Arts & Culture » Stage

Leaping over land



After choreographing more than 100 dances and running his own company for more than a decade, Peter Sparling knows dance. A third-generation Michigander, he left Detroit for New York in the late ’60s, studied at The Juilliard School and became a disciple of American modern dance greats Jose Limón and Martha Graham. After spending about 15 years in New York, he returned to Michigan to become a local apostle of modern dance, which he calls “movement that captures and soulfully evokes deep aspects of the human condition.”

And so it is only fitting that his multimedia work Peninsula is an attempt to merge the passion for modern dance that lured him away with his roots in the state that drew him back. Part-dance and part-video, Sparling has composed a travelogue that begins in industrial Detroit, steps outstate into such picturesque areas as Sleeping Bear Dunes and Hartwick Pines State Forest, and ends in the distant Upper Peninsula. The farther the piece takes us from Detroit, the more Sparling inserts himself as narrator, admitting that the journey north is actually an adventure into his own past.

Adding to the production’s nostalgic feel is the music, much of which was composed and performed by Frank Pahl, whose orchestra of toy instruments and jury-rigged hurdy-gurdies cranks out a sound track that, Sparling says, “has the whimsy, the mystery, the humor and a kind of a heady, hallucinatory feel of what it’s like to walk out in the woods or go out on the dunes or be mesmerized by the waves.”

Choreography for Peninsula was for the most part worked out in the studio, but some was done on the fly while Sparling toured the state with his Peter Sparling Dance Company.

To make the video, Sparling drew on about 40 hours of footage he had shot, editing it with historical stock footage and mixing it with fade and wipe effects. The scenes set the context, often with performers mimicking their movements onscreen, giving an eerie remove to the performance. With Peninsula, Sparling tries to balance the two media against each other, with the dancers adding “a kinesthetic power that doesn’t get flattened by the video.” Just as dance plays with the forces of nature — with dancers hanging in the air, seeming to defy gravity’s pull — video allows Sparling to manipulate time. In frenetic factory scenes, the action runs amok in fast-forward; in more lyrical scenes, the dancers skylark in slow motion.

Rob Murphy’s excellent lighting design creates a convincing dramatic space. In a foundry segment, lights bathe the stage in a warm red, as the dancers, dressed in flowing crimson, flash back and forth across the stage like flames in a furnace. During a sylvan interlude, patterns cut the light to look like the thatched duff of a forest floor.

No matter how visually arresting, some spectators inevitably feel more baffled than buoyed by modern dance — a problem Sparling acknowledges candidly. It is not unusual for Sparling to prepare audiences with a talk in hopes that they will be more engaged and less confused. He urges “giving people permission to get what they want out of it. There’s no one way to interpret dance. A lot of contemporary audiences feel that if they don’t get it they’re stupid. I don’t want to limit my audiences. I want them to have permission to take what they will or can or want out of it by keeping an open frame.”

Encouraging and engaging local dance audiences is more vital than ever. With state funding slackening and Michigan arts groups finding themselves in a pinch, Sparling says modern dance finds itself in an especially tight spot. Although dance is represented in the exotic troupes — Cirque du Soleil knock-offs and nostalgic Broadway hoof-fests that fill local houses — the art form lacks a unified audience. “Presenters are less willing to take a risk on high art. They’ve got to book things that they know are going to sell.”

But the high art’s high risks often pay a dividend that cannot be measured in money. When the company performed Peninsula in Chicago, Sparling recalls, “This 80-year-old fellow came up to me after the show saying he was in tears because after the war he worked in a Chrysler plant.” The man claimed the work nailed the frantic pace and mental ennui of factory life. Given such experiences, one understands why Sparling says, “I think people will recognize themselves in the piece.”


Show is at 7 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 20, at Chelsea High School Auditorium, 740 N. Freer Rd., Chelsea. For more information call 734-747-8885.

Michael Jackman is a writer and copy editor for Metro Times. Send comments to


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