In 1977, when dancer and choreographer Patty Smith was 26, she was arrested with 1500 other protesters during a peaceful march at the construction site of the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant in New Hampshire. For the next two weeks, she was held with 1000 others in a room at the Manchester State Armory, where the fluorescent lights were never turned off. “I saw the light of day for seven minutes,” she recalls.
Smith has always taken the world, and what happens in it, personally. “I don’t see myself as divorced from the world,” she says, sitting on the floor of her studio during a break from rehearsing her latest one-woman show, For What It’s Worth. “I see things that happen in the world and that we do to each other, and it makes me very sad; it makes me feel impotent. The only thing that I’ve ever been able to do when I feel this overwhelming powerlessness is to dance.”
And so Smith, now 63, will dance this Friday at Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater. The evening will feature what she calls “protest dances,” created in response to world events. Since Seabrook, Smith has for the most part “gone inside to protest,” she says. “I have felt a need in so many cases over the years to dance my remorse,” she says.
But it was a sudden rush of memories from that very public protest at Seabrook that sparked her latest work. Recently, a friend sent Smith a documentary about that incident. “I was reluctant to look at it,” she says. It had been an emotional time. Her father was dying of pancreatic cancer. “My parents came to visit me while I was in the armory,” she recalls. “They were so incredibly ashamed of me.” Her dad had fought in World War II and couldn’t understand his daughter’s fight.
“There was a sadness in watching myself in the film,” says Smith. “But what can I say? I was a baby. I was following my heart, trying to do the right thing. Trying to stand up for what I believed in.”
In For What It’s Worth, Smith explores that sense of conviction, as well as feelings of remorse — about her own actions and those of the world around her. “There’s some scary stuff in here,” she says. “I address some really taboo subjects in some really taboo ways.”
But expect to laugh, too. Smith doesn’t just dance — to traditional folk music, plus selections from Domenico Scarlatti, Béla Bartók, Kurt Weill and David Byrne — she tells stories, often of the expertly self-deprecating variety.
“This is a runaway show,” she says. “It’s just crazy me.”
For What It’s Worth, protest dances and works in progress by Patty Smith. Friday, August 24, 8 p.m., at Town Hall Theater in Middlebury. $20. Info, 382-9222. townhalltheater.org