Join us as we sit down for an exclusive interview with Smuin’s Ballet Master, Amy London, on the Company’s 25th anniversary retrospective, The Best of Smuin. From the curation process to rehearsal bloopers to juggling the many props used in the program, Amy London has countless stories to share.
The Best of Smuin program showcases many of Michael Smuin’s most well-known works. What makes this program so unique to Smuin as a company?
During the 25th anniversary season, Celia and I talked about presenting a history of Smuin Contemporary Ballet to show our audiences and our dancers where we came from. We selected pieces to showcase the range of Michael’s choreographic talent but also the versatility of our dancers. We need our dancers to be both highly trained and technically proficient classical ballet dancers, but also adapt to the many different dance styles that are used today.
Michael Smuin has a very large body of choreographic work. How did you go about choosing what sections of each ballet to feature?
When Celia and I started brainstorming about which pieces to include in The Best of Smuin, we started organizing the pieces into categories. Dances with Songs was the first ballet the Company did, so it is a very good example of Michael as a choreographer and his musical choices. It’s a collection of works that was originally a two act, full evening ballet, but we’ve just selected five songs that give us a bit of a range.
“Unforgettable” and “Fever” are trademark dances that are very memorable to a lot of our audience. “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Georgia” are especially representative of how Michael made unusual music choices for his time from contemporary music, to western music, to pop. It made his work very relatable. We would often get comments from the audience along the lines of ‘Oh, my husband doesn’t like ballet, but he likes this!’
Another category was the technical skill and athleticism of Michael’s dancers and his choreography. We’re including an excerpt from Sueños Latinos: “Danza de Jalisco,” ina trio of women shows off their fast and efficient pointe work. We’re also including selections from Carmina Burana, which combines the power of the music with the athleticism of our dancers. Very Merrily Verdi allows our dancers to show off their classical skills and technique, but it’s also just joyful dance for the sake of dance.
A third category is of works that are theatrical and expressive of emotion. They’re filled with romance, passion, joy, and whimsy. Michael was a master storyteller, so we’re bringing back a couple of his story ballets: the trio from Cyrano, a ballet that hasn’t been seen for quite a long time; as well as excerpts from Frankie and Johnny, which many of our audience members remember [from 2015].
We would be remiss if we didn’t include excerpts from Michael’s Dancin’ with Gershwin. It’s a wonderful way to just display joy, showmanship, theatricality, and a little bit of ‘ballet meets Broadway’. It’s just pure entertainment for our audiences, and for our dancers as well.
The curation of a series of works like this has been a long process—how do you go about restaging a collection of works this large?
The process for revising these pieces was multi-layered. Some of them have not been done in many years, but were ones I had danced, so I had memory of those. The process is primarily done through my own notes, through the notes that Michael left, and through watching a lot of video footage. I also looked at all the versions of all the dancers that had danced it on video. Michael was always willing to adapt choreography to suit the individual dancer, and I wanted to compare each version to see what things remained consistent.
The Best of Smuin involves the use of so many theatrical elements that add to the choreography. Can you tell us more about what it’s like for the dancers, rehearsing with those props?
Because of Michael’s love of theatrics, a lot of his works include props and that creates an extra layer of complexity in rehearsal. You might think you’re doing a solo, but it’s really a duet if you’re dancing with a chair or a whip or a hat. We have a Gershwin piece where the men use ostrich feather fans to help create different shapes—they turn them into a skirt, a halo, palm trees. Manipulating [the props] is an extra element that you have to work on in rehearsal. You may have the musicality down, the footwork down, the spacing down, but if your fan isn’t cooperating or flipping at the right time, that adds another component you have to focus on.
Are there any memorable moments from past performances or rehearsals that you can recall?
There are always stories of ballets that involve props! “Heartbreak Hotel,” from Dances with Songs, features a gentleman who throws his hat in the air and catches it behind his back. That takes a lot of practice. There was one time when former Smuin dancer Osmani Garcia was rehearsing with Michael and he had to throw the hat for a full count of eight in order to catch it on the music, which means he had to really loft it. Osmani was practicing, he threw the hat and we all waited—but the hat never came down because it got caught in the rafters! The rest of rehearsal, the guys were taking off their shoes and throwing them like baseballs trying to knock the hat down off the ceiling truss in the studio.
In Tango Palace, the gentlemen throw their hats offstage. One time, on tour in New York at the Joyce Theater, the men just had thrown the hats offstage and our Wardrobe Manager, JoEllen Arntz, looked everywhere backstage and couldn’t find one of the hats. We searched the entire theater and couldn’t find it! She went back to the hotel that night worried about how she was going to get another hat in time for the show the next day. In the morning, she wondered if maybe it had landed in the garbage backstage. So, she paid a stagehand to go dumpster diving. Sure enough, they found a garbage bag with the tango hat inside and the show was saved!
Michael was often inspired by different genres of dance. Do some those elements appear in The Best of Smuin?
Michael always had respect for other dance forms, and for knowing them from the inside out. When he was creating Tango Palace, he brought in professional tango instructors to work with the Company so the dancers got a feel for the style and technique behind the movement. We had hula lessons when he choreographed “Christmas Island” in The Christmas Ballet, and fencing lessons when he created the fight scenes in Cyrano. He had respect for these different art forms and he wanted us to really understand the technique behind it so we could bring authenticity to the piece.
Many of our audience members haven’t seen the majority of the works being revived in The Best of Smuin. What do you think they’ll take away from the program?
I’m excited for our audience to see The Best of Smuin in this 25th anniversary celebration. I think for many of our long term audience members, it’s going to feel like a trip down memory lane. I think for audiences who are newer to us, it’ll give them more of the history and the range of Smuin. The values have evolved and the art form has changed, but, at the heart of it is still [Michael’s] innovative spirit, that sense of risk-taking, joy, whimsy, and drama.
This retrospective of dances in our 25th anniversary reminds us of our roots and of Michael’s priorities as we continue to move this art form forward.
** Written by Eva Faizi, Smuin’s Communications Manager
See Smuin perform the final program in its 25th season anniversary May 23-26 in Mountain View, and May 31- June 1 in Carmel. Kicking off the final program of Smuin’s 25th anniversary season is a world premiere from master dance maker Amy Seiwert. Alongside Seiwert’s new work isThe Best of Smuin, featuring the return of timeless Michael Smuin favorites such as “Unforgettable,” and the red-hot chair solo “Fever” from Smuin’s inaugural program “Dances With Songs.” Buy tickets here.