Lights, costumes, action: 20 years of Smuin Ballet

The challenge for any eponymously-named company is to faithfully perpetuate the spirit and intent of the founder long after he or she is gone.

Fortunately for Smuin Ballet, Michael Smuin left a rich and unambiguous legacy. Fortunately, too, his successor Celia Fushille thoroughly imbibed that legacy over many years as the company associate director.

“He was just such a fearless artist,” says Fushille, “willing to push the envelope. I try to do that.”

This week the company marks its 20th year, the sixth without Smuin, in a series of Bay Area performances starting at YBCA.

The program, appropriately entitled “XXcentric,” is a fitting tribute to the varied and eclectic programming for which Smuin was known.

As principal dancer with both American Ballet Theatre and San Francisco Ballet, Smuin choreographed for regional ballet companies as well as for Broadway and Hollywood. In the process he earned a Tony and an Emmy.

“He taught me about having balance on a program” says Fushille. “One of three pieces might have edgy music but two is too much. And we maintained the technical standards of the dancing – if anything improved them.”

The “XXCentric” program opens with “Dancin’ With Gershwin,” one of Smuin’s signature works, inspired by his 1996 PBS special about the cross-breeding of American dance forms and performed to recordings from such diverse artists as Peter Gabriel, Carmen McCrae and Michael Feinstein.

Company alumna and contemporary ballet choreographer Amy Seiwert, who is making quite a name for herself nationally, presents a premiere of a work called “but now I must rest” inspired by the music and culture of the Cape Verde Islands. “It’s earthy and romantic and the music is in sung Portuguese,” says Fushille. “I’m thrilled with what she’s doing.”

Val Caniparoli, Smuin’s former San Francisco Ballet colleague, concludes the program with his premiere that Fushille describes as having “humor and tongue-and-cheek quirkiness.” Caniparoli wanted to call it “everything but the kitchen sink,” but Fushille suggested something Italian to echo his heritage and the music by Verdi. So he titled it “Tutto Eccetto il Lavandino” meaning, “everything but the kitchen sink.”

That enthusiasm for the entertainment value of dance was sometimes lost on Smuin’s critics. “There were times when Michael was rebuked for being entertaining,” Fushille says. “Why is that a bad thing? No one needs to know a thing about dance and they can still be moved and entertained. And it’s executed beautifully. Those are all valid reasons for coming to see dance.”

IF YOU GO

XXcentric Spring Dance Series

presented by Smuin Ballet

Where: Lam Research Theater, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission St., S.F.

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and May 7-8, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes May 11

Tickets: $24 to $64

Contact: (415) 912-1899, www.smuinballet.org

Note: Performances also are May 16-17 in Walnut Creek and May 21-25 in Mountain View.

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