Tribute For Nancy Stark Smith, a Founder of Contact Improvisation, Dies at 68


Nancy Stark Smith didn’t care much for dance as a child and a teenager. In a talk she gave in 2005 about contact improvisation — the vigorous movement form of which she was a founding member — she said: “I’d see the dancers standing in front of a wall of mirrors looking at themselves and making little movements. I didn’t understand what was exciting about that.”

It wasn’t as if she didn’t relish movement. While growing up in Great Neck, N.Y., and later attending Oberlin College in Ohio, she was involved in sports and gymnastics; even as an adult, she played in a volleyball league.

But dance held little interest for her — until the choreographer Twyla Tharp, whose company was in residence at Oberlin, changed her mind in 1971. “There was a January term project in dance, and someone suggested I try it,” Ms. Stark Smith said.

While in residence at Oberlin Ms. Tharp created her work “The History of Up and Down, I & II.” Ms. Stark Smith recalled: “She used a wide variety of movement, and the training was physically and mentally rigorous. I got excited by what dance could be from working with her.”

The director of Oberlin’s modern dance company, Brenda Way, saw Ms. Stark Smith performing and asked her to join the group.

The next year, Grand Union, the New York improvisational collective made up of postmodern dance artists, was in residency at Oberlin. The dancer and choreographer Steve Paxton, who was part of that group, taught what he called an early morning “soft class,” which, he said in a phone interview, was a mix of “meditations and mild exercising.”

It was in that class at Oberlin that Ms. Stark Smith began studying with Mr. Paxton. She especially admired his “Magnesium,” a daring all-male experimental work that he made during the residency.

“My aim was to just throw myself off the earth without worrying about what landing was going to be like,” Mr. Paxton recalled of “Magnesium.” “I figured my reflexes would somehow take care of me. Nancy said if I ever did it again, to consider inviting her.”

Those experiments led to his creation of contact improvisation. Both an artful and athletic endeavor, contact is an exploration of touch, gravity and weight sharing; it can be still and sensorial or physically robust. Ms. Stark Smith was one of 17 dancers in the first group that Mr. Paxton worked with, and, he said, “she carried on throughout her life with it.”

Ms. Stark Smith died on May 1 at her home in Florence, Mass. She was 68. The cause was ovarian cancer, said the dance artist Lisa Nelson, with whom Ms. Stark Smith created Contact Quarterly, a dance and improvisation journal, in 1975.

The women had met in 1972, when Ms. Nelson and Mr. Paxton were both teaching at Bennington College in Vermont; Ms. Stark Smith had gone there to visit Mr. Paxton. “We started talking and never stopped,” Ms. Nelson said.

Nancy Stark Smith was born on Feb. 11, 1952, in Brooklyn to Lucille (Stark) Smith and Dr. Joseph J. Smith, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx. Her family moved to Great Neck in 1954. Her mother died when Nancy was 5.

Moving fast was always one of her passions.

“As a child, I would race with my sister to see who could get their pajamas on first,” Ms. Stark Smith wrote in Contact Quarterly in 1996. “As a contact improviser, I’ve been a reflex junkie, a momentum freak; loving to feel the adrenaline rush, test and take to the turbulent waters with a partner, seeking our limits: of body, mind and communication.”

She took part in the first performances of contact improvisation, at the John Weber Gallery in New York City in 1972. From there the form grew even as the original group of dancers scattered across the country.

“The nature of this form is that you need a partner to do it, and I think this is one of the most important reasons it has spread,” Ms. Stark Smith said.

After graduating from Oberlin in 1974 with a degree in dance and writing, she studied meditation and Buddhism at what is now the Buddhist-inspired Naropa University in Boulder, Colo. There she met the feminist Beat poet Diane di Prima. When Ms. di Prima made it known that she was looking for someone to transcribe her journals back home in California, Ms. Stark Smith spoke up.

“A fast typist, already in this swirling world of art and spirituality, I offered my services,” she recalled in “Caught Falling: The Confluence of Contact Improvisation, Nancy Stark Smith, and Other Moving Ideas” (2008), a book she wrote with David Koteen.

Moving to California to work for Ms. de Prima, she lived in Stinson Beach for several years while continuing to teach and tour with Mr. Paxton. (They later taught together as well.) “She was athletic, she was responsive, she would take initiative,” Mr. Paxton said of Ms. Stark Smith, adding, “She was very daring.”

She was also strong. “There’s a photo of her holding me on her shoulder,” he continued. “My whole body is on her shoulder. I’m arched up, and here is this woman carrying a man around.”

Contact Quarterly, the journal Ms. Stark Smith created with Ms. Nelson, ceased publication in January. But Ms. Nelson said she planned to create a resource site with its archives.

Ms. Stark Smith is survived by her partner of 22 years, the composer and musician Mike Vargas; her sister, Susan Smith Berenzweig; her half brother, David Chaim Smith; her stepmother, Carol Smith; a stepbrother, James Rand; a stepsister, Laura Haleman; a niece, Julie Berenzweig Kligerman; a nephew, Adam Berenzweig; and Mr. Vargas’s daughter, Gray Vargas, and granddaughter.

Mr. Paxton’s last exchange with Ms. Stark Smith was about the final issue of the Quarterly. “In January, I wrote her a nice, not very long, friendly and appreciative email,” he said. “She wrote back such a heartfelt thank you that it felt like a goodbye, and I was shocked.”

About the same time, he said, she sent out group thank you. “It was something about looking forward to seeing the lilacs bloom,” Mr. Paxton said. “I think she died the weekend that the lilacs bloom. I’m not sure if she saw them or not. They were a-blooming.”



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