Michael Smuin, the controversial former director of the San Francisco Ballet, lives in an airy hillside home that combines different motifs in a surprisingly coherent whole.
The place has a Southwestern feel to it, yet it’s filled with mementos of a long and varied career in the performing arts. An affinity for the classics is as evident as a love of several contemporary cultures--a pen and ink of a renaissance theater character hangs not far from a Native American work.
Smuin too is a study in contrasts. Ebullient and energetic, he is just as comfortable with the canon as he is with pop; with “Romeo and Juliet” as with Romeo Void.
In fact, Smuin has built his career on precisely such eclecticism. And it’s his infusion of pop into his ballets that’s long made him controversial. “I’ve been praised and beaten up,” he says. “It’s great for box office when the reviews are good, but the important thing is to stay true to the work, keep your head down and dodge the bullets.”
The strategy seems to be working.
It is almost precisely 10 years to the day since Smuin was fired from his post at the San Francisco Ballet for doing work that was too populist. And it is also almost two years to the day since he suffered a massive heart attack.
But both of those occasions are fast fading into the background now, because Smuin is at work on another major undertaking. His new company, Smuin Ballets/SF, makes its first appearance outside San Francisco when it brings “Dances With Songs” to the James A. Doolittle Theatre in Hollywood this week, before continuing on to the Joyce Theatre in New York.
Smuin Ballets/SF is yet another new beginning for a man who has had several careers already. An American Ballet Theatre principal dancer and resident choreographer from 1966-73, Smuin’s tenure from 1973-84 at the helm of the San Francisco Ballet arguably put the company on the map.
He also has lengthy credits in theater, television and film. Smuin choreographed the Lincoln Center revival of “Anything Goes,” for which he won a 1988 Tony, and directed and choreographed “Sophisticated Ladies,” which was nominated for two Tonys in 1981. He’s also provided choreography for more than 10 films, including “Wolf,” “Dracula” and “The Joy Luck Club” and won Emmys for his many TV shows, including versions of several of his ballets and Linda Ronstadt’s “Canciones de Mi Padre.”
And his work outside the dance world has been well-received. "(Smuin’s work on) ‘The Cotton Club’ really impressed me,” says director Alfonso Arau, for whom Smuin did the choreography on the upcoming film “A Walk in the Clouds.” “He’s a real pro and we connected immediately. He set the choreography of the crushing of the grapes (scene). It’s a ritual of fertility. (Smuin made it) erotic and romantic. Just magical.”
Still, Smuin, now 56, has sometimes felt that he’s been treated like a fish out of water. “When I work on Broadway, I’m the ballet guy,” he says. “And when I work in ballet, I’m the Broadway guy. I never am what I am when I’m doing it. People don’t want you to be successful in more than one thing.”
Smuin Ballets/SF features 10 dancers--many of them San Francisco Ballet alums--plus a featured pair of flamenco artists who are with the group only for this program. “It’s like guerrilla ballet with minimal costumes and scenery,” the choreographer says of the program’s mostly solos and duets, set to such songs as “Unforgettable,” “Unchained Melody,” “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Stardust” in recordings by Linda Ronstadt, the Righteous Brothers, the Beatles, Patsy Cline, Willie Nelson, Edith Piaf and the Gipsy Kings.
In some ways, it’s the kind of pop-influenced fare for which Smuin is known, but in other ways, it’s not. “The whole time I was in the San Francisco Ballet I was a mural painter,” he says. “Now I can be a miniaturist. I’ve done the big ballets with 60 people onstage. (This company) gives me a real laboratory, dancers that I can experiment with, (a chance to do) things that I probably wouldn’t have done as director of the San Francisco Ballet. I think this may be more mature work.”
Also on the bill are segments from some works that Smuin created when he was at the San Francisco Ballet.
Smuin joined the San Francisco Ballet in 1973, becoming co-director with Lew Christensen, who had been at the helm since 1952. While the title was shared, the day-to-day directorship of the company fell, at Christensen’s behest, to Smuin.
Smuin is widely credited with having stabilized the San Francisco Ballet, expanding its base of support and increasing its exposure through television broadcasts. Five years after coming on board in San Francisco, Smuin’s “Romeo and Juliet” was seen on PBS and won an Emmy, as did his 1981 “Tempest.”
In 1982, Smuin’s “Stravinsky Piano Pieces” was televised nationally on “Live From the White House.” In 1983, he marked the 50th anniversary of the San Francisco Ballet with a large-scale celebration at the War Memorial Opera House.
But it was the July 1984 Olympic Arts Festival outing of “To the Beatles"--a work that is excerpted now in the Smuin Ballets/SF “Dances With Songs” program-- that indirectly provided the catalyst for a power struggle that led to Smuin’s dismissal from the San Francisco Ballet post.
Although the conflict was initially characterized as a dispute between Smuin and the board over Smuin’s contract renewal, the true bone of contention was what kind of fare the San Francisco Ballet should present.
On the one side was Smuin and a group of his supporters (known as the Committee to Restore Michael Smuin, including picketers and others) who persuaded the ballet to keep him on for nine months after he was fired. On the other side were Christensen and the ballet’s chief executive, Richard E. LeBlond Jr., who wanted a more classical approach.
“There was a small group of people at the board level who wanted tutus and toe shoes and that couldn’t even begin to tolerate a ballet like ‘A Song for Dead Warriors’ or a guest choreographer like Judith Jamison,” says Smuin. “It’s a smoke screen. I don’t think (my ballets) were controversial, otherwise people wouldn’t have been buying tickets.”
Smuin says he intended broad appeal, but with a program that included classics along with contemporary works. “What I tried to do is strike a happy medium between contemporary ballets, in-house choreography and the ‘outside classics,’ ” he says.
He felt an obligation, first and foremost, to the audience. “I never thought of it as my company because the title is the San Francisco Ballet,” says Smuin. “That means you have a responsibility to the people, including the little ladies who come and it soothes them. It was balanced musically, intellectually and theatrically.”
Fortunately, there was life after the San Francisco Ballet.
“It was difficult when I first cut the umbilical cord,” says Smuin. “Everybody knows everybody and goes to the same openings. I never actually left the city. I kept my home and did a lot of work in New York, Los Angeles and Europe. But time heals everything. And I’ve kept ties.”
Five pairs of dancers stand facing the mirrors in a fourth- floor studio in the War Memorial Opera House. Each couple is entangled in an embrace, though no one seems quite comfortable, and the questions are flying.
“How is it that she’s upside down?”
“Should we still get into the fetal position?”
“Why does that leg end up there?”
On the receiving end of the queries, a sprightly man dressed in black faces the dancers and decodes the move.
“This leg goes here, this leg goes over his head, then just bring her down and rest her on that knee,” says Smuin, using one couple as a model. “Now, bring her up, change feet, bring this over her head and . . . there.”
Smuin first danced in this opera house when he was in high school. Now, some 40 years later--and a decade after his San Francisco Ballet performed here--he’s back, rehearsing dancers for the Bacchanal scene in Wagner’s “Tannhauser,” a San Francisco Opera production that will open in mid-October.
Still, it’s the first time Smuin has worked on an opera since 1972. And while there have been offers for such gigs since he parted ways with the ballet in 1984, Smuin has been keeping quite busy in other areas, particularly with stage and screen work. “What really has been fun is to work on these big commercial projects, films and in television,” he says.
And Smuin has certainly not gone unappreciated. The same year that he was fired from the San Francisco Ballet, he won a pair of Emmys for the PBS version of the San Francisco Ballet production of “A Song for Dead Warriors.”
Inspired in part by his Southwest boyhood, “A Song for Dead Warriors” is a portrayal of Native American life, featuring a trio of archetypal characters: the Brave, the Indian Maiden and the bad-guy Sheriff. The story is spiced up with spectacle and displays of technique.
For the past two years, Dance Theatre of Harlem has had “A Song for Dead Warriors” in its repertory, and at least 17 other companies--including Ballet Florida, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Ballet West and Hartford Ballet--also perform Smuin works.
“They’re out there, they’re just not in the San Francisco Ballet,” says Smuin of his dances. “After I left, there were invitations, but I felt that I didn’t want my ballets in other companies. Then, later on, I started accepting them.”
And like or loathe Smuin’s dances, he certainly was multicultural before it was fashionable, mixing the idioms of many American cultures onstage.
That attempt was not lost on some members of the San Francisco audience. “I remember going on opening night (of the ballet season) and seeing the stage covered with young black, Latino, Asian and white adolescents break dancing and doing all that wonderfully athletic stuff that was the rage at the time, and on the same evening as straight standard ballet stuff,” says American Conservatory Theater associate artistic director Benny Sato Ambush.
“I applauded (Smuin’s) courage to mix the mediums like that,” Ambush, at whose theater Smuin has also directed shows, says. “It was daring, bold and provocative. It said to me that if nothing else the man was connected to the world outside. But it gave heart palpitations to the traditional ballet audience in the house.”
Other Smuin ballets are less concerned with cultural politics, but share the goal of keeping the medium relevant through cross-pollination with literature and pop culture.
“Hearts,” Smuin’s first post-San Francisco Ballet choreography, took on no less a task than an adaptation of Marcel Carne’s complex 1944 French film “Les Enfants du Paradis” (Children of Paradise).
Certainly Smuin’s ballets were always ambitious, if not always warmly received by the critical community. But Smuin’s priority has never been to please the press, nor to become a traditional classicist.
He sees his mission as the preservation of ballet through unorthodox means. “Ballet really lives on new and interesting work,” says Smuin. “Classical ballet is a tool to do a lot of different things. It’s up to small companies, more modern companies (to innovate).”
And he believes such innovation is more necessary now than ever. “The invasion of the corporate world has had a good and bad effect on ballet, opera and the arts in general,” says Smuin. “Every town has a McDonald’s and every town has a ballet company and it all looks the same. The idea of diversity is killed.”
The use of popular songs in Smuin Ballets/SF’s “Dances With Songs” recalls the aesthetic that made Smuin controversial a decade ago, though the choreographer insists it’s never been merely a strategy to please the masses. “It doesn’t have anything to do with making a program accessible to people,” says Smuin. “It’s just the stuff that I like. What’s a better piece of music than ‘Stardust’ or ‘Georgia on My Mind’?”
Smuin Ballets/SF is also practical. “We’re small and tourable,” says Smuin of the 10-member company. “A lot of these little towns would love to have a ballet tour, but (the troupes are) so expensive.”
The company is set to perform in its hometown in March and December of 1995. But by the end of next summer, Smuin anticipates that Smuin Ballets/SF will likely be touring not only “Dances With Songs” but also “another program that’s quite a bit different from this.”
“It would be terrible if we got pigeonholed into ‘Dances With Songs,’ ” he says. “That’s just what we do now.”
And where Smuin goes, he is confident the audience will follow. “Generally I’ve had a wonderful and loyal audience,” he says. “People were very supportive when I went through all that trouble, but it seemed like a long time ago. I figured people would forget, but they didn’t."*
* “Dances With Songs,” James A. Doolittle Theatre, 1615 N. Vine St., Hollywood, Tuesday-next Sun., Tuesday-Friday, 8 p.m., Saturday, 2 and 8 p.m., Sunday, 2 and 7:30 p.m., $15-$40. (213) 365-3500.