Remembering Michael Smuin’s Legacy

by Heather Desaulniers

In homage to its founder, Smuin Contemporary Ballet gets to work as it prepares for its 25th anniversary season.

It was November 1993 when esteemed choreographer and dancer Michael Smuin approached Celia Fushille about joining him on an artistic adventure. He had an idea for a new Bay Area ballet company that would upend elitist notions about ballet and bring it to a wider audience. It would be populated with artists who valued creative collaboration and technical excellence; who would perform works of choreographic rigor as well as dances that were pure entertainment; and who demonstrated positivity, support and mutual respect. Fushille—along with many other dancers and arts professionals—embraced Smuin’s vision, and in March 1994, Smuin Ballet danced its debut performance at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

Smuin, who had a heart attack and died while in rehearsal in 2007, would surely be overjoyed that his venture (recently renamed Smuin Contemporary Ballet) is still going gangbusters. This fall, it celebrates its 25th anniversary season with three dynamic programs: Dance Series 01, “The Christmas Ballet” and Dance Series 02. As the Smuin organization fixes its collective attention on the coming year of celebration and on the company’s next chapter, this quarter-century milestone also offers an opportunity to reflect and remember.

Fushille, Smuin’s artistic director since 2007, and ballet master Amy London danced in the company during its start-up period. “In the beginning years, we were the little engine that could, feisty and scrappy with not too many bells and whistles,” London says. “And we performed a lot.” That’s not necessarily a given for a new company. But with Smuin’s commitment to bringing ballet to a wider audience, as well as his established national reputation, the young group found itself with a very active performance calendar, which required adaptability. “Michael wanted a mobile and flexible company that could head out to a variety of places and venues and introduce people to this wonderful art form,” notes Fushille. “The costumes and the company could fit into a van; it was lean and efficient.”

Many memories stand out for Fushille and London from these early days. Performing at Carnegie Hall in December 1996 is an experience that Fushille won’t forget. “It was a celebration of the 100th anniversary of Ira Gershwin’s birth; we danced, we sang and it was aired on national television,” Fushille recounts. “I was overwhelmed thinking of all the people that had been on that stage; I never imagined such an opportunity.” Similarly, London never anticipated that her love of ballet would intersect with her love of baseball as it did when the SF Giants took on the LA Dodgers in September 1997. “We danced during the National Anthem in what would turn out to be a historic game at Candlestick Park,” describes London. “We met the players and during their batting practice, Michael grabbed one of my pointe shoes and got Barry Bonds to sign it.” Even moments from rehearsal stand out. For dancer Erin Yarbrough-Powell, who joined the company in 2003, one particular instance prepping for “Romeo & Juliet” comes to mind. “My skirt was too long, and Michael couldn’t see my feet, so he grabbed a pair of scissors and shortened it right then and there,” she recalls. “I still have that skirt.”

A persona as distinct as Michael Smuin’s—his mannerisms, personal style and favorite phrases—have inevitably left indelible memories for those who worked with him. Yarbrough-Powell recalls his ease at quelling moments of charged energy in the studio or in rehearsal. “If things got tense, Michael was able to calm the mood by saying things like, ‘We’re not saving lives here; we’re doing ballet.’” London remembers Smuin’s commanding presence in the theater at performance time, from his colorful jackets with Western-style fringe and cowboy boots to the way he chatted with audience members before the show began. “Michael would say, ‘If you like what you see, please tell your friends and if you don’t, keep your mouth shut.’” And while Fushille can point to many of her mentor’s oft-repeated sayings, perhaps the most powerful is his matter-of-fact call to action: “Let’s get to work.”

Getting to work is precisely what the company is doing as it prepares for its 25th- anniversary season. The ambitious repertory includes Trey McIntyre’s “Blue Until June”; a world premiere by former choreographer-in-residence Amy Seiwert (now artistic director at Sacramento Ballet); and three new ballets by Smuin dancers. “Fostering new choreographic talent from within the company was really important to Michael,” Yarbrough-Powell notes. “The first program features work by Nicole Haskins, Ben Needham-Wood and Rex Wheeler; I think Michael would be so happy that Smuin is continuing on that path today.” And fittingly, the 25th season showcases a vibrant collection of Michael Smuin compositions, including “Schubert Scherzo,” “Eternal Idol,” “The Best of Smuin” and, of course, the seasonal classic, “The Christmas Ballet.”

“I have intentionally made a plan to really celebrate our founder and our foundation with a number of Michael’s works this season,” says Fushille. “There are people who don’t know [his work] and we are excited to introduce them to his choreography.” Company dancer Tessa Barbour, who joined in 2016, says, “I wasn’t around during the time of Michael Smuin, but with every piece that I [dance] of his, I learn something new about him…”

Sept. 21& 22, Lesher Center, Walnut Creek

Sept. 28-Oct. 6, Palace of Fine Arts