and their hips, and how expressive and organically erotic and powerful these dancers were. Something in me wanted that experience. I wanted to do it. There was a power and a drama. There was great power in Martha's genius at making the narrative come alive on stage. These primal narratives of “ancestral memory”. I was moved at such a deep level that I knew that's what I wanted to do. Fortunately, a few months later, I was invited to join the company. I did not hesitate; José had passed away, and I figured that I wanted to be an apprentice to a master. And Martha was alive. She wanted me to dance with her company and I didn't think twice! I decided, “Yes, I’m doing this.” I started with her in August of 1973 and remained in her company permanently through 1979. It was an extraordinary time for the Graham company. Martha had come out of the hospital. The Dance Touring Program at the National Endowment for the Arts was supporting dance. I traveled all over the United States, I came to Ann Arbor often and danced at the Power Center for the Performing Arts. The State Department also sponsored us. I traveled all through Europe, all through Asia, and had an extraordinary experience. I not only saw the world, I was learning from senior dancers and being groomed to take on principal roles. I think the great moment for me as an apprentice to a master was when Martha chose me as a central figure in numerous new works she was creating. This was between 1974 and 1985. I guess she saw something in me: a hunger, a willingness and an ability to improvise.  Also, I was eager to contribute to the creative process. She could no longer move, she was arthritic, she couldn't stand and demonstrate movement. But she still had that spine. She was such an articulate being. Poetic, sensitive, well versed. Maybe a bit of a dilettante, self educated, but so brilliant. I, and a handful of other dancers, were willing to improvise for her in the Graham vocabulary/phrasing, to help her generate materials for her new works. I was ambitious, I was opportunistic. I have to say this though: I worked a deal with her. I would dance in the company as long as she gave me space to rehearse my own work. There was always this ulterior motive, where I needed space to make my own work. I was free. I was doing commissions and dancing my own works outside of the company, throughout the 70s, throughout the time I was with Graham. It was something I think you would do, you'd figure out, you’d seize the moment, you’d take hold of a situation and make the most of it. It was an extraordinary time, but I then knew when I was ready to leave that I wanted to make my own works and start my own company. So, in 1979, I left the company with Martha's blessing and found a lawyer through the Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts to help me incorporate and put together a board of directors, and started the Peter Sparling Dance Company. Fortunately, Martha allowed me to return as a guest artist from 1979 to 1987, something that was pretty unheard of. I was living the life of a freelance choreographer, traveling the world to make money to afford one annual season in New York City. I also toured a bit with my company, became a full time fundraiser, grant writer and lived that life. Am I getting ahead of myself? Anyways, I remained as a guest performer with the Graham Company, until 1987. In 1984, I had been living for a year in London, as the teacher for the London Contemporary Dance Theatre. That was a Graham based company that began in the mid 1960s by a former Graham dancer, Robert Cohan. He started the first contemporary dance company in London. I'd been invited to come and teach the dancers. I left New York, thinking that maybe I was finished with dancing and choreography, that I would become a company teacher and I could experience living in Europe. But I returned to the United States to dance with the Graham Company for the gala performance of the 100th anniversary of the Metropolitan Opera House. I returned briefly to the Ann Arbor area to visit my parents who lived in Plymouth, Michigan. I came over to the Dance Department at U-M  to visit my friends. I knew Gay Delanghe and many of the teachers there. And I found out from Gay that they were looking for new faculty members. And I thought, “London? I don't think that's going to work out. New York? I'm burnt out. I don't want to live hand to mouth as a starving artist any longer. I'm exhausted. Maybe I need some security, maybe I need a pension. Maybe I need a steady paycheck. Most of all, maybe I need space. I need space to make dances.” And I decided to come to Ann Arbor in the fall of 1984. I did two years halftime. I would teach the fall semester and Jessica Fogel taught the winter semesters. After two years of that, we were both offered full time positions. And we didn't think twice. Again, it was one of those moments where I thought, “Yes, I'm ready.” And from 1986 to 2017, I was a full-time professor at University of Michigan.

Q: What are some strong memories, maybe that you have from working with Martha, being with her in rehearsal?

Martha was an oracle, a seer. She could see beneath the surface. She could read movement, she could read one's intentions and one's body language. And I, I think I was drawn to her because I needed to be stripped of inhibitions, to be peeled away. I needed to kind of conquer my own demons and to be open with myself to mine the subconscious, the true talents that I believed that I had but was having trouble accessing. I saw it in her other dancers. I saw it in her works as something that I aspired towards. It would give my life meaning. And she was very clever about it. She once took a role away from me, just to bait me, to kind of get me all provoked. I went back into class, I sat in the front and I would challenge her. I was like, “Damn you, Martha, I'm going to show you.” I worked so hard, and about two or three months later, I asked for an interview with her, and she sat in her little lounge area there on 63rd Street. I walked in and I said, “Hello Martha,” and she said, “Please sit down.” She said, “I've been waiting for you to come. I've noticed in class that you've been working very hard and I believe that you have more in you and I needed to see that. So now that I see that I will be able to better evaluate you and give you the roles that you deserve.” And, of course, I was so elated that she even noticed that I'd forgotten the fact that she had taken a role away from me. Sure enough, within five or six months time, I was assigned more roles than I knew what to do with. Dancers and senior members were leaving the company, and suddenly there I was asked to learn roles within a week's time. So, I would take an old film, put it on a projector that projected onto the wall of the studio, and try to learn roles off of these old films. And then, in a week's time I'd see my name up on the call board, saying that I was going to be rehearsing. I was going to be running the piece for Martha, with no rehearsal. And I got very used to this kind of instant preparation. You go in there, you got the role, you have the confidence and you do it. So that happened. And there was no turning back. What a lot of people don't know is how much her dancers contributed to her creative process. And I think every choreographer knows this, but for someone like Martha Graham the legend, one would think that all of the movement came from Martha, that she evolved the entire technique, that she created every role and taught it to her dancers. That is not the way it happened. She identified dancers who interested her, who spoke to her. She saw how her dancers could work within her constellation, within her aura as pawns and as characters in her dramas. She could work against them or with them. And she depended on all of us to be able to evolve movement with her. And this, this became even more the case when she could no longer move. When she came out of the hospital in 1973 she was really struggling to figure out how to make dances while sitting down. She could no longer be up there at the center of the hurricane,  directing the forces around her personality and her body. Her presence. So, we were doing everything we possibly could to assist her in this. We were giving her everything. I've got to say that during this time between 1973 and 1979, we would come in on weekends, we would be working without pay, the company would get us just enough work so that we could go on unemployment. I would stand on the unemployment line for weeks at a time. I would go to Club 90. It was the unemployment office on West 90th and Broadway above the Shopwell grocery store. We called it Club 90. And there were times when I couldn't afford the bus. I had to walk everywhere. I couldn't afford classes. I would run around the Central Park reservoir for exercise. So, it wasn't easy. And Martha demanded that we come into rehearsal, even when we weren't being paid at times. So, there had to be a kind of a fierce commitment to be able to sustain that. Fortunately, New York was affordable for poor dancers at the time. I mean, my first apartment in New York in 1969 was $120 a month. And for the most part, the apartments I had right up through the 90s were less than $400. So, it was a different world. It was affordable. One could afford to be poverty stricken as an artist. That doesn't sound quite kosher but it's the way it was. The Graham credential gave me a meal ticket to the world, I could travel all over the world to teach Graham Technique. I had the credential and I used it for all it was worth. Teaching the Graham Technique was extremely satisfying, largely because it was so thoroughly and systematically plotted, as well as sensually and viscerally so satisfying to perform. It's been revised over 80-90 years. I believe in Martha's work. I believe in her technique. I have taught and staged  Graham's works on companies all over the world. A certain few of her former members are given permission to set her works on ballet and modern companies, and companies at universities as well. About eight or nine years ago, I began to be regularly involved in creating videos for the company. I made three or four curtain warmer videos that were projected on the cyclorama  of the stage at the Joyce Theater or City Center that would appear as the audience was coming in. These films would have to do with the theme of the season. And so, another great connection I have with the company is that Janet Eiber, the artistic director, was my first dance partner in high school. We went to Interlochen Arts Academy together, we danced together at Juilliard, and then we were paired together by Martha for many years. We know each other well and we trust each other. I feel very devoted to Janet and to her vision for this company. And I believe in that vision. I admire how she has reinvented the idea of the company as a repertory company. Using Martha's repertoire as the core, as the base, and the strength of the technique and the strength of her dancers, as the bait to attract other choreographers.

Q: Can you talk broadly, and then I'll probably, I may ask you some follow up questions about how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected you as an artist?

It first affected me as I sat here in my home studio making videos and paintings, and feeling anxious…. feeling suddenly that my life was threatened, that my days might be numbered. IThat sense of urgency began to accelerate the creative process. I immediately started filming in this studio, against greenscreen-- solo improvisations in silence or inspired by pieces of music that had been interesting to me for years. I tackled a work by Benjamin Britten, “Les Illuminations”,  based on the poems of the French surrealist poet Arthur Rimbaud. And in a week's time, I had created this really dense video work. It was kind of sparked by this sense of urgency. So, that's what I'd say first, the sense of urgency became so heightened. I was immediately drawn into various causes. The Ann Arbor Art Center asked if I would do an interview for a studio tour. They wanted to develop their online offerings. The same thing happened with the Ann Arbor Film Festival. I had a film that was to be shown late March at the Ann Arbor Film Festival. That, of course, was cancelled. But, Leslie Raymond and her staff very quickly figured out a way to do the festival live streamed online. And so, part of that was participating in interviews and in question and answers through Zoom, I immediately became very familiar with zoom. The same thing happened with the Cadence Video Poetry Festival in Seattle. They went online at the last minute. I had a film in that festival as well. I participated in the Q&A along with filmmakers from all over the world. So, it began to open up these very interesting and intriguing opportunities to communicate with a lot of other people for an audience that had this extraordinary potential in terms of numbers and global reach. I had a former U-M dance major, Stephanie Cope, ask if I would combine 12 different videos of her bell ringing. I made her a choir out of 12 of her on the screen for her Easter service. I was asked to tutor a student in northern Michigan for her screen dance, so she was sending me footage and I was sending her critiques. I sent a screen dance syllabus to two colleagues who needed online materials. Today, I was interviewed by someone from the Detroit public television station. They have chosen one of my videos to show on additional programming that they're developing. I created promotional materials for the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival. I was supposed to have a video in part of their festival performed with live music in June, but they postponed it until next year. In the meantime, they're trying to enhance their online programming. I'm helping my husband John Gutoskey make face masks. He's an extraordinary artist and former costume designer. He has created his own assembly line making masks. I'm trying to make myself available to serve in the way that I know best. A month or so  ago I stepped out onto our back patio at dusk and I looked up into the sky. I realized that I had been aware of  this for the past few weeks: that things were quieter. There wasn't as much noise. I could still hear the trucks along the expressway, I-94, but I could hear more birds. I just began to ground myself, and to open my ears. This suggested a poem. The poem suggested a video. I created a video using the poem and put it on-line. I got back a lot of feedback from people. I wrote two more poems and created a set of “videopoems”. Again, necessity is the mother of invention. I have since then made numerous screendances, (some directly pandemic-themed), written lectures and begun new paintings.  What can I say, we artists, and I think I can generalize, have inner hunger to remain creative. It's how we know we are alive. It's how we feel we can connect with the world and give ourselves reason for being in this world.I don't know if that's a kind of anxiety or a weakness that we have to do that in order to feel worthy. But I also think we are wired to express ourselves. We want to be seen and heard. And we will think of any and every way to do that.

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