Academy ‘a bolt of lightning’ for choreographer

Peter Sparling has danced for Martha Graham. He met the Queen Mother and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. He trained Rudolf Nureyev and played violin for Aaron Copland. Forty years into a storied career, Sparling (IAA 66-69, AS 64-66, NMC Fac 72) is nowhere near to resting on his laurels, and remains constantly on the move as a dancer, choreographer, author, professor and video artist.

In March 2016, he brought Judith: A Domestic Psychodrama for Screendance and Orchestra, his latest cinematic-dance production to the Interlochen stage, in partnership with the Traverse Symphony Orchestra.

It was a return to the place where his lifelong passion for the arts flourished and grew, first as a camper and later, during his three years at the Academy. Sparling began as a violinist but his pursuits took an unexpected turn in 10th grade when “I was given the option to take intro to dance to get out of physical education,” he said. It was an easy choice. “I eagerly donned the tights to get out of those classes.”

His instructor quickly discovered that Sparling had exceptional turnout, which, he explains, is the dancer’s equivalent of perfect pitch for a musician or singer. “I began to discover what it was like to dance as a creative expression,” Sparling said.

It was in his junior year at the Academy, though, that Sparling truly found his calling, when he earned his first applause as a choreographer. “It was like a bolt of lightning went through my body,” he said. By the end of that year, “I knew I wanted to be a choreographer so I realized I should learn how to dance.”

He excelled at both, earning a place at Juilliard after graduating from Interlochen and joining the prestigious Jose Limon Dance Company while still a student. “It was remarkable to work with Jose in the last year he was alive,” Sparling said. “I learned so much from the older dancers.”

The company went on a tour of the Soviet Union, then Europe. “I was traveling so much I flunked English,” he said, adding that it was a small price to pay for the experience he gained.

Those experiences soon led to a lengthy tenure as a principal dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company, alongside fellow Interlochen graduate Janet Eilber, who would one day become the company’s artistic director. The two also had performed for legendary American composer Aaron Copland while at Interlochen.

“Martha Graham was already the great midcentury modern dance pioneer and I wanted to be an apprentice to the master,” Sparling said. “I was all eyes and ears, watching the older dancers. The kind of emotional and physical investment to even approach that material was enormous.”

In time, Martha Graham identified Sparling and Eilber as her choices to bring new works to life. “At Interlochen, we had been primed to know how to improvise,” Sparling said. “So she used us to chart out her new work. It was an extraordinary opportunity.” In addition, Sparling had the chance to teach dances to legendary dancers who performed with the company, including the great British ballerina Margot Fonteyn and celebrated Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev.

Just as his years at Interlochen had coincided with the turbulence of the Vietnam era and the student protests and activism that marked it so deeply, so too did his tenure at the Martha Graham Dance Company take place during one of the most memorable decades for arts and culture not just in New York but across the country. “The studio was filled with characters,” Sparling said, including such legends as the artist Andy Warhol, former First Lady Jackie Onassis, fashion designer Halston and author Truman Capote.

Throughout his years with Martha Graham, Sparling continued to choreograph his own work and by 1979, had formed his own dance company in New York. He returned a number of times to the Martha Graham Dance Company over the years, most recently debuting a new work, Notes for a Voyage, with the group in 2014.

In the late 1980s, Sparling returned to Michigan to join the faculty of the University of Michigan’s Department of Dance, where he found the support to continue choreographing new work and collaborate with fellow artists on different avenues of expression, including composers, architects, poets and filmmakers.

That joining of film and dance sparked something deep and profound in Sparling.

“Over the past 15 years or so, I’ve been obsessed with bodies on the screen,” he said, especially the freedom of expansion that it gives him through editing, projection and composites. His first “screendance,” called Babel, debuted in 2006 and was screened at film festivals throughout the world. His work The Snowy Owl was featured at the Cannes Film Festival in 2015.

This year saw the debut of Sparling’s most recent screendance, Judith: A Domestic Psychodrama for Screendance and Orchestra, on the familiar stage at Interlochen. The film unites video and dance with orchestral music in a work inspired by American composer William Schuman’s score, Judith, originally commissioned by Martha Graham.

For Sparling, Interlochen remains an important part of his life, one he appreciates for the training, inspiration and enduring friendships it provided. In fact, he made a presentation to the Society for the Neural Control of Movement earlier this year to talk about the intersections of art and science, and spoke in the company of two other Interlochen alumni and friends, Kenneth Broadway (IAA 67-70, IAC/NMC 66-67) and Gary Paige (IAA 66-70, IAC/NMC 65-66).

“The connection with my peers has stayed with me and are among the most precious I have,” he said.

Sparling is not one for looking back too often, though, when there is still so much ahead—and so many stories to be told in the language of dance and film that is so uniquely his own.

—Elizabeth Lent