In 1994, Michael Smuin set out to “infuse ballet with the rhythm, speed, and syncopation of American popular culture.”
In 1994, Michael Smuin set out to “infuse ballet with the rhythm, speed, and syncopation of American popular culture,” and Smuin Contemporary American Ballet (née Smuin Ballets/SF, or more recently, Smuin Ballet) was born. Michael Smuin’s vision lives on following his sudden passing in 2007, and the Company continues to push the boundaries of contemporary ballet within a distinctly American style, combining classical ballet training, technique, and artistry with uncommon physicality and expression.
Company Founder Michael Smuin was born on October 13, 1938, in Missoula, Montana. Smuin studied tap dancing as a child and became instantly enamoured with ballet when his mother took him to see the Ballet Russe on tour at the University of Montana. At the age of 15, Smuin moved to Salt Lake City to study dance on scholarship at the University of Utah. A few years later, San Francisco Ballet director Lew Christensen recruited Smuin for San Francisco Ballet, where he danced for six years. Smuin took a leave of absence from the company in 1962 to relocate to New York, where he performed in Bob Fosse’s Little Me on Broadway. During this time, Smuin created a nightclub act with his then-wife and fellow dancer Paula Tracy. Their “well-disguised ballet,” as Smuin would call it, toured widely and was billed alongside such entertainers as Louis Armstrong, Peggy Lee, and Frank Sinatra. The act later appeared on television on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Hollywood Palace, and Bell Telephone Hour, among others. Smuin joined American Ballet Theatre in 1965, where he choreographed Pulcinella Variations, The Catherine Wheel, Eternal Idol and several other pieces for the company before returning to San Francisco in 1973. During his years in New York he also worked with Leonard Bernstein, choreographing Candide.
Smuin spent 12 years as a choreographer and co-director of San Francisco Ballet, a period that coincided with his direction of Sophisticated Ladies on Broadway. Smuin served as Artistic Director of San Francisco Ballet until 1985, and was instrumental in raising the company’s profile in the international arts community. His ventures included serving as co-chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts dance panel (1979-1981), staging a performance at the White House, and presenting his Romeo and Juliet and his Emmy Award-winning feature A Song for Dead Warriors for PBS’s Dance in America program. In 1988, Smuin received both a Tony and a Drama Desk Award for his choreography for Anything Goes.
Outside of ballet and Broadway, Smuin choreographed several Francis Ford Coppola films, some of which include Rumble Fish, The Cotton Club and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. His choreography can also be seen in such films as A Walk in the Clouds, The Joy Luck Club, The Fantastiks, and Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (Special Edition).
Michael Smuin’s ballets are currently in the repertories of major dance companies around the country. Since founding Smuin Contemporary American Ballet in 1994, he created 40 new works for his company alone. His creations range from classical, as seen in his acclaimed September 11th tribute, Stabat Mater (2002), and Carmina Burana (1997), to the innovative Bluegrass/Slyde with its revolving-pole set, to one-act story ballets like Pinocchio (1999) and Zorro (2003). Many of Smuin’s ballet’s boast a touch of Broadway flair, such as the wildly popular Dancin’ With Gershwin (2001) and Fly Me to the Moon (2004).
Smuin passed away suddenly on April 23, 2007, surrounded by his dancers while teaching company class. His vision, style, and energy remain with the Company to this day.