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Michael Smuin Finds Working Is the Best Revenge


It's the night of the Tonys and Michael Smuin dances up the steps to the podium, obviously thrilled at winning the choreography award for his Broadway show "Anything Goes." Brandishing the statue over his head, he beams and blurts out "What sweet revenge."

Chances are, no one in the dance world was mystified by the comment. Four years ago, San Francisco Ballet unceremoniously bumped Smuin from his post of artistic director--drawing voluble cries of protest in the community as well as nationwide publicity. No doubt, an echo of that trauma came to mind in his moment of triumph. Or so Smuin suggests.

"It just popped out of my mouth," he said this week, looking out from the glass-walled living room of friend Michael Ritchie's Bel-Air home. Slight and prematurely gray, he recalls the events of the televised Tony show and remembers being "prepared with a 20-second acceptance statement: They allotted us that amount of time for our thank-yous. And then some other part of my brain took over, maybe because I wasn't expecting to win."

Ironically, no one ever questioned Smuin's popular touch. The issue in San Francisco was his commitment to classicism.

"I guess I misspoke," he comments. "Revenge is the wrong word. I no longer feel bitter. In fact, the emotion that struck me was joy. Chalk up my remark to some pretty awful circumstances coming back to haunt me."

The circumstances? "Suddenly, one day in August (1984), after running San Francisco Ballet successfully for 14 years and seeing it just about to peak, I opened the newspaper to see my photo splashed on the front page and a headline that said: 'Michael Smuin resigns.' It was devastating, bewildering."

Smuin says he wasn't prepared for what he calls "such a dirty, underhanded, hardball fight--one inspired by the board president laying a trap for me and feeding misinformation to board members." But along with the breath-taking blows, he says, came some Rocky-like victories.

Before his final exit, pickets ("dancers, staff, Joe Public and board members," Smuin says) marched outside the Opera House with "We Want Smuin" written on their signs. The company re-engaged him to finish out the '84-'85 season.

Since then, Smuin says he's taken nary a backward glance at filling the role of artistic director anywhere.

"Various search committees have contacted me," he says, "but I declined to be a candidate. Running a ballet company--seeing to all the nuts and bolts of daily business--is not something I want to do again."

His current activity record hardly makes that statement a surprise. Last weekend, the touring mariachi show he directed for Linda Rondstadt, "Canciones de mi Padre," closed at the Pantages and he's now involved in making a film version of it. Last year, he scored a major success directing Naegle Jackson's "Faustus in Hell" in a sold-out run for American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco.

The season San Francisco Ballet fired him Smuin won Emmys (best choreography and direction) for his ballet "A Song for Dead Warriors" on PBS. Now, at 49, a new career beckons: He looks to the movie world with ever-growing interest.

Having already done choreography for Francis Coppola's "Cotton Club" and the fight scenes in Ritchie's "Golden Child," he's ready for more. A meeting with Menahem Golan (Cannon Productions) brought him to Los Angeles this week. The project will see him directing his first feature film.

"As a fan, I always tuned in to movies by way of directors," he says, mentioning that his Bay Area friendship with Coppola and George Lucas fanned the flames of a new love. But no small part of his stepping away from the ballet world comes from disaffection and disillusionment.

When he makes a rare visit to the San Francisco Ballet now ("only after being urged by one of my dancers to see something special"), Smuin says he's not impressed:

"All the talk about looking for a new classicism strikes me as pure smoke screen (for the change in directors). Those who are doing the most demanding work are the dancers I trained. (Joyce Moffatt, San Francisco Ballet general manager, agrees that most dancers are from the Smuin regime.) And the company seems to have no policy now. In fact, it looks like all the other big ones playing it safe. That's the result of letting a corporate mentality govern artistic decisions. McDonald's in New York tastes the same as in San Francisco.

"And the dancers reflect this too. I sense a clock-punching attitude on stage. The job is merely a means of making car payments."

Smuin contends that the administration's bid to change directors (former New York City Ballet dancer Helgi Tomasson now heads the company) has not paid off financially either and mentions "a $3-million endowment that has already been used up." He contrasts the situation to his own tenure, a time when "we made 70% of our budget from the box office and ran solidly in the black."

But Moffatt said Tuesday that "the endowment, $4.3 million, was divided, leaving $2.3 million in the bank collecting interest. However, we must raise $350,000 by June 30, an amount hiked by health insurance/workmen's compensation. Because of AIDS, these rates are skyrocketing." (Tomasson is currently on vacation in Italy and unavailable for comment.)

Smuin says he's still concerned with the welfare of the company, but he has no interest in any active relationship.

"I was a babe in the woods back then," he says. "And I would be again 'cause I haven't changed. There was never time in my life for backroom politics--something to be avoided at all costs. I want to win for the right reasons, not because I've learned how to play games."

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