The making of art is my life and work, and dance embodies and informs that pursuit. Art is metaphor—a lie, according to Picasso, that tells the truth. It is an intersection both fearsome and full of rapture. It defines my days and traverses the mundane and the extraordinary. In its realms, I experience the illusion of backward-moving time: of mind and body remembering, of my multiple histories as burden, source and springboard for further forays into the forgotten, repressed, unknown and unknowable. In its spell, I also move forward into the moment, catching the wave of inspiration—fueled as much by the fear of immobility, inertia and overbearing gravity as by the sheer pleasure of abundant creativity, characterized by discovery, light and fluid grace. This forward thrust is embodied in the momentum of movement. As a dancer, I willfully and willingly press my imprint into the malleable, permeable envelope of space and carve out paths, contours, and a syntax that speaks in a language of limbs, torso, hips, feet, head, and neck. But this momentum also works in its seeming opposite: I am moved or manipulated without will, rent or pulled by impulses out of my control or greater than myself, even if they may originate within my own being. One danced phrase, one poetic fragment or spoken soliloquy, one musical theme, one stroke of the brush on canvas can contain a multitude of nuanced modulations, bridging profound sorrow or aloneness with exaltation and affirmation—in a split second or over seeming eons.

If, as a mapmaker of my own body in motion, I were to map these opposing, directional pulls on two graphs—one backwards and descending, and the other forwards and ascending—the first would trace my descending path below my center of gravity, weighing me down gradually, in fits and starts, or pulling from deep inside some immeasurable void, as I grasp to hold on for dear life, to cling to the earth or bury myself below. I plummet, fall weightlessly, or drop like a puppet on suddenly limp strings. The upward movement of this graph would trace my efforts to rise between these diverse descents, to make sense of or come to terms with my condition, to restore equilibrium—to create something out of the knowledge of what went before, to redeem myself, to come into the light out of the shadow, and to bear form.

The second, forward and upwards-moving graph would mirror the first almost exactly, but flipped 180 degrees! Propelled by an inner confidence, an impulse, an idea, an image, a song, I rise out of and with my body, drawing the space like a brush dipped in ink or inscribing it as if diving then swimming upwards into and through the space. This graph would not exactly mirror its “other” (the curse of the narcissist), but be turned upside-down and fold back along the first section, aligning across parallel horizons. (Or could I aspire towards an ascending spiral?) I would begin my climb upwards from my center of gravity following the knowledge of my most recent ascent from below. Curved or folded back on itself like a mobius strip, the ascending section (of the same graph, actually, and 3-D, mind you!) would create in relationship with its descending double a zone of engagement—an oscillating space of cross-references, memory and vision—shaped by and contained within the contours of the peaks and valleys. This zone is itself a kind of body, continually morphing, recreating itself and—dancing.

The variations are endless. Falling and rising, expressing gravity and grace, the graphs plunge, surface and take flight, above and below the center of gravity—rarely staying above or below for long. That would mean stasis, immobility. My ultimate nightmare. Paradoxically, art-making occurs and is retained or captured in the stillness or quiet point at the center of this ever-oscillating territory. There is a core vibration even in rest or stillness. I grasp the handle of the brush with a learned discipline and mindfulness, respectful of its power; I master the stroke that swims me towards my ever-changing destination, tempered by the conditions of the flowing stream.

All of what I’ve just stated is a grossly linear oversimplification of a complex system of experience I call my life and work.

As my dancing body ages (and ironically grows wiser), I seek the means (and media) to prolong, capture, and map the fearful rapture of movement: by teaching, by making dances for younger, eager bodies, by video cameras and editing, by writing or lecturing, by collaborating with other artists and thinkers from related disciplines, and by consulting and sharing my experience with others. I am also obsessed with painting. Here is my "Artist's Statement" from my first solo show of paintings at Gallery 22 North, ypsilanti. MI Oct. 5-Nov.2, 2018:

ARTIST’S STATEMENT: PETER SPARLING       The Post-Photographic Body: See Me As I Feel 

 Two truths approach each other. One comes from inside, the other 

    from outside,

and where they meet we have a chance to catch sight of ourselves.


                                                   ---from “Preludes”, Tomas Tranströmer


What is there left to capture of the moving body once it has been documented in a photograph? With The Post-Photographic Body,Ipropose that the photo is merely a portal, an invitation or contour map for further excavations and reenactments. Acrylic paint and the stroke of the brush allow me to reanimate the photographed figure as I return to it my own body memories and sensations and invest in the painted image its lived, kinesthetic presence. 

In order to produce my “source” image, I feel movement from the inside of my body and “perform” for the outside eye of the camera. As I do so, I imagine—frame by frame—what I might “look like” at that instant and how it might translate onto canvas as a painting. I then curate from among those recorded moments-whether captured on iPhone, conventional camera or digital video—a still image of my body that strikes me as visually and viscerally provocative.  I regard that image as something outside of me, as both subject and object. I project it with video projector directly onto the canvas and draw its outlines. I am then ready to re-enter the image and re-experience the original moment of intention and muscular tension from the inside of my body as I paint it. 

As soon as my brush touches canvas, I enter into an immersive, trance-like state.  Time stretches, collapses or disappears. I am everywhere at once between the eye, the hand and the end of brush, between the colors I mix as I go, between the sensations under or on the surface of my skin and their visual manifestation on canvas.I slip into the zone. I “catch sight” of myself A kind of truth comes full circle: seeing and doing are one. It is a transference of kinesthetic empathy, stroke by stroke. It is just like dancing, except that the product is a material object made of inert matter, hung on a wall, pre-staged or already performed within the frame of the camera and canvas. It only finds it audience “after the fact”, in the eye of the beholder. 

How do I put on canvas what it feels to inhabit this body? As a 67-year-old man who has forged his career and identity as a dancer for 50 years, I’ve etched, stretched, honed, feathered, edged, shaped, tapered, lathed, contoured, distorted, contorted and sculpted every centimeter of my flesh and bone into outrageous acts of movement performance since I first began dancing. 

Five years ago, it came to me to pick up a brush and translate that body knowledge via the stroke of that brush: to experience how that stroke issues from the same impulses that guide my dancing body, and how color, the application of viscous plastic (acrylic paint as evidence of a physical gesture ) on a receptive but neutral surface (canvas as the open space framing that gesture) can leave behind a visceral and visual impression that strikes the viewer as “real” or having actually happened, producing the “shock of recognition”. (Is this moment of recognition about some hybrid form of photorealism, made possible by the use of the photographic image as source, or is it the illusion of energy and thrust of the body’s presence, its viscerality or torque as transferred through the brush stroke? Or is it both?) 

I have already been able to extend my dancing career as a video artist, filming myself then editing countless works for the screen in which I “perform” feats via editing magic that I could never replicate on stage. I know how to regard my body in third person, as a form to manipulate from a distance, once removed. 

This selection of paintings might also provoke other questions: Is it perceived specifically as a gay white man’s vision of his gay white man’s body? If so, does it pre-suppose a limited audience or pre-condition the viewer’s “reading” or response? Is this a display of the misguided narcissism or exhibitionist tendencies of a 67-year-old male dancer desperate to preserve a semblance of his fit, responsive, mobile body? (I’m actually more fascinated with the way that my flesh is beginning to fall in folds over my musculature, how gravity is taking its toll, how the male form can embody vulnerability and a hard-won, lived-in wisdom of sorts as well as heroic poses or youthful prowess.) What prevents these images from being considered soft porn? Is it the non-sexual intentionality of the subject’s positions? The prioritization of painterly detail over photographic verisimilitude? The size of my penis? Why is male frontal nudity our culture’s last great taboo re. depictions of the male body on stage or screen?

As a painter, I am unschooled. I am like a crude, untrained rider of an extremely trained horse. But I really ride the horse. I hold on for dear life. I become the horse, and in return, it teaches me. Rather than putting up a defense of my painting, or of my role as painter, or pose that defense in unanswered questions, I’d rather allow for the viewer to catch sight and let the painting ask its own questions. My painting makes me mute, then. Perhaps this is a kind of freedom: to hover speechless betweenTranströmer’stwo truths, and perchance “catch sight of ourselves”. 

I include on TV monitor a medley of “screendances”, my Acrylic Worlds, that combine performance for the camera, video editing and painting. Movement shot against greenscreen is cloned and “choreographed” in editing via chromo key effect into a video of bodies floating in a black void. That video is projected onto blank white canvas; choosing “hinge” moments in the action, I pause the video in order to paint in a landscape around the figure(s) then photograph that canvas without those projected figures before forwarding to the next hinge in action. While the paint is still wet, I augment the painting to shift the scene ahead in time and place. Accumulating a series of stills of an ever-morphing canvas until the closing scene, I drop the completed series into my Final Cut Pro file and place the still photos behind their moment of action. With cross-dissolves and careful sizing of figure and landscape, I produce an illusion of continuity and flow, of shifting scenes or backdrops, or of a fractured narrative that allows my digitized body to inhabit an imagined universe. 

This website is constructed as a series of windows or portals onto my work. In assembling it, I seek to articulate and offer a sampling of my interests and skills in hopes of engaging in dialogue with fellow artists, prospective collaborators, sponsors, commissioning agents, presenters and funding sources.

Addendum (Name-Dropping): On second thought, would it not be sufficient to say I am simply a man dancing, a dancing man? I have somehow made a 40-year career out of it, and I am inspired by the likes of Walt Whitman, Samuel Beckett, Joseph Cornell, Francis Bacon, Bach, Mozart, Schubert, Caravaggio, Cézanne, Lucian Freud, Proust… and as much by living friends and colleagues from diverse disciplines who share with me their art and ideas. If I were to trace my dance lineage a few generations back, I would find Martha Graham and José Limon as my parent/mentors and a host of dance luminaries as my uncles and aunts, cousins and siblings. Fred Astaire, Merce Cunningham, Antony Tudor, Bertram Ross, Yuriko Kimura, and Rudolf Nureyev, to name a few.

As a kid from a middle-class white family in Detroit, Michigan, I only dreamed of wearing a beret, playing a violin and living in Paris. Little did I imagine that my paths would cross with a Who’s Who of mid-to-late 20th century celebrities and artists: the Queen Mum, Halston, Joe Eula, Bianca Jagger, Elizabeth Taylor, Aaron Copland, Martha Graham, José Limon, Sexton Ehrling, Ani & Ida Kafavian, Kim Kashkashian, Carlos Surinach, Betty Ford, the King of Thailand, Imelda Marcos, Liza Minelli, Diana Ross, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Rudolf Nureyev, Galina Vishnevskya and Mislav Rostropovich, Carolina Herrera, Eleanor Lambert, Claudette Colbert, Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, Antony Tudor, Helen McGehee, Ethel Winter, Mary Hinkson, Bertram Ross, Robert Cohen, Ann Carson, Robert Haas, Mark Doty, Marie Howe, Paul Taylor, Mark Morris, Twyla Tharp, Trisha Brown, Merce Cunningham, Phil Setzer, David Ogden Stiers, Frederic Rzewski, Joan Tower, Rudolf Arnheim, Francis Mason, William Bolcom and Joan Morris, Michael Daugherty, Bethsebee DeRothchild, Ohad Naharin, Linda Gregerson, and William Snodgrass. I missed working with Madonna twice by a few years—once at the University of Michigan (she was a student there for a year a decade or so before I joined the faculty) and again in New York at the Graham School (I passed her in the narrow lobby once between classes, and I remember looking down into her gorgeous brown eyes and the plunging neckline of her leotard).

My work has taken me to Canada, England, Scotland, Wales, France, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Greece, Yugoslavia, Jordan, Israel, Egypt, Lebanon, Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, Japan, Burma, Singapore, Taiwan, Russia, Latvia, Ukraine, Costa Rica, and Mexico.

Please refer to my bio and CV for more information regarding my career trajectory. Details will also appear in my memoirs. Yes, seriously, I am writing my memoirs. Look for upcoming excerpts at this website.

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