Peter Sparling in Paris at Cafe Hugo
Sparling at ChenonceauPeter with Rosanna TaverezPeter Sparling in Passage Vivienne, ParisView of Notre Dame from apartment window

A Free Man in Paris

by Peter Sparling

Peter Sparling, professor of dance, spent fall semester living in Paris, in residence at the Cité International des Arts, a center for composers, musicians, painters, sculptors, writers, dancers, and video artists from all over the world. Peter’s focus there was dancing for video—screendance—exploring “motion, framing, and the extraordinary images that I find everywhere around me.” Upon his return to Ann Arbor, we asked him to write about his experience.

I’ve been a lucky man in my 59 years, working with the dance “greats,” traveling the world, seeing my name in The New York Times … and actually having a secure job as an artist in this economy! But not until my recent four months at the Cité Internationale des Arts did living the dream seem so real, so immediate, so completely realized.

Granted an academic leave this past fall to videotape and edit screendances, to see and write about dance performances for Ballet Review, and to soak up the art and ambience of not only Paris, but the Loire Valley, Chartres, Berlin, and Lisbon, I lived in a constant swoon, a state of what Charles Ives, in his Essays Before a Sonata, might call the vibratory hum of the universal lyre.

Many times, the lyrics of the Joni Mitchell song would hit me:  “ I was a free man in Paris, I felt unfettered and alive. There’s nobody calling me up for favors, and no one’s future to decide.”

Three weeks home now, I’m back in the saddle of my Honda CRV, driving to and from campus, hitting K-Mart for toothpaste and blank DVDs, and longing for the Pont Louis Philippe, my bridge along the Seine just minutes from my fourth-floor walk-up in the 4me arrondissement. It is the habit of teaching that saves me from the nostalgia gnawing at me like I’m trying to remember a past, more perfect life in the City of Light.

Rather than bemoan my fate as a hopeless Francophile, I think it might be more meaningful to go back into the Web site journal I kept and lift from it some passages from the beginning and ending that bring to life the heady intoxication of my time dancing in the studios of the Marais and wandering the streets and bridges of Paris.

12 septembre, 2010

Three little dances mark the end of my first week here.

Petit Bach places me once again in the sweet embrace of Bach’s solo violin music. I isolate myself in a vertical niche or shrine, and attempt to embody the sound …  I “play” its sound/score as it plays my body/instrument. To create it, I found a black table without one of its legs and placed it as a backdrop behind a wooden bench in the studio. The flip camera did the rest. Paris is layered with antiquities, shrines, gargoyles, and mementos of its past. Frames within frames, windows filled with precious objects, remnants, figures long separated and isolated from their original housings, functions, meanings.

petite meditation sur l’espace, an improvisation in an altered or heightened state of concentration or mindfulness, inspired by the space of the studio and the space defined by the camera. I danced and videotaped it in silence, then “scored” it in editing to make a duet of two complementary musical lines in respectful coexistence.

For Paris Acceleration I, I was inspired by a Francis Bacon triptych at the Pompidou. Clearing away the furniture in my apartment, I shot a series of “still” nudes of myself, playing the role of the artist’s model, with the assignment to remain still (and understand what that meant), but gradually shorten the duration of poses. Once I started putting it down, it became an experiment in assemblage, drawing upon the work of Etienne-Martin, Cornell, Rauschenberg, Braque, countless others … and reading a critique of my old friend Rudy Arnheim about dynamic balance and the composition of imagery within the frame.

18 septembre

It’s pre-dawn and Orion hovers over the Seine. He eyes a lonely star hanging left above the spire of Notre Dame. I awoke having dreamed of deer descending steep slopes towards swollen rivers; a man with a sled and hoist-like navigation device (like the models of rigs displayed at the Musée des Arts et Métiers) negotiates the rapids, then edges along a rope bridge. I seek a foothold and attempt to descend towards the bridge below.

Why wait for the sun to rise? My time here is too precious. I feel like I’m being given a last moment on earth—in this lifetime—to pass over some bridge. Toward what?

14 decembre

I’m determined to recapture the “high” of the rhythm of my first two months here:  up early, down to the studio with camera before anyone at Cité is awake, back up four flights to download, edit, and upload to YouTube, write journal entry, take a long walk, buy lunch to bring home, and take a nap …

This morning, I propped up the camera and adjusted the lighting setting for “Cinema.” I improvised four episodes of one set, then took off my shirt and danced a second set in two parts. Looking at the results, I notice (and feel) a weathered toughness, a matter-of-fact attitude that comes from having shed the fantasies and fancies of my initial exhilaration with Paris. Now, it all seems simply nothing more or less than the work that I do …

I am reminded that this time was not about producing a cutting-edge work to send out to festivals. I am simply generating material in a fairly spontaneous, free-flowing progression. I am becoming facile, practiced, at ease with the process. But does a progression imply “progress”? Have I analyzed each work, made notes, set goals or parameters for the next study, and tracked the “improvement” or development of any one issue, effect, idea, theory, concept, or formal device? No, not really. Not consciously.

I suppose any theory or development that emerges will do so as I shape a performance/presentation from the body of work. The momentum, form, and content will either fall into an overall trajectory that progresses to some place of inevitability, or it will be a montage, a multidirectional pastiche, a series of windows into a four-month exploration, a “university without walls.”

Paris/Last Looks has this weathered look. I try to pin things down, set anchor, but am constantly uprooting or subverting that impulse to locate, pin down, settle. The second set of improvs for Paris/Last Looks starts torn-up and “off”; I discard it. But the second part gets more to the point, I think. I am proud of this section; it serves to embody both the turbulence and the inner logic that has been spinning out of me all these weeks.

24 decembre (excerpt)

It is Christmas Eve, Paris, and the cathedral bells chime, seemingly oblivious of the digitally synchronized clocks of 21st century cell phones and laptops. Their inundating sound arises first from a lone bell, then is joined, mirrored and echoed, by others across the arrondissement and beyond. This sonic resonance builds in waves, comes into alignment for a brief moment, then breaks and fractures into multiple voices once again. Finally, the last lone bell comes to rest, its pendulum quieted—most likely by electronic control. A rite of the season, to mark the mass, the time of Christ’s birth, to be repeated again at sunrise, Christmas morning. No thought of the sacrifice on the cross, of the 40 days and nights in the wilderness, of whippings, a trial, a tomb.

Yet the Ballet de l’Opéra chooses to feature Pina Bausch’s 1975 choreography to Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps as its holiday fare. In Bausch’s breakthrough work of astounding velocity, possession, and collective penitential agony, another birthing ritual unfolds. True to the Stravinsky score, it accumulates to the very edge, then collapses to the ground on the last note. And the red dress that the cast of 16 lithe women in thin slips alternately lie upon and cling to, then cast away like a curse, is part dread, part promise of female fertility, and has nothing to do with Santa. What the audience witnesses is a grim embodiment en masse of a community driven by its own ancestral memory of imagined cause and effect to choose at random a young woman to be cast out, don the red dress, and dance herself to death.

5 janvier 2011, Ann Arbor (excerpt)

Retrospection has its dangers. Fortunately for those of us who love the dance, contemporary dance/theater has been around long enough now to embody its own dynamic framing of energies, jam-packed with tradition, anticipation, expectation, and the audience’s undying hopes for engagement, clarity, and redemption. And theaters and presenters in Paris are willing to support dance seasons, festivals, and commissions. It is impressive and enviable to observe how Paris—and the national system of arts subsidies—grows and feeds its dance audiences.

When choreographers fall short and pass off an empty spectacle for substance, can audiences admit to themselves that they have been duped? Too often, I saw crowds applauding the naked emperor because they needed to feel they had gotten it, were in on the joke. Or were they applauding the noble efforts of the dancers, that devout cross-section of the most alive, generous, and self-sacrificing of we mere mortals?  Ah, Paris. Ah, humanity.

Professor Sparling’s Videojournal de Paris can be found at under the “Current Work” tab.