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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.


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