Peter Sparling

Peter Sparling
dancer, professor,
advocate for the arts
(University of Michigan,
Ann Arbor)

Tottered on: 27 April 2007
Temperature: 56 F
Ceiling: gloom
Ground: fresh green
Wind: WSW at 15 mph

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TT with HD: Peter Sparling

[Ed. note: The website for the Dance Gallery Foundation includes background on the Peter Sparling Dance Company and the Dance Gallery Studio, as well as a biography of Peter Sparling. References to the ball bearing factory in the conversation below are to the space on Wildt Street currently leased by the Dance Gallery Studio and the Peter Sparling Dance Company.

Details on the 4 May 2007 fundraiser are also available on the website.]

PS: I'm about a hundred sixty.

HD: A hundred sixty? Well, we're going to be a pretty even match then. Let's get the photo taken ... [Ed. note: Photography begins.]

PS: I'm glad you're not asking me to dance on this teeter totter. People are always asking me to dance ...

HD: ... to strike a dancing pose?

PS: Yeah.

HD: Well. Um, actually, I was gonna ...

PS: [laugh] You're not too proud to ask, right?

HD: Yeah, it had crossed my mind! [Ed. note: Peter obliges with a series of dance poses. Read to the end for additional insight into Peter's official Teeter Talk photo.] So if you could ever get over your shyness, you might really have something.

PS: [laugh]

HD: So let's see if we can actually get some tottering motion going. Is this going to work for you? Now, you're a bit taller than I am, I think, so I want to make sure that you get adequate leg extension. I don't want to wreck your knees and be responsible for ending the career of Peter Sparling as a dancer.

PS: No, actually I just started about a month and a half ago, getting on the ellipticals, to up my heart rate. Because dance, interestingly enough, isn't necessarily aerobic, it's more anaerobic. And the kind of dancing I do is much less about pyrotechnics--leaps--than about a more subtle nuance of carefully shaped movement ...

HD: ... more gestural?

PS: Not necessarily. Just, it doesn't rely on Olympic-sized physical feats. When I was younger, yes, that was demanded of me. I had to perform in choreography that required a lot of outrageous physicality. That was appropriate for my age. Anyway, my doctor was concerned about my cholesterol levels, and so we both agreed that I should start thinking about the aerobic part of my weekly activity, so I became obsessed with the ellipticals. It's interesting to get on that machine for twenty minutes and go into 'the zone'. It's pretty easy on my knees and ankles, although, I went into it with such zeal that I had to kind of pull back, because I was overdoing it. However, the good news is that I am now the poster child of the Domino's Cardio Clinic.

HD: Really!

PS: Because I brought my levels down so much that the doctor had to test my blood again, because he didn't believe ...

HD: ... to make sure you weren't blood-doping or submitting someone else's sample or something?

PS: [laugh] I'm an overachiever, work-a-holic so I went into it with a mission ...

HD: ... so how did you know you were overdoing it? Was it fatigue, or were you developing musculature that was not conducive to ...

PS: ... fatigue. I wouldn't have the energy to spread throughout my day--because I live at least three different lives every day. I've got this full-time position at the University, my twenty-third year there as a professor of dance. And it's full-time. I've got three courses every semester. It's 'on' all the time. It's 70 students, all eager for feedback, for attention.

HD: Now, this is 70 students distributed over three courses, or?

PS: Well, 70 students in the Department of Dance--all getting degrees, either bachelor of fine arts or master of fine arts. And I teach courses that may have up to 30 students in them. Or as few as 8.

HD: So this Screen Dance course you taught this most recent semester, how many students were in that?

PS: Fourteen. And that was a fun course, in that it was a mix of dance majors, screen arts and culture majors, performing arts and technology. Occasionally I have art and design kids in there. It's become one of these truly interdisciplinary classes where the boundaries are blurred between the visual aspect of it, the visceral, kinesthetic aspect, ...

HD: ... and the technological.

PS: Yeah, the technology. The stuff that happens within the frame of the image on the screen is compared to what happens within the proscenium frame of the stage. And the editing becomes choreography. I mean, what you do in the editing room after you get your footage is as much a part of the shaping of the formal aspects and the enhancing of the kinetic aspect as actual moving on the stage.

HD: I wanted to explore exactly that in the context of this piece called August, which I saw at the home season of the Dance Gallery.

PS: Yeah.

HD: I just wanted to share with you my mental experience that evening with respect to August. In your introductory comments, you described the creative process, and it involved shooting digital video of yourself improvising. And you said something like, you put the music on, you improvised, and then you had a look at what you'd done. And then you improvised again, trying to keep in mind what you had done the first time. And then you did that a third time. And for me, not being familiar with the piece and not being familiar with [the dance video] Babel, I was thinking in terms of: you improvised, you had a look, you evaluated--I liked that, I didn't like that, let me try again. And so I thought it was a constant process of improving a single improvisation. And when the piece began, and I saw the three dancers and I saw how they were interacting, but sometimes not really interacting--there's this tension between them off in their own corner doing their own thing, but then coming to acknowledge the others. So they interact in terms of not necessarily touching, but in sharing the same line, or turning in synchrony. And it was a slow epiphany to me that what you had meant in describing the creative process was that you were improving a role, and what you were keeping in mind was where that first improvisation had taken place and what was going on, so you were actually dancing the second improvisation without the other role being present, but just with your visual memory of what had gone on the first time. Now, is that right?

PS: Exactly.

HD: Now, to me, that's just an extraordinary mental and visual and physical feat, to be able to do something like that.

PS: It's actually not so extraordinary to me, because that's what I've done for 30 years. It's: imagine movement before doing it, and then doing it. Or doing movement and being able to recall it. That's how you learn movement. That's how you become a dancer. Now, some people may say that some of us have more kinesthetic intelligence, or visual memory or whatever, and I think there's something to that. But I've always been fascinated with simultaneity, with a sense of a multiplicity, of things happening at the same time, that set up correspondences relative to the viewer. It's 20th Century physics, it's relativity, it's all that stuff. It's also quite mundanely practical in that I had an idea, I wanted to do it quickly, I didn't have my dancers available, I couldn't pay them for rehearsals, so I just did it myself. So sometimes it comes down to necessity being the mother of invention.

HD: So when you say you did it yourself, you literally set the camera on a tripod yourself, pressed 'go', did the performance, came back, looked at it ...

PS: ... looked at it once, then went out there again--I would take an item of my clothing off so that I could identify one 'body' from the other.

HD: Ah!

PS: I costume-coded the persona so that there'd be a difference.

HD: It's lucky there were only three parts!

PS: Well, I just did one with five of me! It's a quartet, with a fifth body inserted. It's for a piece that I pitched a few weeks ago to the Grand Rapids Ballet. It's the first time I've ever done this, where I've been asked to do a piece, and like a salesperson, or a graphics designer, I go with the mock-up on video. I created about 7 minutes of a 10-minute piece, just using myself, and multiplying myself. In unison sections, I would have five of me doing the same thing, or ...

HD: ... and this part is digital editing?

PS: Yeah, it's pretty simple on Final Cut Pro. You just essentially place your different 'voices', if you will, on different tracks and line them up, create then a certain level of opacity so that you can see them all. It's not the finished product. In Babel, I tried to do it with maximum four figures in white against a very black backdrop. And it was presentable. But I realized that if I were to do it again that way, I would need a bigger budget. I would need a professional videographer, editor to help me figure out doing a way of doing it such that there was more resolution. So I really did the 'layman's version' of it. And I got amazing mileage out of it. It got into this New York Dance on Camera Festival. I think it's because ...

HD: ... and that's touring now, isn't it?

PS: Yeah. And I hope it's because has merit to it, but I think it's because I did it all myself and because I was foregrounding or valuing the performance as much as any 'effects'. I didn't slow myself down, I didn't ...

HD: ... it was essentially a matter of manipulating the layers as opposed to creating trailing blurs behind you, or weird stop-action, ...

PS: ... yeah. But that piece was created in a similar way, in that I improvised to different voices, with the memory of what the other 'guy', the other 'me' did.

HD: So for a piece like Babel, it's pretty much essential for it to be the same dancer in a different guise for appropriate interpretation, right? So I mean, for that piece, it's not possible to conceive of having four different dancers do a live version of it? That would somehow offend the interpretational sensibilities of the piece that seem to require it to be the 'same' person? In contrast to August, which clearly is meant to be different personas dancing?

PS: Yeah.

HD: But even for a piece like August, to me, it raises the question: what is the actual work of art? Is it a given performance on a given day? Or is the process that you used to create that piece of art, part-and-parcel of it? I mean it's the same kind of question you might ask about a photograph as a piece of art: how does the camera you took it with factor into that as a piece of art? I mean, is it possible in the world of dance to conceive of a genre of dance defined by the creative process you used to create August? Where you might say, for example, you put on a show where the only dances you include in the show would be dances of this sort?

PS: Anything goes in contemporary dance. Choreographers are using video extensively in performance pieces, where they'll project images on the back wall, on bodies, on scrims, with live dancers. They will have cameras taping dancers live, and simultaneously projecting those images. But I think what you're getting at is what's happened--the blurring of the lines between dance, performance art, installation art--where the process can be the product, if you will. It's happening a lot in improvisation. It's probably more recognizable to the general public in the forms of music or jazz. Because there's a tradition now of improvisation being a part of a performance. I mean, it's accepted. That's happening more and more in dance. That is, improvisational processes enter into the actual performance. Would one critic say that's a cop out, or not a finished dance? Only the most orthodox would now. It's more: if it works. Again, anything goes.

Now, back to August. I didn't have to talk to the audience about that. I would have been fine just letting the piece just speak for itself. But I'm finding, again out of necessity, to grow audiences and to get people engaged, I need to speak a bit about the pieces beforehand to give people an 'in'. It's because dance can be somewhat intimidating and mysterious to a lot of people, where they feel they have to be on the 'inside', or know a significant amount about the form to be able to understand or appreciate it. I don't I think it's part of the American culture, that modern dance is still this orphaned child of the arts. I've worked in Amsterdam, and London, and France, all over Europe--and it's much more a part of contemporary culture there. I think it has something to do with America's ambivalence, weirdness, about the human body as something in front of an audience. It's very comfortable with athletics, whether it be football, basketball, soccer. But when you have bodies on stage performing for the sake of moving--unless it's telling a story, like the Nutcracker or the Sleeping Beauty, unless bodies are miming words or embodying characters as in a play--audiences can be really baffled by the abstract aspect of bodies. Are bodies representing something on stage? Is there a kind of a language that they're speaking with their bodies? Are there gestures indicating some sign language that we're supposed to know about? Really, it's all or none of those depending on the choreographer and the intention of the choreographer.

HD: Well, to me the introductory comments you made certainly gave me a way of understanding that particular dance, that was far more interesting than anything I could have brought to bear on it just from my own experience. I mean, to be perfectly honest, I was not there in particular to see modern dance that evening. I had heard there was going to be a vacuum cleaner involved in the dance, and that did not prove to be the case--I'm not sure if that was miscommunication or what--but I thought, Hmmm, that sounds interesting enough to go see Peter Sparling, if he's going to dance with a vacuum cleaner. So I'm glad there was something even more interesting than a vacuum cleaner. But seriously, what's the deal with the vacuum cleaner?

PS: It was during the March winter break, it was a weekend. I had just worked with my 11 kids at the Dance Gallery, the Youth Ensemble. I had the weekend free, I had a camera. You know as I turn my corner going into school, from North Maple onto Maple Road, there's a vacuum cleaner store ...

HD: ... oh yeah! He's got vacuum cleaners set out on the road!

PS: He sets up four vacuum cleaners every morning.

HD: They're like soldiers standing at attention.

PS: Exactly. And it's so wonderful to see. It's kind of like folk art. It's very eccentric. It's like a new version of the tradesperson hanging out their shingle or whatever. So I just set up my camera across the street, feeling kind of giddy, feeling like this is Fluxus, or Dada, or absurdist, or whatever, and had my camera open so you saw the lineup, so that you saw the largest possible context around it. Then I zoomed in a little bit, and cars were zooming by, and it became a ballet, where four figures--these vacuum cleaners--were kind of taking on a personality. And they weren't moving at all, but depending on how I would zoom in on them ...

HD: ... so you weren't dancing with the vacuum cleaners ...

PS: ... no. My intention was to get footage that would be come the backdrop for me to dance in front of, á la Fred Astaire in--is it Swingtime, where he dances in front of his shadow? I've done a lot of pieces with dancers dancing in front of video backdrops.

HD: So the vacuum cleaner footage has a future in some work that you're working on?

PS: Well, I made a 4-minute backdrop. And then I choreographed a solo in front of it, where I enter from stage right, with a vacuum cleaner on--plugged in off stage--cross the stage as the video begins, with titles and all, showing the four vacuum cleaners, the street, the buildings around it. Then I stop, and I look at it, and then I kind of enter into the scene as the camera pulls in. And I look at these vacuum cleaners. And then I try to embody their distinct personalities. And I do little variations one after the other. In editing, I did some simple formatting, where I bring one into the center screen and I make two other images in the lower corner of the same one, where it becomes a joke on how people present products to sell to the public, whether it be advertising, whether it be someone selling something to a committee, or ...

HD: ... you know, as long as you've brought it up again--I mean this is the second time you've referenced the issue of salesmanship--could you imagine, say, using this project, or some variation of this project as an advertisement for some vacuum cleaner company like Oreck? If David Oreck came calling and said, Hey, you know we'd like to use this, but we'd like you to embellish it in this, that, or the other way! does that idea just horrify you, or would you ... ?

PS: No! I am desperate for an agent to line me up with corporations, where I could create commercials for them. I would love to do that. That would support my dance company. That would maybe allow me maybe to buy my building. Yeah! I would jump at it. I just don't have the time to write the letter and to go out and kind of sell myself to these companies.

HD: It seems to me that this could perhaps be an appropriate role for the technology transfer folks at the University of Michigan? I mean, they have a whole department dedicated to capitalizing on the intellectual property that the University community generates. I think that traditionally that's been thought of as engineering, medicine, and patents, but it seems to me that there's a legitimate case to be made that the arts could provide exactly the same kind of potential as far as licensing, etcetera, and therefore merits the same kind of resource allocation by the University.

PS: I'm totally open to it. I see dance everywhere now on TV ads, whether it be Hanes underwear--Momix women dancing--these fabulous choreographies for Target and iPod ...

HD: ... Target, in general, whoever is making their ads, they've totally revitalized that brand.

PS: It's stunning. I show those and refer to them in Video Dance class. It's like NASA or the military: so much innovation happens where the money is. You can learn a lot from that.

HD: Speaking of TV, do you watch any of the reality-based TV dance shows?

PS: Yeah!

HD: Do you really!?

PS: At first I scoffed at it all. And my partner, John, loves it. He just finds it total 21st Century theater. He's a theater person, and he has no investment as a dancer--in the identity of the dancer to the general public--he just thinks it's a hoot! So he got me into it. So we were watching So You Think You Can Dance? And what I found was that the judges actually had a lot to say. I didn't always agree upon the style they were asking the dancers to do, in terms of really revealing their artistry--I mean there's high art, middle art, low art, and there's all sorts of different styles of dance. But what I was seeing was that these kids were very talented, that as they moved through the different challenges, that some of them were really getting deeper into it and were developing before our eyes. It was a great lesson, I figured, to the general public on what it takes to be a dancer, the subtleties. I thought it was fabulous for the education of the public. Dancing with the Stars is a little different.

HD: [laugh]

PS: I referred to Apollo Ono the other day to some of my students--he's the Olympic skater, who's now on.

HD: Oh, I didn't realize he was participating.

PS: He is amazing. What an example of an athlete who is so centered with his center of gravity, who is so grounded, and knows so much about what the body has to do to create momentum, to create a symmetry of effort between right and left, to coordinate for speed and efficiency. He's really musical, he's got great rhythm, he's really sexy, he knows how to strut his stuff. It's really amazing how he's done this crossover. I don't know, has he always been a dancer? Has it been a part of his family and culture? Maybe so! Maybe he was dancing before he was skating! So yeah, I'm having a great time watching that stuff.

HD: One kind of stray question I wanted to ask you. I've seen some online speculation, or discussion, about nicknames for Duderstadt Center. And I know you work in the Duderstadt Center on a fairly regular basis. Is it, in fact, common for people to refer to it as The Dude?

PS: Yes! Oh, yeah.

HD: So that's a part of your common vocabulary as well?

PS: Well, I'm just now beginning to refer to that, because I was in on the original planning to a certain extent, was one of the first users--and then it was the Media Union. So I got to calling it the Media Union or the Video Studio, because that's what I used it for largely. I have great admiration for Jim Duderstadt, in that he had that vision and he championed it. It's a really amazing facility. It's really allowed me to be very creative and to have in-kind resources that would cost thousands and thousands of dollars otherwise ...

HD: ... if the Dance Department had to pay for it itself.

PS: Right. So, The Dude! I think it's a stupid name and I hope they don't put it on the letterhead or anything. But it's kind of cute and it's fun.

HD: Yeah, it seems like kind of an affectionate way of referring to that, and giving a nod to James Duderstadt, without having to say all three syllables ...

PS: ... right. I don't know if he was ever called The Dude.

HD: That would be a perfect nickname. I sure hope he doesn't mind the nickname of the facility. But how can you not like it when you're given a nickname?

PS: It's interesting how a space, a facility, can alter or direct the dynamic of a community. Because the players on North Campus--Engineering, Music, Theater and Dance, Art and Design, Architecture and Urban Planning, not quite yet Aerospace a little further north--but those players all vie for time and space in The Dude. And it forces them to collaborate. Not directly, but it has influenced the creation of joint appointments between the School of Art and Design and the School of Music, Theater, and Dance. And in a sense, it's the showplace for joint endeavors. I think that's really healthy. There was a lot of lip service to interdisciplinarity. And when Lee Bollinger was here, there was actually a lot of funding. The Year of Humanities and the Arts in '97, I think it was. When he left, I seriously worried that there wouldn't be the same resources available. But it kind of creeps along. I always cite as one of the reasons that I'm still here is the equivalency system, where I can get funding for my creative endeavors--that's the window title for what I do: 'creative endeavors'--in the same way that a faculty member might get funding for academic or scientific research. So I apply to the same office. I'm not sure what people are on those panels. But what I have learned over the years is that I have to frame my proposal and what it is I do in language that will be understandable.

HD: We're talking about panels within the University, right?

PS: Yeah, like Office for the Vice-President for Research. Rackham faculty grants. Center for World Performance Studies. It's one thing to be sure that you understand their criteria. It's another to find the language to describe what it is you do. So it's part-and-parcel of the politics of the University and the protocols. And I'm really concerned about our students in Dance being able to speak that language. They're just finding themselves, they're so young, they're finding their creative voices, just trying to figure out what they can do with their bodies, what they can do in space, what they have to say about their world. And it's sometimes a bit of a push to assume that they can be extremely articulate and know exactly what they want to do. When I write a proposal to the Michigan Council or any other group, I'm having to project myself a year or two into the future. I'm having to plot out what I want to do, whereas I know damn well that in the process of making something, the whole thing might shift and go into a different direction. Because if I lock into some preconceived notion, it can be death. It's not a double standard, it's just everyone knows that the end product is not going to be exactly what was described in the proposal. I mean you could talk for hours about the dissimilarities between pure scientific research and creative process in terms of composing music or making a dance or painting a painting ...

HD: ... so how do you evaluate whether you actually accomplished something that roughly corresponds to what you set out to do.

PS: You got it. It spooks me, we're searching for a new chair for the Department of Dance ...

HD: ... that will be an outside hire?

PS: Yes, that will be an outside hire. And various candidates have talked about systems of accountability, of how one evaluates the achievements of faculty members within the department. How does one set goals, five-year goals, and then evaluate success?

HD: I think in the academic world, when you start using vocabulary like 'productivity', that automatically there's a chafing, that somehow it's not appropriate to talk about productivity, because it goes in the direction of how many students do you teach, and how much revenue does that generate, outside grants ...

PS: ... but I mean, I buy into it. I'm a tenured professor and I jumped through all the hoops to get my tenure. So I played the game. It's submitting to a somewhat imposed value system. And yes, I believe that there are ways of evaluating quality. I can see a dancer and know whether or not they're serious about what they do, whether it's a joke, whether they have good training, whether they're in control of their bodies, whether they're instinctive movers, whether they've had to learn everything they know from scratch, whether they're more visual than kinesthetic, whether they're more conceptual than visceral. There are all those different ways of identifying. And that comes from years and years of seeing so much dance. And yet I can still sit with my colleagues and watch the sophomores do their end-of-the-year ...

HD: ... recitals?

PS: Their juries, where they all have to do solos. And you see things that you've never seen in these kids before. They get out there and they're alone. Either they turn it on, or they don't. And when they turn it on, there are these moments where you've just died and gone to heaven! Because everything you ever believed in is there in front of you, embodied in a 21-year-old kid, who gets it, and it's like, Okay, yeah! I know that! That's what I know. Would anyone--if I invited 200 people off the street to come in and watch it--would they have the same take? No. But chances are, the majority of people would be awestruck. They would realize that something extraordinary was happening, that this person was really making sense--because of their concentration and the way that they shaped the movement. Even though they might not understand what was going on, they would believe it. They would believe that this person believed. I guess that's what keeps me coming back and fighting the good fight within higher education at a major research university.

HD: So how far along are you guys with the hiring process for the Chair? You have it narrowed down to a select few?

PS: We're actually down to one, and we're waiting to hear whether the negotiations will be a success.

HD: Who's doing the negotiating on your side?

PS: The Dean. I was on the search committee. At the end you turn in your recommendations--everyone on the committee writes their recommendation and at the end says Yea or Nay. The chair of the committee puts it all together, collates it, and makes general kind of statements, including the committee's opinions, and sends it off to the Dean. Then the Executive Committee of the School of Music, Theater and Dance looks at it and then okays it. The Dean sends it off to the Provost. I imagine then there would be a lot of back-and-forth between the candidate and the Provost, i.e., salary, conditions, space. It's an amazing opportunity for us in the Dance Department, because in about 21 years, we haven't had an outside Chair--we've been rotating it. Things have changed at the University, where a Chair has to be much more of an administrator, a fundraiser, an advocate. And there really isn't time for a faculty member to do that.

HD: You have to sacrifice such a chunk of your intellectual and creative life to running ...

PS: ... I mean, I did it for seven years and I learned a hell of a lot about how the University works, about diplomacy, detente, dealing with faculty members, making some really hard choices about people's lives--when it comes down to whether someone gets tenure or not. It's horrible. And I've always resisted being on arts panels, but I've been kind of pulled into it more recently.

HD: So ideally, this new hire would come to campus this coming fall [2007]?

PS: Yeah.

HD: Well, if it would help at all in the negotiations, you can offer this person a teeter totter ride as a part of the deal.

PS: [laugh] Okay, okay! That sounds nice.

HD: I figure, I can at least do my part. Is there anything else on your mind this morning that you wanted to make sure we covered before we dismount?

PS: Only that as of May 1st, I am on my sabbatical! So I am going to be free, until January 3rd. I'm doing a video installation at The Dude in November, so I'm going to be doing a lot of editing over the summer. I'm travelling with my partner to Paris, and then Aix-en-Provence in September, October. I'm doing a piece inspired by the late paintings of Cézanne--the Bathers series and then the Mont Sainte-Victoire series. He did these repeated paintings of a mountain in Provence, and essentially redefined modern art with those paintings. So I'm really interested to create a dance work that draws some parallels between the human figure, bodies in space, the gestural, the body as representing human beings and the body in space as suggesting architecture, nature. And also about perception, how we perceive shape, and how we recognize an actual figure--whether it be a mountain, whether it be bathers, whether it be a still life. I mean the piece, August, that piece was as much about still life, about three bodies re-composing the space, as it was about three women dealing with loss. So I'm really interested in how those two worlds intersect.

HD: Hmm, so for you, for that piece, the figures were necessarily women?

PS: Yeah. Mmm hmm.

HD: Would that be obvious to anyone who had a more sophisticated aesthetic for dance than I do, would you say? I mean the roles had to be women?

PS: Good question! I always imagined it for my three women, because I already had a cast in my mind. And when I was dancing those parts in front of the camera, I knew which dancer was doing that part. I was dancing Lisa [Johnson], I was dancing Julianne [O'Brien Pedersen], I was dancing Katie [Contessa]. And imagining myself as them, in a way. Now, I think that piece would be interesting with three men. I think it could work.

HD: So the way you would teach it to three men would be to just give them a DVD, or is there, in fact, like a transcription notation for choreography?

PS: There is, but it's very complicated. It's called Laban Notation, developed by Rudolph von Laban. It's a series of symbols lined up on a vertical staff where the center line of the staff represents the spine and the columns that radiate outward from left to right represent the left and right sides of the body. There are symbols for every articulation of the body. And it's divided like the musical staff, by measure. So how does one notate a Merce Cunningham work that has no measures? It's not done to a musical score that has any recognizable rhythm. Then the notater has to kind of look at the movement and impose this metered system onto un-metered movement. Or talk to the choreographers and dancers and say, What are you counting here? One-two-three, one-two, one, one-two-three-four-five, one, two, three. We call those dancer's counts. And then maybe the notater decides they're going to transpose that into musical terms and notate the movement according to the dancer's count. But it's pretty cumbersome. It's actually now on a computer program.

HD: So you mean like motion capture?

PS: Well, motion capture is another thing. But really video and film have become the major means of transmission of dance material. Or word of mouth. Or my teaching it to someone.

HD: So you take them by the hand and say, Do it that way, not that way.

PS: Yeah. I just got an email the other day from the Dance Notation Bureau in New York, asking me if I was going to be setting any more works by Martha Graham, because they had funding to notate those works--works that were created in the 30's, 40's, 50's and 60's. And I said, No, I have no plans. But I remember learning a work while I was a student at Juilliard, by a famous American choreographer, Doris Humphrey. And a notater was there in the process, although it was a little confusing to me, because I was told to watch films of the original cast and learn it from the film. I also had José Limón, who was the original dancer of my part, there to coach me. And there were times when José remembered it a certain way, which was not was in the notation. So he would be there, kind of going, No, no, no, that wasn't it at all! And the notater would be standing there at the side cringing. And then I'd go and do the dance in L.A. and there'd be another notater, and she'd have another interpretation of a rhythmic phrase. Then I, as a performer, would have to decide whether I was going to do it her way, or the way that José taught me, and this went on a few other times, in a few other incarnations of this piece, where I would be working with yet a different notater. I got a little frustrated and impatient with it. I just wanted to dance the thing. But at the same time I realized that when you talk about authenticity, when you talk about how important it is to a dance work that it be the original way, that it be as close to the original cast as possible. I mean Martha Graham, when I worked with her, usually didn't hesitate to change dances that she made 10, 20, 30 years ago. She would look at it and say, I want to change that! And she had the right to. I've done the same thing. It's such a luxury to go back to an old work and to make tweaks and improvements that you always wanted to do.

HD: What made me ask the question about the notation is that I found this piece that you wrote about a dancer called Bertram Ross.

PS: Yes!

HD: And there's a description of a particular sequence just a verbal description that you give and it went something like, Step attitude into deep spiral plié, followed by step contract fall into hip. Or something along those lines. And to me that conjures up this vague image of people doing dancer-y kind of stuff, but I was wondering for someone who knows something about dance, would that description alone be enough to conjure a more precise image?

PS: Oh yeah. It's like Car Talk. I listen to that on the radio and I think, This is so ... boring, I hate these guys, this is ridiculous. But then, you know, it's one of the most popular radio shows in the world, I imagine, because people are into their cars and they know what they're talking about. I don't know anything about cars. I think it's similar in dance. There's a dance vocabulary and it's largely derived from the French terminology of classical ballet. Plié means to bend. Tendue, to stretch. That kind of become the universal default language for dancers, because it's probably the most prevalent form taught, at least in the Western world. So modern dancers will borrow from that terminology.

HD: The reason I'm fishing my camera out again is that I want to document the fact that you're one of the most trusting souls in the world, and I wanted to get a picture of that.

PS: In a way, it's like, My butt hurts, so I'm going to put my legs up [laugh] ...

HD: ... oh, does it really? I'm sorry!

PS: But every opportunity I get I will put my feet up! [Ed. note: More photography ensues]

There's only a couple of other people who have displayed this level of trust on the totter: Steve Glauberman and Annie Palmer.

PS: Really?

HD: Yeah, just spontaneously put their feet up on the totter trusting me to support them without hesitating, you know, and double checking with me.

PS: Now what can you say about the three of us? Do we have any other similarities?

HD: I dunno, that would be interesting to reflect on.

PS: Well, I know where you live, so. [laugh]

HD: Hmmm, okay. [laugh]

PS: Yeah, I know where you live, I could make your life miserable.

HD: Gee whiz! So you have any other thoughts before we hop off?

PS: No, I just want the world to give me lots of money, so that I can buy my ball bearing factory! It's a dream that I had four years ago to take the Ann Arbor Bearing and Manufacturing Company and make it into a dance studio. We thought that our enrollment and that state grants etectera, contributions, would allow us to consider to lease it. But the forces have worked against that, where the rent is sapping everything out of us. So my only choice is to find a way to either buy the building or to give it up to move into something smaller, or to just throw in the towel.

HD: Oh, well, that's distressing to hear.

PS: Yeah, it's been a hard time for us.

HD: It seems like actually a nice use of that space--I suppose it's technically speaking in the path of the proposed Greenway.

PS: It is, yeah.

HD: Seems to me, though, that could be one of the key touchstones for that general area along North Main, to make it a more interesting place to be, as opposed to a place to just get the hell through as fast as possible.

PS: So my challenge is to get the word out that we really are desperate. But if the word gets out with that kind of desperation, that's our only chance, I mean people tire of hearing too much desperation.

HD: Yeah, you can't be desperate for 10 years.

PS: I would have to get with my board, and we would have to decide that this is the moment, and mount a campaign and have all sorts of ways of the community perceiving where it is we are. It's often happened in New York and all over the world where dance companies announce that they're going to fold and it's the only way they can get the support that they need to keep going. And I hope it doesn't come to that.

HD: So you're not quite to that point yet, where you're ready to announce you're going to have to fold, unless?

PS: No, but that's where I'm going now, to send out letters to a choice group of potential donors to help up bridge through the summer months.

HD: But it sounds like it's a bit time sensitive, nevertheless.

PS: Oh very much so. We have a benefit May 4th.

HD: Oh, this is the space above ...

PS: ... the West Side Book Shop.

HD: Yeah, it's a chance to see what that space looks like, if nothing else.

PS: It's amazing. It's a nice space. My life is as much about arts advocacy and raising money as it is about making dances. And again, it's necessity.

HD: I guess if you had the time you'd make dances with all your time.

PS: Oh, yeah, I'd have a benefactor and I'd be out there all the time playing!

HD: Well, listen, thank you so much for coming over today. We lucked out, I think, it's probably going to start pouring down rain any second.

PS: Probably so. It's good for the garden. This was fun!