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Michael Smuin

Award winning dancer-choreographer-director, Michael Smuin (born 1938) had a wide-ranging career filled with numerous honors in the theater, television and film.

Michael Smuin was born on October 13, 1938, in Missoula, Minnesota, of parents involved in community theater. His mother was an actress and his father was a skier who also ran a meat market. Michael's earliest memories include family Christmas parties with Missoula relatives, plus his passion for the dancing of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, his movie idols. He wanted to dance like them and was serious in attending tap dance classes at a young age.

At the age of eight he was a member of The Wise Guys, a group of youngsters who sang, tapped, and told jokes for such groups as the Chamber of Commerce, Kiwanis Club, and Red Cross. When Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo came to town in a one-night stand, Michael became an instant convert to ballet. Encouraged by his parents, he spent several summers in Salt Lake City, where he studied ballet with William Christenson, director of Ballet West. Then for his last year in high school and two years in college, he studied ballet at the School of The San Francisco Ballet, a company directed by William's brothers Lew and Harold. "They," says Smuin, "refined the skills I had already been working on, and helped me understand not only tradition but how a company operates, from backstage to box-office."

In 1958, the day after school closed for summer vacation he was off with the company for a nine-week tour of South America, mostly split week engagements. It meant that in addition to daily class, rehearsals in strange theaters, and performances, twice a week the male dancers assisted with "breaking up" the show—loading and unloading floor, sets, curtain, and props onto and off vans.

A year later he was with the company in a three-month tour of the Middle East. It was there that he really understood that dance is an international language, despite its different accents. He learned, too, that touring can be educational. He remembered well the audiences that included Haile Selassie and Gamal Abdel Nasser. As usual, he asked a lot of questions until he was satisfied that he understood. It was then, too, that he became aware of his interest in doing choreography, a different skill from dancing, and he started what became a life-long habit, carrying a small notebook with him wherever he might be. Every night before going to bed he made notes of his observations and reflections of the day. He later added details of the current production, including sketches of stage business.

In 1961 he was drafted for Army training, where he found more to learn. Before that he had become leading dancer of the San Francisco Ballet, its ballet master, and its resident choreographer. Released from the Army in 1962, he returned to San Francisco to choreograph a tap ballet for the company. Its success proved to be the spring-board for new adventure.

He made a dancing debut on Broadway in Bob Fosse's Little Me. He began work on film and television offers and, in addition, from 1963 to 1966, made intermittent night club and summer hotel engagements with his wife, Paula Tracy, in a cabaret act aptly titled "Paula and Michael." In 1966 he joined American Ballet Theater (ABT). There he gained much recognition as a performer, especially for his in-depth characterizations in ballets by Frederick Ashton, Leonide Massine, Michael Fokine, and Jerome Robbins. He cherished all of them, but it was his role in Robbins' Fancy Free of which he was especially proud. Not only was he doing those and other new roles but he also choreographed six works ("some good, some not so good," he said).

He continued on in New York and on tour with the ABT until 1973, turning down television and film offers. However, he accepted the invitation to be co-artistic director of the San Francisco Ballet, his starting point. He became artistic director, and before he left there in 1985 he had choreographed 30 works for the company and produced 120 ballets. He commissioned composers and designers with fresh and lively points of view and gained large subscription audiences. There were a series of nationwide television presentations, including three of his full-length ballets: Cinderella (1973), Romeo and Juliet (1976), and The Tempest (1980), the latter two winning Emmys. There were some interesting on-leave ventures as well. From 1976 to 1979 he served as member and co-chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts Dance advisory panel. In 1980 he traveled to China as a member of the first official U.S. dance study team. Asked to be show doctor for Broadway's Sophisticated Ladies, he viewed it carefully; he found music, casting, and other elements excellent, but the script lacking in definition. Invited to redo the script, he did. The smash hit result brought him the 1981 Outer Critics Circle Award and two Tony Award nominations, one for choreography, one for direction.

In January 1982 Gregory Hines and Michael Smuin tap danced together at a premiére at the San Francisco Opera House. In March 1982 sections of three of Smuin's ballets were part of the television presentation In Performance at the White House. In October 1982 he choreographed the fight scenes for Francis Coppola's movie Rumble Fish, and soon after collaborated with him in a film-plus-live performance of Romanze. He conceived, produced, and directed San Francisco's Golden Gala program in January 1983. In April of the same year he received the prestigious Dance Magazine Award as "man of the theater in the truest character of the American dance artist … electic and virtuoso … electrifying vitality and elan."

Other awards include two Emmys, one for choreography, one for direction, for A Song for Dead Warriors, nationally broadcast in January 1984. He received the Award of Honor for Achievement in the Arts from the San Francisco Arts Commission. He was head choreographer for Coppola's film Cotton Club and choreographed Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21 for television and the hugely successful To the Beatles. In 1985 he choreographed Brahms-Haydn Variations and in 1986 a ballet based on Children of Paradise, the French film classic, with music by Piaf.

He won a 1986-1987 Emmy award for direction for voice/dance, another area he planned to explore further. He staged the fight scenes for Michael Ritchie's film Golden Girl, and, with his incredible versatility, soon after staged a ballet for Leslie Caron, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Rudolph Nureyev plus male chorus for a combined American Ballet Theatre-Paris Opera Ballet gala at the Metropolitan Opera House.

In 1987 he directed a theater production of Nagle Jackson's Faustus in Hell for the American Conservatory Theatre, as well as George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan for the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. He did a music video for Linda Ronstadt to the song "When You Wish Upon a Star" featuring Cynthia Gregory and Disney's Jiminy Cricket. Additionally, he directed/co-produced the AIDS benefit "Aid and Comfort" for television broadcast.

In 1988 Smuin created the choreography for Luis Valdez' television special and was director/choreographer of the Linda Ronstadt touring show Canciones de mi Padre. He also choreographed a scene for Chevy Chase and 625 extras in the Michael Ritchie movie Fletch Saved.

For his choreography for the Lincoln Center's Anything Goes, the 1988 revival of the Cole Porter musical (which he later re-created in London), Smuin received a Tony award, a Fred Astaire award, and the Drama Desk award.

During the 1989 summer vacation in the Tracy-Smuin beach house in Hawaii, he viewed six hundred hours of film and tape in preparation for the February 1990, 50th Anniversary Gala of the ABT, in which excerpts from 30 ballets, in film and live performance, were seamlessly presented in an enticing entertainment. In 1990 Smuin was developing a film, which he was to direct, based on Gore Vidal's mystery thriller Death in the Fifth Position.

But before that, there was still another Broadway choreography/directing assignment, a new musical drama based on James Clavell's best-selling novel Shogun, which opened in fall 1990. Prior to rehearsals, Smuin made four trips to Japan to consider a Japanese English-speaking cast, a concept he finally rejected in favor of American-Japanese actors/dancers/singers. However, he imported consultants to prepare the cast for proper tea service, drum dance, different levels of bowing for differing castes, and other such niceties about which he is precise.

Filmmaker Coppola spoke of Michael Smuin as "a most cordial person" who "moves a show with an electric pace and stunning effect." Tap dancer Gregory Hines said, "Michael's special. He recognizes at once the accent and rhythm required for theatricalization, and surprising for someone of his intensity, he's patient, very patient. No hysterics. Multi-talented, he knows what he wants and he works for it."

When asked if he would be interested in heading a ballet company again, Smuin replied, "After twelve years with the San Francisco Ballet I'm well acquainted with the ecstacy and the agony of that position, and although I'm flattered to be asked, I'd say 'no.' There are still many untried avenues in theater arts that challenge me. I seem to care deeply about the possibilities that exist in the Americanization of dance and its sister arts." What he didn't count on was a request to contribute his directing and choreography talents for a San Francisco Foundation for the Arts fund raiser in 1994. In response to this request he brought together a troupe of young, energetic and talented dancers performing a potpourri of dance that was distinctly American. The sell-out first performance lead to more than a five-week run, followed by sold out performances in Los Angeles and New York.

This troupe of dancers became the famed Smuin Ballets/SF performing to sell out audiences nationwide. The troupe with appearances at Carnegie Hall and the Joyce Theater in New York maintained an exhausting schedule with more than 70 performances in some years. Smuin described the troupe as "a very American company with a huge vocabulary of dance styles." The Smuin Ballets/SF gained a popular following with selections set to music ranging from Chopin and Bartok to the Righteous Brothers and Willie Nelson. Smuin ballets that the company introduced include: The Christmas Ballet (1995), choreographed to music from the Renaissance and Baroque periods mixed with rhythm and blues, Frankie and Johnny (1996), billed as the first mambo ballet, and Cyrano (1997), based on the life and loves of Cyrano de Bergerac.

Further Reading

Most of the information on Smuin can be found in such trade publications as Variety. There is a brief biography of Smuin together with a lengthy exposition of how he developed Shogun by Joseph McLellan, in The Washington Post (September 2, 1990). □

Michael Smuin

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