Approaching a Quarter Century at Smuin

By Heather Desaulniers

September 1, 2017, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE
Ensemble of dancers lunge upwards on stage under colored ropes
Ensemble of dancers lunge upwards on stage under colored ropes
Smuin’s Oasis / Photo by Keith Sutter

“How does it feel to be on the cusp of Smuin’s 24th season?”

This was the first question I posed to Artistic Director Celia Fushille during a recent conversation about the ballet company’s upcoming 2017/2018 programming. And what an amazing season they have planned! Between September and June, Smuin will bring a glorious marriage of classical and contemporary movement to audiences all over the Bay Area. Two triple bill programs (Dance Series 01 in the Fall/Winter, Dance Series 02 in the Spring) featuring regional firsts, world premieres and returning repertory favorites and then, in December, their yearly festive holiday revue, The Christmas Ballet. “It’s pretty incredible,” Fushille responded, “when I look back at what we’ve been able to achieve as a company, I have a tremendous amount of joy and satisfaction, and I know how happy Michael would be.”

Fushille is of course referring to Michael Smuin, the highly revered and incomparably talented dancer/choreographer/director who founded Smuin Ballet back in 1994 (the company has since changed its official name to Smuin, Contemporary American Ballet). “I had always thought that today, I would be at Michael’s right hand as his Associate Director,” Fushille said. But tragically and suddenly, Smuin passed away in 2007, leaving the group without its beloved leader. Fushille, a founding ballerina with the company, stepped up to take the reins. And for the past decade, she has managed to achieve an intricate balance, one that can be very elusive – moving and guiding Smuin into the future while simultaneously honoring the importance of the past.

As Artistic Director of a sixteen-dancer company with a ten-month performance season, Fushille has an array of roles and responsibilities to juggle. But all of them, whether administrative or creative, onstage or in the studio, are informed by one core principle: maintaining Michael Smuin’s legacy. A key component is restaging pieces from his extensive choreographic canon. “I always enjoy revisiting Michael’s work and telling his stories, it makes the dancers feel like they know him and the tradition of the company continues,” notes Fushille, “and his movement, while very demanding, is so organic and has such an ease to it.” 2017’s Dance Series 01, which has its first run from September 22-October 7, features one of these pieces—Smuin’s 2004 salute to the music of Frank Sinatra, Fly Me to the Moon. Timeless elegance and graceful beauty abound in this dance suite set to cherished Sinatra treasures; from the lyrical, youthful Moonlight Serenade duet to the potent, raucous That’s Life solo. “The Sinatra Ballet is so fun, and we are very excited to share it with this year’s audience, some of whom may be encountering it for the first time,” Fushille adds.

But choreography is not the only part of Smuin’s lineage that Fushille wants to sustain and cultivate. “Michael established such a special, incredible culture in the studio – a lack of fear, an attitude of respect, a place where the dancers are supported by the artistic leadership and by one another,” she explains. Fushille is deeply committed to facilitating this nourishing, inspirational environment for the entire Smuin family, today and for years to come, “I want the dancers to feel that their time at Smuin was well-spent, that they were able to grow artistically and have the satisfaction of an artistic journey well-traveled.”

Couple dancing, female dancer in a side lift
Smuin’s Serenade for Strings /
photo by Keith Sutter

Fushille also knows that legacy is more than just looking back, and that ensuring one is equally about being in the present and advancing forward. One essential piece of that puzzle is seeking new repertory that is in line with Michael Smuin’s style and vision. “I strive to bring in works that emulate, complement or include elements of Michael’s choreography, whether entertaining, whimsical, daring or passionate,” Fushille describes. Over the past ten years, the company has amassed an impressive repertoire from a varied and distinguished group of choreographers, or as Fushille calls it, “a wealth of artistic riches.” From new commissions to existing repertoire, there are so many exceptional examples to point to – work by Ji?í Kylián, Trey McIntyre, Val Caniparoli, Helen Pickett and Smuin’s current Choreographer-in-Residence Amy Seiwert. Dances from Caniparoli, Pickett and Seiwert will make up Spring 2018’s Dance Series 02 (running April 20 to June 2) with Caniparoli creating a new world premiere along with the return of Pickett’s Oasis (2016) and Seiwert’s Falling Up (2007).

Another favorite creative presence is Garrett Ammon, whose Serenade for Strings joins Fly Me to the Moon on the Dance Series 01 program. “Everyone at Smuin really loves Garrett’s movement quality, but we also just so enjoy working with him; the thoughtfulness and sensitivity in how he coaches ballet is remarkable,” Fushille relays. Originally choreographed in 2013 for his Denver-based company Wonderbound and last performed by Smuin during their “Untamed” program in Fall of 2014, Serenade for Strings employs ten dancers and is set to a highly memorable Tchaikovsky score. With its dramatic descending and ascending scalic motif, ballet enthusiasts will instantly recognize the piece as the same music George Balanchine used for his 1935 masterwork, Serenade. For Fushille, Ammon’s bold choice to choreograph to this iconic score immediately caught her attention, “it is so daring to use this music, but Serenade for Strings has really carved out its own identity – it certainly utilizes ballet-based movement but there is also subtlety, quirkiness, speed, precision as well as exchanges between dancers that are genuine and authentic, moments where you get to see two people that are truly being charmed by each other.”

Smuin will soon welcome yet another esteemed choreographic voice to its table, that of Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, whose ensemble composition Requiem for a Rose (2009) will have its West Coast premiere on Dance Series 01. A longtime fan of Lopez Ochoa, Fushille recently had the chance to meet up with her in New York, “I loved our connection and her fiery spiciness; I immediately knew that she was going to be fun to work with.” Created on the Pennsylvania Ballet, Requiem for a Rose places romance and love into a theatrical container, challenging the audience to see a conversation between the two states, consider their relationship to each other and explore their very different journeys. As such, contrast is a huge part of the ballet. “So many aspects drew me to Requiem for a Rose – how the contrast of the opening solo shows real love versus romantic love, how the piece beautifully captures both the emotion and the tension of the music, and that it is very representative of the work Smuin is doing right now where classical [ballet] technique is juxtaposed against contemporary [dance] technique,” recalls Fushille, “and the lyricism and passion of each duet is stunning, something which Michael so excelled at too.”

The coming 24th season, a growing choreographic library and the continuation of an integral artistic legacy—Smuin has much to celebrate. And running alongside these significant achievements are even more aspirations and plans. One longer-term goal is infrastructure. “We’ve never had our own space, so hopefully a new building may be in the near future, where we can have control over the schedule and grow the organization; not necessarily into a bigger company, but perhaps with additional tracks like a trainee program,” Fushille outlines. In the shorter-term, there is next year, the 2018/2019 Smuin season and the commemoration of the company’s 25th anniversary. “As with every season, we always look forward to creating programs that the dancers love to dance, because when they have a sense of drive and joy, it extends to the audience and they in turn, feel that joy and integrity,” shares Fushille, “but the 25th anniversary will definitely be momentous – it will represent Michael, showcase what we’ve done to foster a new generation of dancemakers and highlight how Smuin is constantly working and striving to be a permanent fixture in the arts culture of San Francisco and the Bay Area.”

Heather Desaulniers is a freelance dance writer based in Oakland. She is the Editorial Associate and SF/Bay Area columnist for CriticalDance, the dance curator for SF Arts Monthly, and contributes to several other dance-focused publications, including formerly to DanceTabs.