A man for all seasons: Northampton performances will celebrate the late dancer, choreographer and actor Peter B. Schmitz

  • The late Peter B. Schmitz, a Valley mainstay in dance, choreography and theater for many years, will be honored at 33 Hawley in Northampton on Oct. 14 and 15.  Photo by Peter Raper

  • The late dancer, choreographer and educator Peter B. Schmitz rehearses a piece at Bramble Farm in Amherst.  Photo by Peter Raper

  • Peter Schmitz and Andrea Olsen, who first formed a dance company in Utah in the early 1970s, perform at Thornes Market in the late 1970s. CONTRIBUTED/ANDREA OLSEN

  • Peter Schmitz, left, performs with the Potomac Theater Project in New York City. CONTRIBUTED/ANDREA OLSEN

  • Friends and colleagues of the late Peter B. Schmitz recall the dancer and choreographer as a man of boundless energy and creativity. Photo by Peter Raper

  • Peter Schmitz with the late Nancy Stark Smith, another Valley dancer and a leading exponent of Contact Improvisation dance. CONTRIBUTED/Andrea Olsen

  • Peter Schmitz, in foreground, rehearses a piece with dancer Paul Matteson. Image courtesy Andrea Olsen

  • Peter Schmitz, second from right, Andrea Olsen, center, and other members of the ensemble Dance Gallery prepare for a performance at Thornes Market in 1979. CONTRIBUTED/ANDREA OLSEN

Staff Writer
Monday, October 17, 2022

One friend and colleague described him this way: “Every bone and fiber in him was creative.” Another called him a “quintessential artist, an inspired and inspiring teacher, (and) a kind, hilarious man.”

Peter B. Schmitz, a longtime modern/contemporary dancer, choreographer and teacher who died in August at age 71, was a well-known figure in the Valley’s artistic circles, dating back to the 1970s when he was part of a dance company that had residences at Mount Holyoke College and Thornes Market.

In a career that also took him to New York City and to teaching positions at Amherst and Middlebury colleges, Schmitz had an active career in theater as well, performing with a number of ensembles and wedding his love of movement and spoken word. But for all his serious approach to art, Schmitz was also, as fellow dancer Andrea Olsen recalls, “wonderfully irreverent.”

Now Olsen and other colleagues and friends of Schmitz, who lived in Amherst, have scheduled a remembrance of his life this weekend at 33 Hawley, the Community Arts Trust building in Northampton, where several dancers will perform work either choreographed by Schmitz or inspired by him.

Poetry and theatrical readings are also part of what’s called “Moving Through: Celebrating Peter B. Schmitz.”

In addition, the event, which takes place Oct. 14 and 15, includes a free “installation gathering space” on Oct. 14 in the Workroom Theater at 33 Hawley and will include artwork, photos and other memorabilia of Schmitz. From noon to 7 p.m., and from 2 to 4 p.m. Oct. 15, visitors can gather to share stories of Schmitz or to read, sit, dance, or whatever feels right, Olsen said.

“Peter was a great reader, and he loved to talk about film, about theater, art, about so many things,” she said. “He was always a fun person to be with … so many people have great memories of spending time with him.”

Schmitz grew up in Utah, where Olsen met him in the early 1970s when she was attending graduate school at the University of Utah. She is also a longtime Valley choreographer and educator who previously taught at a number of places, including Middlebury College.

In 1972, Olsen, Schmitz, and Katherine Anderson — the latter two were undergraduates at the University of Utah at the time — formed Dance Gallery, a modern dance company that moved to Seattle and spent a number of years there and also toured, including a six-week visit to New Zealand. Olsen says that tour was the first by a U.S. modern dance company in New Zealand.

When Olsen landed a teaching position at Mount Holyoke in 1975, the ensemble took up a residency at the college and then at newly opened Thornes Market in Northampton. Schmitz went on the earn an MFA at Smith College and to become a board member for Available Potential Enterprises Ltd. (A.P.E.), the arts nonprofit that initially was located in Thornes.

The Valley “was Peter’s creative home,” Olsen noted, even though he lived in New York for a time and also held residencies and visiting teaching posts in a number of places, including at Middlebury College and in Germany and Turkey.

Dancer and lighting designer Kathy Couch, the president of the Northampton Arts Trust, first met Schmitz when she was a student at Amherst College in the 1990s and he was teaching there.

“He started out as my mentor and then he became my friend,” she said. “He was a great teacher, with an incredible amount of energy and also an incredible amount of generosity.”

The two worked together in New York City as dancers and choreographers, and Couch also recalls watching Schmitz perform in theater in New York and in the Valley. A few years ago he appeared in Wallace Shawn’s one-man play “The Fever” at 33 Hawley, for which Schmitz wrote some short biographical notes that read in part, “Peter Schmitz has been making a mess for over 30 years in theater, dance and film/video.”

“Peter always had a great sense of humor,” Couch said. “I miss him. We all do.”

A difficult year

Schmitz’s death was preceded by a tough year that also saddened his friends and colleagues — but which made them admire him all the more for his resilience and his determination to keep moving forward.

While driving in Amherst in August 2021, Schmitz was hit by another car, suffering serious injuries; he required extended hospitalization and rehab to regain basic mobility. A few months later, he had neck surgery to repair some vertebrae.

Though he now had to walk with a cane, he nevertheless went back to doing choreography and theater work, Olsen says.

Then in April, while rehearsing for a play in New York City, Schmitz experienced serious dizzy spells, Olsen says; examination led to the discovery of a terminal brain tumor and more surgery. Through it all, Olsen and Couch say, Schmitz kept working, even as he made arrangements last summer to receive palliative care while he and his husband, Joey Schmitz, prepared for the end.

“I was working with Peter last summer on a (dance) piece,” said Couch, who will perform that work alongside another dancer, Mary Beth Brooker, at the Oct. 15 presentation. “He stayed busy right up until his last few weeks.”

Even in his last days, at the Fisher Hospice Home in Amherst, “his presence was still there, even though he wasn’t speaking by then,” Couch said.

Couch and other friends created a GoFundMe page for Schmitz last year to help him following his accident. On a matching Facebook site, Olsen has collected many tributes to him since then, such as one from Anne Woodhull, a poet and the executive director of A.P.E., who said Schmitz was always thinking about a new dance or theater piece regardless of where he was.

“Even if he was chewing gum, whistling a tune, riding his bike in the cold to his job,” Woodhull writes. “He was creating while reading an obscure book or passing his hand along some beautiful fabric … He was intelligently hilarious.”

“He changed my life when he (included) me in his work,” says choreographer Jennifer Kayle, a professor and co-director of the MFA Program at the University of Iowa. “I am certain I wouldn’t be where/who I am without that. I admire him fiercely.”

And Smith College professor of dance Chris Aiken recalled Schmitz as “an artist with absolute integrity, courage, and compassion for others. His integration of movement and spoken word was of the highest level.”

Olsen says her memories of the artistic boom in Northampton in the late 1970s and the 1980s — “It was such a lively era” — remain inextricably bound up in her memories of Schmitz. “He was such an important part of that and of my life,” she noted.

Olsen will be one of several performers at the Oct. 15 presentation at the Peter Schmitz celebration, which takes place from 12 to 1:30 p.m. and 5 to 6:30 p.m. The earlier performance can be viewed online through a Zoom link. Masks are required for in-person performances. Tickets are sliding scale and can be purchased by visiting apearts.org.

In addition, a dance workshop, “Reset: Restoring Easeful Movement,” takes place on Oct. 16 at 33 Hawley from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. The cost is $35 and space can be reserved here.