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30 years of Smuin Contemporary Ballet: Honoring the past and celebrating the future

Smuin Contemporary Ballet in 'Renaissance' by Amy Seiwert. Photo by Chris Hardy.
Smuin Contemporary Ballet in 'Renaissance' by Amy Seiwert. Photo by Chris Hardy.

When Michael Smuin created Smuin Contemporary Ballet in 1994, he had a vision of pushing the boundaries of contemporary ballet with a distinctly modern style, combining classical ballet training, technique and artistry with uncommon physicality and expression.

The San Francisco-based company made a name for itself and toured the world. But the future of the company was questioned when Michael suddenly passed in 2007.

Smuin Contemporary Ballet in 'Renaissance' by Amy Seiwert. Photo by Chris Hardy.
Smuin Contemporary Ballet in ‘Renaissance’ by Amy Seiwert. Photo by Chris Hardy.

“Many said the company couldn’t continue, or if it did that it wouldn’t be as good,” shares Celia Fushille, one of the original Smuin company members who was asked to become the new Artistic Director. On top of taking over Smuin and grieving Michael’s passing, the economic downturn that occurred shortly after added to the uncertainty of the company’s future.

“He was such a creative genius, and he was such an engaged and loving boss,” she says. “The ethos we learned under Michael has infused our organization, and it powers what we do today. It powers our approach.”

During this tough time, Fushille wrote down goals she had as the Artistic Director of the company. In 2009, she took a moment and wrote down three goals she wanted to achieve in her new role: bringing in the works of major choreographers, creating works from within and finding a permanent home for Smuin instead of renting out space.

Amy Seiwert and Celia Fushillle. Photo by Chris Hardy.
Amy Seiwert and Celia Fushillle. Photo by Chris Hardy.

In 2019, Smuin said goodbye to renting space and moved into their own building. “We turned our home into a financial revenue producer instead of an expense,” Fushille shares. “We’re now offering classes. We are able to rent the space. It took me 10 years, but here we are with our own building. Our office administrative team, our development team, and our marketing team can come in and see what they’re raising funds for or what it is they’re advertising for. It’s pretty extraordinary, and I’m really proud of where we are.”

After fighting through several obstacles and a global pandemic, Smuin Contemporary Ballet is now celebrating its 30th anniversary season. The company’s current show includes diverse dances choreographed by both in-house and by outside choreographers.

All Fushille’s goals as Artistic Director from 2009 have proudly been accomplished.

According to Associate Artistic Director Amy Seiwert, the featured works are a testament of the extreme versatility the Smuin dancers have. “They are able to bust out some hardcore ballet technique and then completely drop their weight and do something much more house influenced.”

This July, Smuin Contemporary Ballet will be performing this selection of pieces at The Joyce Theater in New York City, the first time the company is visiting the Big Apple in over a decade.

“A lot of our dancers have not performed there before,” shares Seiwert. “There’s so much history and lineage at the Joyce, and you feel you’re a part of something bigger. The amount of dancers who walked up and down the stairs and stood on stage left and stage right. For these dancers who haven’t been there yet, for them to get to experience this is pretty great.”

Smuin Contemporary Ballet in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's 'Tupelo Tornado'. Photo by Chris Hardy.
Smuin Contemporary Ballet in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s ‘Tupelo Tornado’. Photo by Chris Hardy.

“It really is hallowed ground,” Fushille adds. “When you think of the companies that have appeared on that stage, it’s going to be big for this company and these dancers.”

The Joyce performance will mark another major milestone for the company as Fushille steps down as artistic director and Seiwert steps in as her successor.

“We are at this very unique singular moment of not only celebrating this massive anniversary of the organization but with Celia, the last founding member of the company who’s with the organization, and additionally Jo Ellen, who has been our company manager for 28 years,” Seiwert shares. “They are both leaving their positions at the end of this season. It’s this very monumental moment of really looking back at what we’ve accomplished with a lot of pride.”

She continues, “As Cel said, there was a moment when no one really thought we would make it, and she really shepherded us through that. Now, we haven’t only made it, but we own our own building in San Francisco. We look forward to the future and what it’s going to take to make the next 30 happen.”

Smuin Contemporary Ballet in 'Tutto Eccetto il Lavandino' by Val Caniparoli. Photo by Chris Hardy.
Smuin Contemporary Ballet in ‘Tutto Eccetto il Lavandino’ by Val Caniparoli. Photo by Chris Hardy.

“For me, personally, it’s a little ironic I suppose that I ended my dancing career at the Joyce in August of 2006, and never imagined the next year Michael would pass away,” Celia shares. “Now, in 2024, here I am stepping down as the artistic director after 17 years. It’s going to be a passing of the torch and another step in the company’s history.”

“When Cel and I were talking about a year ago about this transition and what it would look like, her job has been shepherding Michael’s legacy, and it took her a long time to admit she had a legacy with the building we were standing in, the world premieres she was curating and commissioning,” Seiwert reflects. “My job, the mantle I get to take on, is now honoring Michael’s legacy….and Celia’s. I’m excited to follow and be a part of that legacy and hand it off years later hopefully to someone else and keep this company going with vibrancy and creative curiosity.”

Smuin Contemporary Ballet’s season at The Joyce Theater runs July 9-14. For tickets, head to www.joyce.org/performances/109//smuin-contemporary-ballet. For more information on the company, visit www.smuinballet.org.

By Lauren Harvey of Dance Informa.

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