Michael Smuin, 68; won awards with choreography for Broadway, ballet and TV

Times Staff Writer

Michael Smuin, an award-winning choreographer for ballet, Broadway, film and television, died Monday in San Francisco of an apparent heart attack. He was 68.

Smuin collapsed during a rehearsal and was treated by paramedics before being taken to San Francisco General Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Smuin won Emmy Awards for the television productions of his ballets “Romeo and Juliet,” “The Tempest” and “A Song for Dead Warriors” -- all created while he was co-director of San Francisco Ballet from 1973 to 1985 -- as well as a Tony Award and a Drama Desk Award for his choreography in the 1987 New York revival of the musical comedy “Anything Goes.”

“I’m intrigued with giving the idiom of classical dance an American accent by trying to infuse ballet with the rhythm, speed and syncopation of American popular culture,” he said in his speech when accepting a Dance Magazine award in 1983. “Not to undermine the tradition but to extend it, to realize that the only true tradition is a living one.”


This approach often provoked divergent reactions to Smuin’s ballets, earning them what the San Francisco Chronicle called both “audience adoration and critical disdain.” But Smuin stuck to his guns. “I have my finger on the pulse of the audience,” he told Back Stage East in October. “I can surprise them, make them laugh, cry, get excited. So if the critics don’t like what I do, well, what can I say? You can’t make everyone happy.”

Smuin was born in Missoula, Mont., on Oct. 13, 1938, to parents who were active in a university theater group. As a child, he was a fan of movie musicals but became what he called an “instant convert” to classicism when he saw the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo on tour in the 1940s. Classes in ballet, tap and gymnastics -- along with experience in boxing -- fueled his lifelong interest in diverse forms of movement and led him at age 16 to audition for a scholarship to the University of Utah dance department.

There, he took ballet classes from Willam Christensen and appeared in summer musicals as well as performances of Christensen’s Utah Ballet.

After seeing Smuin dance in 1957, Christensen’s brother Lew invited Smuin to join San Francisco Ballet. Smuin accepted and was soon not only a principal dancer in that company but also a fledgling choreographer for the Bay Area Ballet (1959) and the workshop chamber ensemble Ballet 1960.


The next year, he was named ballet master at San Francisco Ballet and special assistant to Lew Christensen, the artistic director. Smuin also married Paula Tracy, a dancer he met while on tour with the company and who followed him back to the Bay Area and San Francisco Ballet.

In 1962, he took a leave of absence to work in New York. There, he became a chorus dancer in the Broadway musical “Little Me” and put together a nightclub dance act with Tracy: “well-disguised ballet,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2001, “tuxedos instead of tights.”

He joined the corps of American Ballet Theatre in 1966 and two years later was promoted to principal dancer, excelling in character roles. His choreography for the company hasn’t survived in the repertory, but it helped earn him an invitation to return to San Francisco Ballet in 1973 -- this time as associate artistic director.

His unflagging energy attracted new support to the financially troubled company and as part of a widely publicized and successful “Save Our Ballet” campaign, Smuin even entered a tricycle race with a chimpanzee.


New works and popular success carried Smuin and the company into the 1980s, but a chorus of negative criticism and the growing sense that the troupe needed a more classical identity fueled discontent among board members.

After the company presented a widely ridiculed evening of brief excerpts at the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival in Los Angeles, even the terminally ill Lew Christensen joined those calling for Smuin’s dismissal.

Smuin told The Times in 1988 that he hadn’t been prepared for “such a dirty, underhanded, hardball fight.” But after his firing, a public backlash against the company’s board led to his choreographing for the troupe for two additional years, “as part of my divorce settlement,” as he put it in a 2005 interview with the San Jose Mercury News.

He also found plenty of freelance work, with feature films becoming an important showcase of his versatility. “Rumble Fish, " “The Cotton Club,” “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” “The Return of the Jedi -- Special Edition,” “Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace,” “The Joy Luck Club” and “A Walk in the Clouds” all contain Smuin’s choreography.


In 1992, he suffered a massive heart attack on the set of the Mike Myers comedy “So I Married an Axe Murderer.” During his recovery, Smuin was asked to put some dances together for a fundraiser in San Francisco, and the experience led to the formation in 1994 of a successful Bay Area chamber ensemble now called the Smuin Ballet.

In a 2000 conversation on the Voice of Dance website, he described his work for the troupe (five or six new ballets a year) as inspired 90% by music and 10% by the dancers.

“We’re really about movement, music and lights,” he said. “Spartan costumes and scenery, small company that is paid well, and a staff that wears many hats.”

However, his own propensity for hat-changes meant he was dogged by criticism throughout his career. “When I work on Broadway, I’m the ballet guy,” he told The Times in 1994. “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 and Tracy divorced in 2000. He is survived by his son, Shane; and brothers Stephen and Douglas. Plans for a memorial service are pending.