SAN FRANCISCO — Michael Smuin, the controversial former director of the San Francisco Ballet, lives in an airy hillside home that combines different motifs in a surprisingly coherent whole.
The place has a Southwestern feel to it, yet it's filled with mementos of a long and varied career in the performing arts. An affinity for the classics is as evident as a love of several contemporary cultures--a pen and ink of a renaissance theater character hangs not far from a Native American work.
Smuin too is a study in contrasts. Ebullient and energetic, he is just as comfortable with the canon as he is with pop; with "Romeo and Juliet" as with Romeo Void.
In fact, Smuin has built his career on precisely such eclecticism. And it's his infusion of pop into his ballets that's long made him controversial. "I've been praised and beaten up," he says. "It's great for box office when the reviews are good, but the important thing is to stay true to the work, keep your head down and dodge the bullets."
The strategy seems to be working.
It is almost precisely 10 years to the day since Smuin was fired from his post at the San Francisco Ballet for doing work that was too populist. And it is also almost two years to the day since he suffered a massive heart attack.
But both of those occasions are fast fading into the background now, because Smuin is at work on another major undertaking. His new company, Smuin Ballets/SF, makes its first appearance outside San Francisco when it brings "Dances With Songs" to the James A. Doolittle Theatre in Hollywood this week, before continuing on to the Joyce Theatre in New York.
Smuin Ballets/SF is yet another new beginning for a man who has had several careers already. An American Ballet Theatre principal dancer and resident choreographer from 1966-73, Smuin's tenure from 1973-84 at the helm of the San Francisco Ballet arguably put the company on the map.
He also has lengthy credits in theater, television and film. Smuin choreographed the Lincoln Center revival of "Anything Goes," for which he won a 1988 Tony, and directed and choreographed "Sophisticated Ladies," which was nominated for two Tonys in 1981. He's also provided choreography for more than 10 films, including "Wolf," "Dracula" and "The Joy Luck Club" and won Emmys for his many TV shows, including versions of several of his ballets and Linda Ronstadt's "Canciones de Mi Padre."
And his work outside the dance world has been well-received. "(Smuin's work on) 'The Cotton Club' really impressed me," says director Alfonso Arau, for whom Smuin did the choreography on the upcoming film "A Walk in the Clouds." "He's a real pro and we connected immediately. He set the choreography of the crushing of the grapes (scene). It's a ritual of fertility. (Smuin made it) erotic and romantic. Just magical."
Still, Smuin, now 56, has sometimes felt that he's been treated like a fish out of water. "When I work on Broadway, I'm the ballet guy," he says. "And when I work in ballet, I'm the Broadway guy. I never am what I am when I'm doing it. People don't want you to be successful in more than one thing."
Smuin Ballets/SF features 10 dancers--many of them San Francisco Ballet alums--plus a featured pair of flamenco artists who are with the group only for this program. "It's like guerrilla ballet with minimal costumes and scenery," the choreographer says of the program's mostly solos and duets, set to such songs as "Unforgettable," "Unchained Melody," "Heartbreak Hotel" and "Stardust" in recordings by Linda Ronstadt, the Righteous Brothers, the Beatles, Patsy Cline, Willie Nelson, Edith Piaf and the Gipsy Kings.
In some ways, it's the kind of pop-influenced fare for which Smuin is known, but in other ways, it's not. "The whole time I was in the San Francisco Ballet I was a mural painter," he says. "Now I can be a miniaturist. I've done the big ballets with 60 people onstage. (This company) gives me a real laboratory, dancers that I can experiment with, (a chance to do) things that I probably wouldn't have done as director of the San Francisco Ballet. I think this may be more mature work."
Also on the bill are segments from some works that Smuin created when he was at the San Francisco Ballet.
Smuin joined the San Francisco Ballet in 1973, becoming co-director with Lew Christensen, who had been at the helm since 1952. While the title was shared, the day-to-day directorship of the company fell, at Christensen's behest, to Smuin.
Smuin is widely credited with having stabilized the San Francisco Ballet, expanding its base of support and increasing its exposure through television broadcasts. Five years after coming on board in San Francisco, Smuin's "Romeo and Juliet" was seen on PBS and won an Emmy, as did his 1981 "Tempest."
In 1982, Smuin's "Stravinsky Piano Pieces" was televised nationally on "Live From the White House." In 1983, he marked the 50th anniversary of the San Francisco Ballet with a large-scale celebration at the War Memorial Opera House.