Far from the continuing and contentious legal battle over the rights to Martha Graham's choreographic legacy in New York City, Ann Arbor boasts its own Graham descendant, Peter Sparling (a former Graham principal), and his distinguished dance company, which launches this year's TreeTown Festival at Performance Network from May 29 through June 2.
Sparling has built upon Graham's supremely physical technique and psychologically charged narratives to create a movement sensibility noted for its fluid energy, expressive conviction, and muscular carving of space. Sometimes spoken narrative or poetry amplifies his work. Lately Sparling's projects have fused technology and dance, with fascinating and rewarding results.
This is an auspicious time for Sparling and his company, which is one of the few survivors of this area's dance boom in the 1990s. The search is on for a permanent home within what is hoped to be a new Ann Arbor performing arts center. And the engaging miniseason at Performance Network represents the seven-member company at its peak. Choreographed in the last year, all three pieces on the program manifest an implicit awareness of life's transitions and a healthy need for self-reflection. Stylistically, they illustrate the arc of Sparling's artistic concerns.
Patient Spider, which premiered in January with the U-M's University Dance Company, is a knockout. Inspired by a few lines of Walt Whitman's "A Noiseless Patient Spider," and accompanied by J. S. Bach's undulating Sonata no. 3 in C Major for solo violin, it's an extended choral pattern of elastic stretching, reaching, leaping, and falling. Floating above the live dancers onstage, a large video screen projects a synchronized performance by the same group. Often the two watch or mirror each other, creating an entrancing interplay of scale and kinesthetic connection. As the dancers enact a multilayered counterpoint of personal awakening and transcendent yearning, Bach's polyphonic intervals make one violin sound like two, echoing the duality of the transfiguration motif.
Named for and inspired by Sparling's elementary school in Detroit, The Dossin Variations (music by Frank Pahl) derives from Sparling's collaboration last year with architect Ronit Eisenbach and video artist Terri Sarris on an installation at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Reconceived as a fleshed-out piece of choreography, the dancers jump, skip, lunge, raise their hands, and goof off in a "classroom" of chalkboards and chairs. The everyday actions of children are distilled in this thematic study of memory, regression, and growth.
Also on the program is Bernie & Dottie's Fortieth Wedding Anniversary, an unflinching yet often humorous portrayal — related through pantomime and partnering — of what Dottie herself refers to as the "dance" of a real-life partnership. Set to the couple's recorded musings and a Mozart divertimento, the work creates a powerful sense of shared experience.