"As a dancer for fifty years of my own choreographic work and as former principal dancer with the companies of Martha Graham and José Limon, I bring to the practice of painting an interdisciplinary sensibility. I am also a video artist, so my practice of composing imagery for moving bodies within both the stage proscenium frame and the screen’s frame inform my consideration of the canvas as site for visual and visceral encounter.
A picture of motion is created in the mind’s eye every split second as the eye seeks to comprehend what it sees, what catches its attention. Bodies in motion attract our attention, and a dancer’s motion is my main attraction. With my paintings, or “motion pictures”, I engage my painter self to join the dancer self: I call into play the action of the paint brush in my hand, and my brush hastens to capture via the stroke of paint an essential thread or indelible trace of the dancer’s movement. I hold the brush like a lit sparkler in the darkness and paint the void with traces of its light. What remains is a web, a nest, a cluster of intertwining fibers, ribbons, networks, ganglia: a light dancer, if you will. A picture of motion. A motion picture.
My hope is yes, that each of my paintings imprints its unique kinetic branding on the inner eyelid, or a flurry that evokes a fleeting image of a body in motion: some of its delight, fierceness, lyrical effusiveness, animal alertness, its desire to catch my attention, its ability to draw its elusive pictures in space and time. If every instant of our waking and dreaming were seen with such x-ray calligraphy, would we lift off into weightlessness, like the timeless, floating calligraphy on an ancient Chinese scroll painting, or gradually plunge deeply into the microscopic neurocircuitry of our eternally moving bodies, grounded forever and yet newly mobilized in light? I am reminded of a quote from William Goyen’s “The House of Breath”: “Who knows what frescoes lie painted on the inside of the skull?”
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Peter Sparling is the Rudolf Arnheim Distinguished University Professor Emeritus of Dance and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor Emeritus at University of Michigan. A graduate of Interlochen Arts Academy and The Juilliard School, Sparling was a member of the José Limón Dance Company (1971-73) and principal dancer with Martha Graham Dance Company (1973-87). As Graham’s assistant, he coached Rudolf Nureyev and collaborated with her on many new works. He has performed and staged Graham’s works all over the world and has appeared with the company twice on PBS Dance in America. His video curtain warmers, Beautiful Captives: Martha Graham and the Cinematic Id, Variations of Angels and Sacred/Profane have opened three of the company’s New York seasons.
Sparling has had extensive experience as artistic director, (Peter Sparling Dance Company 1979-1983 NYC, 1993- 2007 Ann Arbor), choreographer, performer, teacher (U-M Distinguished Faculty Award and 1998 Governor’s Michigan Artist Award), lecturer, video artist, writer (Ballet Review, Choreographic Practices, Michigan Quarterly Review, and the recent anthology, Dance’s Duet with the Camera), collaborator, administrator (former chair, U-M Dance Department), dance/arts consultant, and activist (co-originated U-M Gay Faculty Alliance in 1993 to secure partner benefits). Sparling was a resident at Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris in 2010. He has presented papers at Society of Dance History Scholars and European Association for Dance History; he co-chaired the groundbreaking conference Meanings and Makings of Queer Dance at U-M.
His dances for video have been selected for numerous international festivals, including the 2007 & 2020 New York Dance on Camera Festivals, the 2008, 19 & 20 American Dance Festival Dance Film & Video Festivals, Lisbon’s InShadow Festival 2010 & 2019, DANCE:FILMS Glasgow and 2017 & 2020 Ann Arbor Film Festival. His made-for-TV work, Climbing Sainte-Victoire, was broadcast on Michigan Television in 2009. His screendance, The Snowy Owl, was featured in the Court Métrage of the Cannes Film Festival 2015. In 2014, he created a five-screen installation, the Pop-Up Projection Pavilion, featured as the centerpiece of U-M’s 2017 Third Century Screens Competition and Symposium. Sparling sustained a ten-year residency at the U-M Life Sciences Institute, where he collaborated with cell biologist Dan Klionsky and maintained a painting studio. Since retiring from U-M in June, 2018, Sparling has completed his memoir, Confessions of a Dancing Man, and continues to create videos and paint at his home studio. He has presented three solo shows of paintings at Gallery 22 North in Ypsilanti, MI and produced a cycle of 24 short videos to Schubert’s Winterreise for its premiere with live performance in June 2022. His paintings and videos have been included in group shows at Ann Arbor Art Center, Buckham Gallery and Crooked Tree Art Center.
Sparling is currently collaborating with New Theater of Medicine as assistant director and choreographer on a production dealing with physician suicide.