Forward-thinking footwork

Smuin Ballet remembers past fondly while keeping eyes fixed on future

Many presumed that Michael Smuin's death in 2007 would result in the death of Smuin Ballet, the San Francisco-based dance company he founded and had presided over for 13 years. According to those close to the dancer, Tony-award-winning choreographer and theater director, the prospect of someone filling his shoes seemed remote.

"I think a lot of people did not imagine that the company could continue without Michael," says Celia Fushille, a former dancer with the company. "When they found out it was continuing they wondered if it could be as good."

And yet, seven years since the company's namesake was felled so suddenly by an unexpected heart attack, the company is gearing up for the final performances of its 20th season.

After Smuin's death, Fushille was appointed to the position of artistic director, and, shortly thereafter, executive director. Under Fushille's watch, the company has not only persevered it has thrived, garnering praise from the likes of The New York Times for its innovative programming, attracting world-class dancers and working with award-winning and internationally recognized choreographers.

According to Fushille, the company has survived because, in many ways, its founder never left. "His spirit is still infusing the company," the executive director says of her predecessor, whom she first met when she was just 17.

Amy Seiwert, the company's choreographer in residence was mentored by the late Smuin. According to Fushille, sometimes, while blocking out a dance, Seiwert will say "'Michael is telling me to do this and he is telling me to do that.'"

"It's true!" Seiwert says with a laugh.

The choreographer first began working with Smuin as a dancer, back in 1999. The first ballet she created for the company was in 2004. Along the way, the late Smuin gave her lots of feedback and advice, she says.

"When I watch my ballets -- while I'm creating them, while I watch them critically -- I'll hear his comments," Seiwert says. "The funny thing is, I won't always agree with his critiques, even in my head."

And in a roundabout way, Seiwert not agreeing with the super-ego version of Smuin she carries around with her, is a product of Smuin's mentorship.

"He never once encouraged me to imitate him," Seiwert remembers. Rather, he encouraged her to follow her own intuition. "That was a pretty huge gift."

"In a way Michael Smuin didn't take himself too seriously," Fushille says. "In that same spirit, this program is representative of that attitude." Clarifying her point, Fushille adds that Smuin was certainly serious about his work. But, at the same time, he never felt tied too tightly by tradition.

Case in point: Smuin Ballet's 2010 original production, "Oh, Inverted World" -- which set the company's dancers leaping, pirouetting and pliƩ-ing to music from the 2001 album of the same name by Portland indie rock band, The Shins.

Fushille commissioned acclaimed choreographer Trey McIntire to create the Shins-inspired production, which attracted a great deal of attention and drew praise from the New York Times. A short montage of the performance posted on YouTube has close to 44,000 views.

Smuin Ballet is known for choreographing ballet and modern dance to rock 'n' roll groups, like The Beatles.

In addition to being somewhat of an iconoclast by nature, Smuin Ballet has diverged from convention as a matter of necessity. The company currently has 17 dancers -- orders of magnitude fewer than their neighbors, the San Francisco Ballet. By virtue of their size, they can't do classic productions, like Swan Lake. According to Fushille, Smuin was OK with that. In fact, he preferred working on a smaller scale.

Before starting his company, the late Smuin was co-director of the San Francisco Ballet. That's where Fushille first met him. "When (Smuin) left to start his own company," Fushille recalls, "he said, 'I used to do large paintings, but now I'm a miniaturist.' He felt he was creating jewels."

According to Seiwert, the small scale of Smuin Ballet makes for a great introduction to live dance. Smuin productions are almost always staged in smaller venues, such as the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, where they will bring their final show of the 2013-14 season, "XXcentric," next week.

"Smaller is good often," Seiwert says. "One of the nice things about the smaller houses, is your experience is often more intimate, which leads you to having this personal relationship with the person on stage.

"I am starting to really dislike seeing ballets in an opera house," she adds. That's because the affordable seats are often so far back, that you can barely make out the dancers.

Fushille says she is hopeful that the company's style will work in attracting younger audiences to the ballet, while the group's grounding in the classics will keep older, more traditional patrons coming. The company's slogan is "Beyond Ballet," and each of productions in this year's season -- "XXtremes," "XXmas" and "XXcentric" -- seem to be named to both acknowledge the 20th anniversary of Smuin and make a statement.

"We're not your classic tutu ballet," Fushille says -- both literally and figuratively. While the company has staged productions wherein the dancers wear the frilly skirt commonly associated with ballet, Smuin programs tend to skew modern. "There is that spirit of openness and kind of that anything goes at Smuin Ballet."

--- --- ---

What: "XXcentric"

When: Opens at 8 p.m. May 21 and continues through May 25. Times and prices vary.

Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, ADDRESS, Mountain View

Information: Smuinballet.org or call the Center for the Performing arts at 650-903-6000.

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