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In Memoriam, 4-26: The Best & the Brightest
Michael Smuin: Song for a Dead Warrior
By Aimée Ts’ao
Copyright 2007 Aimée Ts’ao
SAN FRANCISCO -- When I agreed on Monday night to write this story, I had no idea how difficult it would prove to be. Being a dance insider certainly has its advantages most of
the time. I have been in class with many dancers from
the major dance companies in the Bay Area over the
years, talking to them and even befriending them. I
feel like a fly on the wall, or more appropriately,
perched on the barre. This is the first time I have
felt that I am a little too far inside. Not quite the
intense experience that journalist David Halberstam
must have had in Vietnam, but on the front lines of the
death of another notable person, artistic director and
choreographer Michael Smuin, only an hour after Halberstam's own on Monday, April 23, also in the Bay Area.
|Michael Smuin, photographed by Howard Schatz. Photo copyright Howard Schatz and courtesy Smuin Ballet.
I had been at City Dance Studios (home to City Ballet
School and the Smuin Ballet) that morning to take my
usual 10 o'clock ballet class. I had seen Smuin teaching company class as I walked past the open door of his studio on my way to the lavatory before my own class began. I was surprised, as he almost never teaches, but he looked to be in great form and to be enjoying himself. 45 minutes later my
own barre was over and the first group was starting
the center adagio when Shannon Hurlbert, a Smuin
dancer, came running in asking for help. Smuin
appeared to be having a heart attack. Some people
rushed to help, but I hung back wanting to stay out of
the way. It's too painful to describe the next horrific half hour, but after paramedics, unable to help him on the scene, carried Michael to an ambulance to take him to the trauma center at San Francisco General, I walked to the office where I work, in a complete fog. I needed to keep my mind busy so I couldn't dwell on the possibility that even the most sophisticated
technology wouldn't be able to save him. I didn't
have the cell phone numbers of any of the company
dancers to get updates on his condition. I kept
checking the San Francisco Chronicle website for news
to no avail. Once I got home I read the tragic news
online. But I couldn't even digest it as I had just
enough time to change my clothes and quickly e-mail PBI
the brief article before running out the door to
attend the Isadora Duncan Dance Awards ceremony.
Tuesday morning, after my class was over, I met with
various Smuin dancers who were sitting in the common
lounge area waiting for their next rehearsal. We
exchanged hugs and tears and I gave up trying to
interview anyone because neither they nor I could
sustain the necessary focus. I said that since my
deadline wasn't until Wednesday night, I'd try again
the next day. Why had I thought it would get easier?
Wednesday morning I was so exhausted I skipped class myself
and arrived while the Smuin troupe was on break
between class and rehearsal. I figured I'd wing it.
I offered paper and pens to anyone who would rather
write, but got no takers. Some said they needed to
think out what they wanted to put down while a few
others preferred to talk.
Ethan White said that it was difficult to know where
to begin in describing Michael's importance in and to the
dance world. Since he choreographed everything from
classical ballet to Broadway to film, he had
influenced an enormous number of dancers, including
those who went on to choreograph themselves. "Michael was a storyteller," White said. "He was always telling stories -- in his ballets and constantly during rehearsals as well."
Then I walked over to Amy Seiwert, in addition to being a veteran dancer with the company, a Smuin choreographic protegé. After a long hug
we sank into two chairs to talk. Seiwert couldn't talk
for too long as she was about to rehearse her new
ballet, which would be premiering in two weeks time. (To honor Michael, the company has decided to proceed with its May home season; see below for complete tour information.) "It's not even finished," she admitted. "I find I'm
putting pressure on myself to make it my best work yet
because Michael had already said he really liked what
I had done so far. But I have to push that feeling
away and finish it and let it be what it is even if
it's not as perfect as I want it to be. I'm always
wondering what Michael would say about it." She said
she is so grateful for having had the opportunity to
dance with and choreograph for Michael's company.
The latest dancer to join the company, James Mills, spoke to me right after watching a rehearsal of the balcony pas de deux from Smuin's "Romeo and Juliet." "I am so honored to be here," he said. "I am dancing the lead in Michael's latest, and now last, ballet. It is a great honor to be part of keeping his vision alive.
As I watch the dancers rehearse, I am awed at how
beautiful the choreography is."
|Vanessa Theissen in Michael Smuin's 2006 "Obrigado Brazil." Photo by and copyright Tom Hauck, and courtesy Smuin Ballet.
Vanessa Thiessen didn't need to say a word. As I had watched her at the end of that pas de deux, when Romeo
takes his leave, her empty outstretched hands and the
look of despair on her face spoke volumes. The music
finished and she burst into tears. Later she told me,
"I didn't need to act. I didn't think of the steps.
It was just all there."
One of the dancers who appeared in San Francisco Ballet's production of the same work when Smuin was co-director there, Edward Ellison (who also taught James Mills) later told me, "Although I didn't know him well on a personal level, I worked with him when I was first at SFB in 1985. Helgi (Tomasson) was the brand new director, and Michael was something like 'resident choreographer' (after being let go as director). I
danced in his 'Romeo and Juliet' that season. Nine
years later, with Smuin Ballets/SF, I performed the
first season of the new company and performed several
of his works, including his very successful 'Hearts.'
He had such a talent for creating characters through
choreography, and in such a wide variety of styles.
People always seemed to absolutely love his work or
hated it. Nevertheless, he always knew how to produce
very unique, theatrical, and entertaining ballets, and
in my opinion some truly outstanding works of art. I
so admired and will always remember him by his
wonderful creativity and talent. America has lost one
of its most creative choreographic artists."
The last time I spoke with Michael was several weeks
ago. He came into the studio where I was taking class
and sat down next to me on the floor while I put on my
slippers between barre and center. Late last autumn
he had told me that he was working on a campaign to get
the San Francisco Chronicle, the city's one serious daily paper,
to hire a full-time dance critic instead of relying on a group of stringers. He wanted to know if it was all right with me to put my name out as an appropriate candidate. He said that he might
not always agree with what I wrote, but that I was a
very fine writer and I certainly had the knowledge and
credentials. I said yes. He had kept me abreast of any
progress, or lack thereof, in this attempt at getting
the much needed consistent coverage the Bay Area dance scene deserved. But this last time, he came to say that he
didn't think it was going to work even though he had
really tried. I thanked him for his confidence in my
abilities and thought to myself I should try to
have a longer talk with him soon.
Smuin Ballet performs May 11 - 20 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, including a gala May 20; May 25 & 26 in Walnut Creek; May 30 - June 3 in Mountain View; June 8 & 9 in Carmel; and August 13 - 18 at the Joyce Theater in New York City. For more on the passing of Michael Smuin, see also articles in the San Francisco Chronicle by Steven Winn and Rachel Howard and Joshua Kosman, and a guest book the Chronicle has set up for Michael Smuin.