What do neoclassical ballet, Johnny Cash, high heels and Cuban salsa music all have in common? Each makes an appearance in Smuin Contemporary Ballet’s annual showcase “Dance Series 1.”
The production returns to the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts this Thursday through Sunday, and kicks off the San Francisco-based company’s 30th year of bringing contemporary ballet to stages across the Bay Area.
This season has a special significance for Smuin artistic director Celia Fushille. After three decades, it’s her last with the company. She was the first dancer the company’s founder Michael Smuin ever hired.
Fushille danced with the company for 12 years. Then, in 2007, when Smuin passed away suddenly while teaching in the studio, she took the helm as artistic director, trying to keep with “the spirit of the works created by our founder” ever since.
Smuin was trained in traditional ballet, but “he also worked in other genres,” she says. “He did not have a highbrow opinion of ballet as an elitist art form. It was really a love of all forms of dance. And so you will see that in the programs that we perform.”
This year’s “Dance Series 1” is certainly no exception. In Fushille’s words, the dancers wear everything from “pointe shoes, to cowboy boots to heels.” Each dance is the work of a different choreographer, all tied together by the talent of the company’s 16 dancers.
“I tried to find works that will express a range of emotion, a range of musical and dance styles,” Fushille says. The goal is to build an emotional arc that develops over the course of the evening.
The night opens with a neoclassical 11-part piece with the cheeky name “Tutto Eccetto il Lavandino” (“Everything But the Kitchen Sink”). Choreographer Val Caniparoli created this work that’s set on pointe shoes to the music of Antonio Vivaldi. The works include some unusual pairings and maintain a contemporary feel, despite being set to Baroque-era music.
“It also goes through a range of emotions,” she says. “There are some sections that are silly, some that are fun, some that are thoughtful.”
The second dance is called “The Man in Black,” and cultivates a somber tone set to cover songs by Johnny Cash. The four dancers in this ballet sport cowboy boots.
“The dancers rely on each other and the lyrics are so poignant. It’s a really, really powerful work,” Fushille says.
The show finishes with a lively work set to Cuban salsa. Composer Charles Fox’s lively Cuban salsa compositions set the tone for the ambitious work “Salsa ’Til Dawn” that closes out the night. This high-energy number utilizes all 16 dancers—the entire dance company. It’s a risky move in an industry where show-stopping injuries are not uncommon. But, Fushille says, choreographer Darrell Moultrie wanted to include every dancer.
The performance is “salsa dancing, but with ballet technique, so it’s very celebratory,” she says “When I heard this music, I knew that if Michael Smuin were still alive, he would want to create to it.”
One thing that Smuin was passionate about was making ballet accessible to a wider audience.
“He loved it when there was something humorous in a ballet and people would just laugh out loud. He said, ‘People don’t think they’re going to come to the ballet and laugh. I want people to have fun.’ He always wanted it to be approachable and not so foreign or serious that it didn’t allow people to have fun and be entertained,” Fushille says. “And it’s really become a hallmark of ours.”
As she goes into her final season with the company, Fushille is most looking forward to seeing the audience reactions.
“One of the purposes of what we do is to remind people of our humanity. And to be in touch with your emotions and your heart, when you sit in a dark theater and you let the music wash over you and you see this beautiful dancing and you can just let go,” she says. “The audience just comes right along with us. They’re laughing at the humorous parts, sometimes they’re weeping at the dramatic moments. And then they’re just celebrating in the end, you know. I hope they’ll be dancing out of the theater, really.”
Smuin: Dance Series 1
Thu-Sun, Various Times, $59+
Center for the Performing Arts, Mountain View