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Dances With Songs

Michael Smuin
Profile in Innovation: Michael Smuin's lean, muscular choreography can make even Jabba the Hut dance.

Photo by Howard Schatz

Michael Smuin carves out
a niche on stage and screen

By Gretchen Giles

Audiences don't have to put on fancy clothes and file into darkened concert halls to watch choreographer Michael Smuin's work. To see this innovative artist's moves, one only need go to the movies. Couched in the lush rigors of classical ballet, Smuin's dizzying vitals range widely: He directed the San Francisco Ballet for 12 years, danced in and directed the American Ballet Theatre, shepherded ABT's televised 50th anniversary special and three years ago started his own troupe, the 12-member Smuin Ballets/SF company. He's also done just about everything in between: directing and choreographing Linda Ronstadt's stunning Mexican folk song and dance production, Canciones de mi Padre; putting his dancers through their paces at the White House; winning Broadway's Tony award for choreographing Anything Goes; and, finally, duking it out with Jabba the Hut.

Yep, Jabba. When techno-wizard George Lucas decided to revamp his Star Wars trilogy for a '97 release utilizing millennium's-end computer smarts, he called on Smuin to stage a stylized battle between his dancers and that mega-corpulent interstellar gangster. But that wasn't half as much fun as teaching actor Jack Nicholson to move like a lobo in the werewolf thriller Wolf, a job he got after filmmaker Mike Nichols saw Smuin's Peter and the Wolf for American Ballet Theatre.

"Of course," chuckles Smuin of the Prokofiev effort, speaking by phone from his San Francisco home, "that wolf was like a cartoon." To prepare for the Nichols film, Smuin watched hours of National Geographic specials, learning arcane knowledge about alpha and beta wolves and the specifics of pack behavior in order to properly finesse Nicholson to his knees.

With his choreography for the first cinematic production of Broadway's long-running The Fantasticks due to hit movie theaters early next year, preparations roaring for his Dec. 6 directorial presentation of Ira Gershwin at 100: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall (to be aired both on the Public Broadcasting and the BBC television network with a cast album accompanying), and the 1996 version of his Christmas Ballet opening Dec. 18 at the Yerba Buena Gardens Center for the Arts, one would think that Smuin might be just a bit tired.

"Not at all," he says simply. After all, he is doing what he loves best.

Known for his sexy, modern style, Smuin himself has called his lean and muscular moves "guerrilla ballet," distinctive for its use of recorded music and a virtual grand jeté of technique, borrowing as it does from modern dance and jazz styles. Audiences won't see Swan Lake from Smuin, but they are guaranteed such pieces of reanimation fantasy as Eternal Idol, in which the statues of sculptor Auguste Rodin's famous "The Kiss" come to life, and the Asian-influenced work of Shinju--both developed during his tenure at the SF Ballet. The most classically anchored of his offerings, the Brahms/Haydn Variations, is known for the physicality with which he explores the formalistic spirit of Brahms' work, but any highbrow stiflings are quickly elided by the acclaimed Dances with Songs repertoire, which incorporates such pop hits as "Heartbreak Hotel" and "Georgia on My Mind" with the supple renderings of Smuin's high-heeled and -hatted dancers.

And it is his common-man approach to the revered art of ballet that has attracted so many to the Smuin style. Critic Jim Farber praised his work as ballet "perfect for the MTV generation"--but this same phrase could be used against the choreographer. "I am interested in the music," shrugs Smuin, whose mania for researching the score adds dramatically his movement choices. "And I'll go with anything from the hokey-pokey to the hula if it matches the music."

For more information on Michael Smuin's The Christmas Ballet, 1996 Edition, call 978-2787. The show plays Dec. 18­30 at the Center for the Arts, 700 Howard St. Tickets: $25 and $30.

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From the December 1996 issue of SF Live

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