Smuin’s legacy dances on

Michael Smuin’s mission as a dancer, director and choreographer was centered on the notion that dance should be accessible to everyone. Smuin Ballet’s spring season, which opens Friday at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, is no exception.

The Montana-born Smuin, who died of an apparent heart attack on April 23 while teaching a ballet class, fell in love with the dance form as a child when he first discovered Ballet Russes. After joining the San Francisco Ballet in 1953, the prolific artist dedicated his career to making sure dance was welcoming as both an art form and as pure entertainment.

“He didn’t want people to be put off by men in tights or women in tutus. He wanted every single person to enjoy the experience. This season is definitely reflective of that,” says Jo Ellen Arntz, Smuin Ballet company manager.

The new season for Smuin Ballet revisits two of Smuin’s celebrated works: the sensual “Carmina Burana” and the pas de deux from his Emmy Award-winning production of “Romeo and Juliet.” Two new works will also be premiered: Smuin’s choreographed piece to the Scherzo of Schubert’s Ninth Symphony and Amy Seiwart’s original ballet “Falling Up,” which is set to piano solos by Brahms.

While Smuin’s take on “Carmina Burana” first hit the stage in 1997, the latest installment definitely has a new element to the performance — more dancers.

“This time there are three lead girls, and that’s a huge thing,” says Arntz. “When we first did ‘Carmina Burana,’ we had fewer dancers. Normally Michael would have only one person in the role, but with a larger group you have the opportunity to shift things around. I think he liked the individual touches each of the leads lends to the part. They are definitely not cookie-cutter performances.”

Meanwhile, Seiwert’s ballet “Falling Up” presents the dancer and choreographer in a different light. Instead of dabbling in the realm of unusual sights and sounds, Seiwert approaches the ballet in a very classical, straightforward manner upon Smuin’s advice, Arntz says. Although he had yet to see the finale of “Falling Up,” Smuin deemed it as Seiwert’s best performance to date.

As Smuin Ballet continues to move forward with its season, a hole undoubtedly remains in the Bay Area dance community. The focus at hand for the renowned dance company is simply to celebrate Smuin’s work and his contributions to the dance world.

“It certainly is a challenge right now. It’s still fresh enoughin our minds,” says Arntz. “I expect him to walk into the rehearsal studio any minute. There are going to be some difficulties going into the theater and him not being there, but I’d say this whole experience is bringing us closer together as a group. It was his wish that his ballets didn’t die when he did and we’re going to continue to keep his work alive.”

Smuin Ballet

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. this Sunday; plus 2 p.m. May 19; closes May 20 with a 4 p.m. special gala program

Where: Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission St., San Francisco

Tickets: $35 to $55; $40 gala performance only

Contact: (415) 495-2234,

Note: Additional performances are in Walnut Creek and Mountain View.


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