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Peter Sparling on Dancing for Martha Graham

Photo: Peter Sparling performs in Martha Graham’s iconic Appalachian Spring.

The legendary Martha Graham Dance Company performs in Ann Arbor on January 25 and 26. Peter Sparling, U-M professor of Dance and former dancer and choreographer with the company, sat down with our video editor Sophia Kruz, also Peter’s former student.

Sophia Kruz (UMS): So, could you please introduce yourself.

Peter Sparling: My name is Peter Sparling, I’m a professor of dance at the University of Michigan, part of the School of Music, Theatre & Dance. I’ve been here at the University twenty-seven odd years. I teach dance technique, composition, theory, screen dance, and I create new works for the students.

SK: You were a principal dancer in the Martha Graham Dance Company from 1973 to 1987. And you also served as her choreographic assistant. What was it like to work so closely with such an iconic choreographer and in what ways was it challenging, in what ways was it exciting?

PS: Well, if there is any one pioneer who is associated with the 20th century and core values of modern dance before it became contemporary dance, you’ll talk about Martha Graham.

So when I came to the Julliard School in 1969 with dreams of becoming a Merce Cunningham dancer, I was immediately put on the floor to study Martha Graham technique. It’s a technique that’s very visceral, rigorous, uses a lot of the core of the body, the pelvis, the spine, the spiraling, the contraction and the release that gives a dancer a physical means of expressing these very intense dramatic characters on stage. Graham is known for her theater, her invention of a movement vocabulary that expressed the deepest, darkest aspects of the human condition.

So, I think it was my second year at Julliard, a group of us had been taught a work of Graham’s entitled “The Diversion of Angels.” This is a work she had created in 1948. And we were taken across town to the Graham Studio. We were ushered the hallowed halls of Graham Studio, warmed up a bit, and then Martha entered and took her seat in her director’s chair, and we were introduced to her, and we all formally bowed to her. By then, I think she was in her seventies. So we danced the work for her, and the first thing she did  was she sat us down and said, “Well you men, you men did pretty well. But you women, you must learn to dance from the vagina.” And the students just fell backwards. I could just see the look on the women’s faces, it’s like, what have they gotten themselves into. So that was my introduction to Martha Graham. Realizing that this was a fierce woman.

Fear and trembling, respect, all these feelings I had for her; I wanted to emulate her. My essential approach to Martha was as an apprentice to a master. My intention to go to New York to learn to dance and to dance in companies was so that I could figure out what it meant to choreograph because my major interest in the field was to become a choreographer. I placed myself at Martha’s feet as her apprentice, and over a year or so she realized that I had a knack for choreography and improvisation and that I was willing to become one of handful of young dancers that she was experimenting on in the making of new works.

When I started a company, I really began to appreciate what she must have gone through to keep a company going for over 60 years, the battles that she fought. So in the end I have that utmost respect for this determined stubborn and extremely talented woman.

SK: I would love to hear a little more about her technique.  Because in addition to working with her for so long, you’re also a register for the Martha Graham trust, which means that you staged her choreography both on your own company and then around the world. What’s it like to stage her work with dancers who may not be as familiar with her movement style? 

PS: The Graham technique, which is copyrighted, evolved, constantly evolved, and is still evolving. Over the period of 50 to 60 years, Martha created a technique not as an entity unto itself (i.e. a syllabus for a school), but rather to give her dancers the power and the skills they needed to perform her work. She invented this technique around a group of women in the 1930s, beginning in New York City and at Bennington College.

It was very grounded, very gutsy. It dealt with weight, with weight shift, with falling. With rising and with the pulse that is deep in the pelvis in the body. It’s not the pulse that is in the brain, thinking all the time. It’s not even in the heart beat. It’s the pulse of the breath that deepens down into the core into the hip area.

So the technique begins on the floor, as if you were sitting in a yoga lotus position, and it begins with a series of breathing exercises that train the body to lift up the spine and then to curl and coil back into the deep pelvic seat. Then coming up from that contracted position into spirals of the spine to bends to various extensions of the legs so the floor work essentially exhausts the possibilities of what the body can do in its seated position.

SK: How does this technique sort of differ from other modern or contemporary dance. Or even from classical ballet? Or how is it similar?

PS: The dancers have to activate their torsos and work from their hips and be able to work on and off balance a lot. Ballet dancers do as well but the ballet vocabulary is very based on the X-Y axis, the vertical and horizontal. Ballet is about fluidity, effortlessness, the pointing of the foot, and in the case of the actual toe shoe, you’re working with a kind of physics that is about spinning tops. It’s about balancing on a point.

Martha wanted to defy that tradition and she was one of the first to have dancers dancing barefoot. She flexed the foot so that the foot became as important as the hand, as the head, as any part of the body. And she declared that this heel is an important component of the human condition. The way it strikes the floor.

She was also very revolutionary in the way she stripped away artifice from the stage. She danced on bare stages in bare feet, and this was rather radical.

My first year or so with Martha, she would become so frustrated with me because I would be dancing to the music and with the music the way that José Limón loved to do. And she had to break me from that. She said, “Peter, you cannot dance to the music. You have to be in high relief against the music. The music is your backdrop. You work against it. It is the frame for carrying the momentum of the drama through the piece. But it is not, you don’t dance to the beat. You have your own inner visceral pulse. You make your own phrasing that is on top of that music.”

SK: I would love to talk to you more about this idea of the legacy company, or what happens after iconic choreographer passes away. How does a company continue to evolve and develop after they lose an iconic choreographer?

PS: Legacy is a word now that has become central to the field of contemporary dance. It’s very important to presenters as well as artistic directors.

It’s about documentation, it’s about archival work, it’s about preserving every shred of video, film, photograph, everything written about, everything from the horse’s mouth. What have we preserved from what Martha said, what she wrote? And it’s also being very shrewd diligent about Casting and reconstructing, re-staging the works. In a way that is as authentic to Martha’s intentions or the original choreographer’s intentions, but doesn’t leave it as a museum piece.

SK: Got your work cut out for you, Peter! I’d love to shift gears a little bit and talk about your work and the video you created for the Martha Graham company. So, just talk about it. What is it? How was it made? What was your inspiration?

Listen to Peter’s Complete interview to hear him talk about his video work with Martha Graham, which will be a part of Friday evening’s program. Start at about 33:00 minutes.

Or, view Peter’s lecture on Martha Graham from a recent UMS Teachers Workshop: