Celebrating an era in Valley dance: Somatics Festival in Northampton recognizes pioneering women dancers

  • Nancy Stark Smith, at far right, during a 2007 dance performance in Finland. Stark Smith is one of a number of pioneering dance specialists returning to Northampton for next week’s Somatics Festival. Photo by RaisaKyllikki Karjalainen

  • Nancy Stark Smith, left and Lisa Nelson working on an issue of “Contact Quarterly,” a long-running dance and improvisation journal, in the Fitzwilly’s building in Northampton in 1984. Photo by Bill Arnold

  • Steve Paxton and Nancy Stark Smith during a contact improvisation performance at Thornes Market in Northampton in October 1980. In the background are Lisa Nelson, Daniel Lepkoff, and Christie Svane. Photo by Stephen Petegorsky

Staff Writer
Thursday, September 12, 2019

During the 1970s, Janet Adler, Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, and Nancy Stark Smith were all pioneering female artists based in Northampton who were crucial to the development of “somatics,” a mind/body movement studies and art form that is now taught throughout the world.

To celebrate the work of these enterprising artists, Northampton’s School for Contemporary Dance & Thought (SCDT) and A.P.E., Ltd. will co-host the first-ever Somatics Festival, at the Northampton Community Arts Trust building at 33 Hawley Street. Running Sept. 19-23, Thursday to Monday, the festival will also recognize the 45-year legacy of “Contact Quarterly,” the longest running independent, not-for-profit magazine dedicated to bringing the dancer’s voice to the page; the publication was founded by Stark Smith and Lisa Nelson, another former Northampton dancer.

The festival includes a series of immersive dance workshops, public forums, performances, film screenings, lectures, and a visual arts exhibit.

Jennifer Polins, founding artistic director of SCDT, said the pioneering women in movement arts who the festival will honor have left a vital legacy in the Valley — and they’ll be returning for the events themselves.

“To bring these women together, these iconic figures in movement arts, is super exciting,” said Polins. “This has never happened before.”

Polins herself studied with Bainbridge Cohen more than two decades ago, in the early 1990s.

“It was still a small group of people [who] knew about her work, but now the generation that have taken that work into performance art, and into different curriculum and into the world — it’s just untrackable,” she explained. “It’s just grown exponentially.”

Andrea Olsen, a dance artist, author, and professor emerita of dance at Middlebury College in Vermont, is curating the Somatics Festival. Initially she reached out to the movement studies artists, asking if they could recommend some of their former students as festival performers, but all three wanted to be part of the festival themselves.

“It became a larger event than I initially intended,” Olsen said. “There are so many people who have worked with these women, both locally and globally, that it’s a big, historic opportunity to be with them all at the same time. It won’t happen again.”

Olsen said that starting in the 1970s and 1980s, Adler, Bainbridge Cohen and Stark Smith played a crucial role in developing the beginning of body-mind centering, contact improvisation dance and authentic movements.

“They all individually began a major part of their investigations in Northampton,” she explained. “Janet Adler was developing her work in the discipline of authentic movement and founded the Mary Starks Whitehouse Institute here to really study this discipline of authentic movement that she’s been centrally involved in.”

During that same period, Bainbridge Cohen brought the School for Body-Mind Centering to the Valley in its early years, which drew students from across the world to the area over the course of three decades, Olsen said. In addition, Stark Smith and Nelson, the co-founders of “Contact Quarterly,” both moved to Northampton to work with Bainbridge Cohen.

“It wasn’t that everyone was here working together, but we were all here working,” added Olsen. “I include myself because I was at Thornes Market [with] the resident dance company. I was the choreographer and part of a dance company called Dance Gallery at Thornes.”

During that era, Olsen noted, Thornes was “kind of the hub of the creative work. The whole top floor was devoted to performance and galleries.”

But after 45-plus years, “Contact Quarterly” will be ending its print run, moving to an online-only platform in 2020, Olsen said. On Sunday (Sept. 22) at the festival, there will be a conversation between the founding co-directors about the legacy of the publication and its impact in the world of dance.

Though the workshops that are part of the Somatics Festival have now sold out, there are still many other events open to the public, Olsen said.

On Sept. 19, the first day of the festival, there will be an oral archive project, from 2 to 4 p.m., led by New York City Public Library for the Performing Arts, which discusses the history of somatics and the many fields of dance honed and crafted in Northampton during the 1970s and 1980s.

On Sept. 20, there will be four film screenings focused on the female artists, including Olsen, and their respective creative works. That event is co-hosted by Northampton Open Media. That night, there will also be a dance performance called “Influence,” which features Shayla-Vie Jenkins, Paul Matteson, Olsen, Peter Schmitz, and guests.

On Sept. 21, Historic Northampton will lead a conversation titled “Why Here, Why Then” about “why Northampton and why in the 1970s did everybody show up here?” said Olsen. “And what are the themes that were both unique to each person, and how did they overlap?”

Chris Goudreau can be reached at cgoudreau@gazettenet.com.

For more information and to purchase tickets for events at the festival, visit https://www.scdtnoho.com/somaticsfestival2019registration.html