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Choreographer Michael Smuin at a Peak Stage in His Career
By Jeff Kaliss
A choreographer plans his steps carefully. Michael Smuin has been dancing since he learned to walk, and the dances he's created are now in the repertoire of ballet and modern companies worldwide, including the critically acclaimed San Francisco-based Smuin Ballet. But some of Smuin's most enjoyable steps these days are taken not on the dance floor, but along the byways of his Noe Valley neighborhood.
It's part of the 66-year-old dance master's regular workout to walk the four blocks from his 26th Street cottage to 24th Street, and then go all the way up the hill to Grand View and back down again.
Smuin has been taking good care of his heart since it stopped beating a dozen years ago, while he was working on a film shoot. Director Thomas Schlamme yelled "Cut!" and Smuin rolled down a staircase.
"While I was rolling, everybody was yelling 'What a great stunt!' and applauding," Smuin recounts. "Then the sound man, Conrad Schlater, jumped on me and started giving me CPR, but by the time the paramedic got there and did the 'Path! Clear!', I was flatlined." Schlater told the paramedics to turn the juice up to maximum, and Smuin was revived.
"Needless to say, it changed my lifestyle a lot," Smuin says. "I'd never considered myself unhealthy before, but it turned out I had a cholesterol of 380, which is like walking butter. I quit smoking, I drank far less, and I went on a very healthy diet. I'd been exercising, but I did more, and now I hardly miss a day." Aside from the hikes through Noe Valley, "I get on the treadmill and I have weights and stretches and yoga,...and I've been healthy as a bull!"
Those hikes have served his heart in a metaphorical sense, too. After he and his dancer wife, Paula Tracy, split up and he relocated to Noe Valley three years ago, Smuin began frequenting neighborhood eateries such as Savor and Regent Thai. While strolling along 24th and Church streets, "I felt like I was back in a small town, where everybody knows everybody else and they're friendly." That closeness reminded him of his childhood in Missoula, Mont.
No Tights, Just Sweatpants
As a boy, Smuin saw no live ballet in the wilds of Montana, but "my mother told me that if I were really interested in a dance career, I'd have to study ballet. There was the wife of an army colonel at Fort Missoula who started ballet classes, and one afternoon my mother took me out there. I said I wouldn't wear tights, I'd wear sweatpants, so she cleared that with the teacher, and I was ushered into a room with 22 of the cutest little girls I'd ever seen. So I said to myself, this is not a bad place to be."
A precocious student, Smuin was still in high school when he began studying ballet with William Christensen at the University of Utah. The teen dancer was then recruited by Christensen's younger brother Lew for the San Francisco Ballet. After four years as a featured dancer with that troupe, Smuin completed his military service, married Tracy, and moved to New York City.
Both dancers got cast in Broadway shows. To keep the money coming after the shows closed, they developed a nightclub act, which they were eventually able to tour around the globe. When Smuin found himself missing classical dance, he and his wife succeeded in joining the American Ballet Theatre in New York, from which he was hired back to the San Francisco Ballet, as co-director, in 1973. After being dismissed from that post in 1985, because of what he terms "jealousy," he went on to "freelance."
From Movies to TV to Broadway
He continued with film work, setting dance numbers and fight scenes for such films as The Joy Luck Club and Cotton Club, not to mention the near-fatal experience on Schlamme's So I Married an Axe Murderer.
Smuin also worked in television, directing and choreographing specials and commercials, and returned to Broadway, winning several Emmy and Tony awards and putting himself in the company of his longtime idol, screen star Gene Kelly.
In 1994, the company that Smuin had assembled for an enormously successful benefit for the Arts in the Schools Foundation evolved into the Smuin Ballet. Since then, with his own ensemble of young dancers, Smuin has been free to set dances to "everything from Mozart to Willie Nelson," and to launch his similarly eclectic Christmas Ballet program (in 1995).
Christmas Ballet a Holiday Favorite
Now a holiday staple for Bay Area dance lovers, the Christmas Ballet reflects both his trademark style--a romantic celebration of and light-hearted twist on traditional choreography--and the broad spectrum of his experience.
"One of the good things about this particular ballet is that it really is a family thing," says Smuin. There's music and motion evocative of Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa, as well as some Broadway pizzazz.
This year's edition, playing at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts from Dec. 15 to 26, consists of a "classical" first act and a "cool" second act, and features tap dancing and Irish step dancing. A setting of "Jingle Bell Rock" makes use of 20 girls from the City Ballet, whose rehearsal space adjoins Smuin's own in the South of Market neighborhood.
Back in his Noe Valley cottage (where the landlady, by total coincidence, turns out to be a retired stage manager for the late, legendary Bob Fosse), Smuin will be working on his company's upcoming season and on an autobiography.
"All those shows and movies and TV specials, they're all wonderful little stories," the dance master points out. "I was always soaking it all up, and it makes what I do on stage different from anyone else."
For information about Michael Smuin's Christmas Ballet, call 978-2787 or go to www.smuinballet.org.