Smuin’s Emerging Choreographers Take the Stage!

        Smuin rings in its 25th year with a lively celebration of dance, beginning with Dance Series 01, which honors the past with entertaining and iconic Michael Smuin repertoire. This first program of the season also looks to the future of contemporary ballet, featuring three emerging choreographers on the mainstage, all of whom are either current or former dancers with the Company. Nicole Haskins, Ben Needham-Wood, and Rex Wheeler will each present compelling works they have created for their peers during their time at Smuin.

        All three ballets premiering on the mainstage this fall initially debuted in Smuin’s Choreography Showcase, a program that began in 2008. Over the years, the showcase has become a staple in Smuin’s programming, serving as an incubator for cultivating new choreographic work from within the Company. In conversation, dancer and choreographer Ben Needham-Wood shared that he finds it a “rare opportunity for young artists to really have a voice, and for that to be present in the community.” Nicole Haskins also cited the Choreography Showcase as one of the very reasons she is a choreographer today. “I think for me [the showcase has] been incredible because I can challenge myself every year and really push to continue to work on my craft,” she elaborated.

         Following the premiere of her first, more classical, mainstage work for the Company, The Poetry of Being, Haskins’ Merely Players is a decidedly different work for the choreographer. “I find that when you’re choreographing with a specific song or piece of music, that tends to take you on its own journey,” Haskins said. Set to the indie pop songs of Vampire Weekend, Fleet Foxes, and Bon Iver, the piece is charming and less technically driven than her previous works. “I took my inspiration from different kinds of joy,” the choreographer revealed. There is “the joy of being on your own and loving yourself, the joy of being with your group of friends, and the joy of being with a special person.” To Haskins, these types all manifest themselves in her piece, representing “the different ways that joy infiltrates our lives.”

        The title, Merely Players, is a nod to the famous line from Shakespeare’s As You Like It: “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players.” Haskins observed, “I like the idea that we have some choice in our lives, but we’re really just playing out what’s happening in front of us.” There’s an element of excitement to revisiting her work three years later. Haskins shared that now she could “really spend the time diving in with the dancers and really thinking about the different ways we’re bringing joy to life onstage and making it their own.”

        Like Haskins, Needham-Wood’s Echo (formerly titled Reflection) will be his second mainstage debut with the Company. While some of his past works for the Company have been more abstract or thematic, this particular work centers around the myth of Echo and Narcissus, from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. “The narrative was really interesting to me because they are two bodies that can’t quite connect with that thing that they’re seeking, yet they’re immediately in each others’ circle,” Needham-Wood explained. “Echo is basically this form that can only imitate what she’s heard, she can only voice back something that she’s already received,” he continued. “Narcissus, in the story, is gazing into a pool of his own reflection, and the gestures of looking at yourself or looking at your reflection in the mirror were the gestural genesis of the movement.” Although much of Echo’s movement vocabulary is based on these gestures, Needham-Wood also drew from other types of familiar dance vocabulary that he’s become familiar with throughout his time at Smuin.

        “I think my creative process varies from one creation to the next,” the choreographer said. “As a creator, I’ve been exploring the push and pull of offering my vision to the dancers, but then opening the opportunity for them to add nuance from their own experiences.” “When I have a sense of the emotional line, I let the rest of the puzzle pieces formulate with the dancers,” he added. Returning to this particular work after three years has given Needham-Wood new insight. “I think that looking back at what was started at the Choreography Showcase, there were pieces of it that I really liked, but I have a different perspective on what made it successful. It’s really refreshing to dive into this with a whole new group of dancers.”

        Former Smuin dancer and choreographer Rex Wheeler will debut his first mainstage work for the Company, Sinfonietta. Set to Boris Tchaikovsky’s Sinfonietta for String Orchestra, the work is spritely and flirtatious, aptly representative of the choreographer’s aesthetic as a whole. Created for an ensemble of eight dancers, the ballet is costumed by another former Smuin dancer, Susan Roemer of S-Curve Apparel and Design. “The piece is largely inspired by the music,” Wheeler stated. “I really enjoy the sweeping and the heaviness of the adagio section; it feels like a weeping willow or something that’s large and beautiful. And the allegro section feels like little dandelions playing in a field.” The choreography of Sinfonietta effectively marries these two elements, while drawing inspiration from something a bit more personal to Wheeler. “This piece is motivated by qualities that you might see in a watercolor painting,” he divulged. “My grandmother was a really talented watercolor painter and I used to love looking at how the water would just run from one thing to another and blend so beautifully.”

        “It’s been really wonderful to experience being a dancer with Smuin and some of the contemporary work that we’ve [performed], and to see how that’s influenced my work,” he professed. “I still love classical ballet, but to watch how that’s slightly shifted and developed is really fun to see.” Despite his love of more classical movement, Wheeler observed that “new choreography is always so subjective, like when you go into an art gallery and you see a painting: you either hate it or you love it.” But, when it comes to his ballets, he simply hopes that the audience can “see something that they can enjoy in the moment.”

        As Smuin celebrates Michael Smuin’s legacy and revives some of his most beloved works, the Company’s 2018/19 season will feature many new, contemporary voices. With the first program of the Company’s 25th anniversary season right around the corner, audiences will not only be treated to the mainstage premiere of these three works, but the return of acclaimed choreographer Trey McIntyre and his tribute to blues legend Etta James, Blue Until June. We hope you’ll join us for what’s sure to be a memorable start to the season!

** Written by Eva Faizi, Smuin’s Communications Manager


Come celebrate Smuin’s 25th anniversary season! Dance Series 01 runs September 21-October 6 in Walnut Creek and San Francisco! We can’t wait to bring this highly-anticipated, six-part mixed bill to the stage! Get your tickets today!

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