Smuin Pushes the Boundaries of Ballet

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During normal times, not an hour goes by without a small crowd gathering outside the Smuin Ballet Studio at the corner of 17th and De Haro streets. Bus riders, children on their way home from school, and shoppers with bags full of groceries stop to marvel at every mesmerizing arabesque, grand jeté, and pirouette through the studio’s large paned windows. 

Celia Fushille started at Smuin Contemporary Ballet dancing 26 years ago and has served as artistic director for more than 13 years. She said solidifying the company’s headquarters in Potrero Hill in 2015 after subleasing spaces throughout San Francisco brought new energy to the organization.

“We love being part of this neighborhood,” said Fushille. “Not only is the weather amazing, we’re one block from Whole Foods, and with these windows people can just hang out and watch rehearsals. We have this immediacy with the community that we’ve never had before.” 

In 1994 Michael Smuin, former San Francisco Ballet director and Tony award winning choreographer, started his own company with a goal of taking a contemporary approach to ballet, incorporating modern movement and music. Inspired by Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra, Smuin wanted to make ballet more accessible and enjoyable by infusing classic dance with the unexpected. 

“Though he loved classical ballet he just didn’t feel the need to keep doing another Swan Lake and another Giselle,” said Fushille. “He was a bit of a renegade because of that, he was not a purist or a classicist. He definitively was an entertainer. He wanted people to just have fun and appreciate beautiful art.”

According to Fushille, even after Smuin’s death in 2007 the company continues to push boundaries and redefine what ballet can look and feel like.

“Everyone here is classically trained but for us it’s about exploring what is possible beyond classical ballet. We’re bringing in these other forms of dance and have had ballets with tango, ballroom, tap, jazz, hip hop, and swing. We want to distinguish ourselves from a company that may be slanted toward the strictly classical,” said Fushille. 

The renegade style draws audiences and professional dancers to Smuin. According to Tessa Barbour, who has been a Smuin performer for four years, the variety of styles she executes is incomparable to any troupe in which she’d previously engaged. 

“I feel like what the company has to offer has no boundaries. Being a contemporary ballet company, we have such a wide range of movement that speaks to everyone differently.” said Barbour. “We continue to expand how people feel, relate and start to fall in love with dance. So often I’ve heard from our community, my husband included, that they’ve never watched ballet before and that we have hooked them in.” 

Ben Needham-Wood, who has been a Smuin dancer for more than seven years, said it’s always been the company’s goal to connect with community. “Dance is communal, and what we do at Smuin is specifically programmed to serve our community. We want to share our dances with audiences to bring them joy, to show them vulnerability, and to give them a chance to experience something new,” said Neeham-Wood. “I feel that way dancing every program we’ve performed, and my favorite moment is always connecting with audiences after a show.” 

Shelter-in-place orders forced the company to cancel April and May shows that were going to be performed at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. The troupe is presently offering one-hour lessons for beginners by video conference. About 300 students participate weekly, paying roughly $10 per class. 

“People who do know about us see us as the jewel of the Bay Area,” said Fushille. “I hope for Smuin Ballet to get that national recognition and for us to be a national treasure as well.”