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Dances with Ives

Peter Sparling meets the New England modernist

Dancers in Sparling's "Nacht und Traume."
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Published 3/15/2006

For a long time, dancer and choreographer Peter Sparling has had an affinity for prewar America. Before coming to Ann Arbor some 22 years ago, he was a featured dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company, where he performed as a preacher in "Appalachian Spring," inspired by early 20th century poet Hart Crane. He also danced in Graham's "Letter to the World" about New England poet Emily Dickinson. It makes sense then, that he'd also be artistically attracted to the music of American modernist composer Charles Ives. But it was pretty exciting for him to recently find out about a more personal connection.

"My mother's ancestors for 15 lines go back to pre-Revolutionary War America. Just a few weeks ago, I learned that my mother's great aunt was the church organist, working next door to the church in which Ives played the organ on Sundays, and they were friends."

This weekend, Sparling presents a program of three dances by his dance company augmented by students of the University of Michigan Dance Department, where he is a tenured professor. The centerpiece is his six-part Ives Suite, which premiered last month at Ann Arbor's Northside Community Church with music by the Phoenix Ensemble. With what sounds like a grin in his voice, he says they performed to an overflowing crowd during the Charles Ives festival, so he decided to reprise the program.

"Ives' songs are enigmatic, idiosyncratic and atonal," Sparling says. "The impression is of early 20th century New England in an era of spiritual yearning, and lyricism suffused with samples of American vernacular music — hymns, marching band music and folk tunes." Sparling chose various Ives songs, including "The Alcotts," a selection from "Concord Sonata," which is Ives' musical portrait of four famous authors. Although some of the costumes are inspired by the times, including the calf-length dresses for "The Alcotts" that reminded a few audience members of the garb in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, he says the choreography isn't literal. This time around, the piece is slightly shorter, and the music — piano, soprano voice and a violin — is recorded.

"Babel," a dance on video, and "Nacht und Traume," a dance for six men set to Schubert songs, rounds out this program. Sparling admits he is attracted to Franz Schubert's 19th century European sensibility too, especially the short, vocal songs, filled with yearning, regret, loving and sadness. One of this generation's foremost interpreters of the songs is the English tenor Ian Bostridge.

"I began falling in love with his recordings," Sparling says. "I took four or five songs into the studio, a grab bag of various Bostridge recordings, and improvised for the video camera. I liked what I saw and decided I'd make a work based on these improvisations." Sparling made this work to fit his school's raw, industrial space in the Ball Bearing and Manufacturing Company, which he converted two and a half years ago and now shares with his dance company. The set is three Navy surplus bunk beds. The doorway of an adjacent studio serves as the stage entrance and exit.

"The dancers are held in confinement, an area of threat, and the dance area is where they escape into fantasy and catharsis." Asked whether this represents Guantanamo Bay where prisoners are held by the United States, he only says, "It has contemporary references."

The remaining piece on the program will be Sparling's own solo on video, set to music by the great Estonian minimalist, Arvo Pärt. The evening's handout sums "Babel" up well: "Choreography, performance and editing by Peter Sparling." Using three cameras, Sparling alone performs the four vocal parts of soprano, tenor, countertenor and baritone, in four characters. It seems there's nothing he can't do.


New Repertory is at 8 p.m., Friday-Sunday, March 16-18 in the Rudolf Arnheim Studio at Dance Gallery Studio, 815 Wildt St., Ann Arbor; 734-747-8885. Tickets at $15 general admission.

Michael H. Margolin reviews the performing arts for Metro Times. Send comments to

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