'S is for Screendance' set to dazzle in multimedia performance

By Gillian Jakab, Community & Culture Editor
Published January 20, 2014

Screendance could be defined as the hybrid of dance and film. Or perhaps as dance for the screen (think of Gene Kelly softshoeing us through “Singin’ in the Rain”). But SMT&D Professor of Dance Peter Sparling shows us that it can be much richer than its two-art definition.

S is for Screendance (and Shakespeare, Strauss, Stravinsky...)

Thursday at 8 p.m.
Moore Building: Britton Recital Hall

Sparling has collaborated with musicians, English scholars, painters, and videographers — from within the University and outside of it — to push the boundaries of movement and its meanings in his upcoming performance: “S is for Screendance (and Shakespeare, Strauss, Stravinsky…).”

As a young violin student at Interlochen Arts Academy, Sparling discovered his love of dance, which he describes as “extraordinarily free” compared to his violin studies. He went on to study dance at The Juilliard School in New York. As a student, he was asked to join José Limon’s dance company, and upon graduating, the Martha Graham Company.

“These two companies were very much the seminal ... kind of the primary companies of mid century — 20th century — modern dance,” said Sparling. “And out of Martha’s company came Paul Taylor, Twyla Tharp, Merce Cunningham ... I mean it’s a kind of family tree that now I feel I’m part of.”

Intrigued by the way his conservatory-trained knowledge of music was structuring the way he saw bodies moving in space, Sparling broadened his work, extending his choreographic genealogy in new directions to explore ways in which one art form can be viewed and augmented through the lens of another.

“What’s wonderful I find with video editing,” said Sparling, “is that you can, like music, shift moods … I’m interested in what being in a site other than a stage does to me as a human, and to me as a mover.”

For the first of the four pieces on Thursday’s program, Sparling went with a videographer to Willow Run manufacturing complex near Ypsilanti — which was demolished this fall — and improvised movement, letting the space lead him.

“I thought well ‘What is this about?’ ” said Sparling. “It’s about a dying plant; it’s about a space; it’s about the dying of an industry — or an entire era. But it’s also something about my reaction to the space in my aging body. And in a way, I’m looking at the transfiguration of a dying space. And I thought: death, transfiguration? Death and transfiguration! So I thought of the Strauss score, Richard Strauss’s famous orchestral score.”

Piling on another ‘S,’ Sparling swings from Strauss to Shakespeare in his second piece “Six Sonnets.” He brought English Professor Ralph Williams into the green screen space at the Duderstadt video center where Williams recites six sonnets as Sparling improvises embodiments of the textual themes of love and loss. With the green screen technology Sparling’s figure travels to an abstract space born from the creative vision of local painter Vince Castagnacci.

“Vince is professor emeritus whose work I’ve admired for a long, long time,” said Sparling. “And they were just abstract enough so that I could kind of create a space for the imagination to resonate.”

Another English professor, Toby Siebers, knew Sparling had done previous work with the figure of Narcissus from Greek mythology and introduced him to a poem by T.S. Eliot called “The Death of St. Narcissus.” The poem was never published during Eliot’s lifetime due to its risqué homoerotic material, but it had been set to music by British composer Benjamin Britten in a set of canticles. This work forms the basis and title of Sparling’s third screendance of Thursday’s performance.

Using the green screen, Sparling backgrounds his third piece against the work of another visual artist, Alyse Radenovic. Through the digital artistry of the editing process, Sparling at moments clones himself, so he is at once illustrating imagery from the narrative and evoking the qualities of the haunting music.

The final piece of the performance introduces an element of live performance. In the tradition of silent film, Sparling pairs his screendance, “He Was Locked in a Race Against Time,” with live piano accompaniment. The piece depicts separate portraits of Sparling — spanning eras, locations, and psychological states. The historically ingrained, yet timeless score of Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring)” is parsed out in a four-handed piano duo by University SMT&D professors of Music Christian Matijas Mecca and Ilya Blinov.

The four pieces draw from distinct inspirations, be they location (Willow Run, Traverse City Mental Hospital), music (Strauss, Stravinsky, Britten), narrative (Shakespeare, Eliot), or visual imagery (Castenacci, Radenovic), propelled by the freedom of exploratory improvisation to meditate upon underlying themes.

But for all its interdisciplinary richness, Sparling acknowledges that it may be the screen itself that gives the work its unifying and contemporary allure.

“This thing of screendance, where it’s a new audience, your generation, this extraordinary expansion of screens ... of imagery on a screen. Whether it’s an iPod, a laptop, a TV, a movie screen, a huge billboard, monitors in airports and stadia, or in rock shows.”

As he did the violin and the dance stage, Sparling is mastering the new media.

“So I’m looking at the potential for bodies on a screen to carry meaning and to have power. The same way that we assume a body on the live stage is going to be able to project power. How do we defy the flatness of the screen? And the virtual aspect of the body on the screen, and create something of power and meaning? That’s the big challenge.”