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By Jeff Kaliss
Now that he's gone, I'm noticing how many times the term "heart" came up in my interviews with dancemaster Michael Smuin three years ago.
Sitting in his 26th Street cottage and looking back on his childhood home in rural Montana, Smuin had recalled "a heartbreaking song" called "Christmas in Prison," which early on alerted him to the emotional importance of the holiday season, celebrated later in his annual Christmas Ballet. He compared his Smuin Ballet to Twyla Tharp's ensemble, with respect to how they each had set dances to the music of Frank Sinatra. "Hers had a very hard edge to it," he pointed out to me, "and mine, I have my heart on my sleeve with this one, I think. I'm an incurable romantic."
Smuin was working on an autobiography (to be completed posthumously), in which he planned to document the "Machiavellian" plotting behind his dismissal from the San Francisco Ballet in 1984. "It's a good thing that most of the people involved in that story are dead, because when they read it, there would be massive heart attacks around the city," he remarked sardonically.
And there were, of course, his references to the heart attack that nearly killed him during a film shoot at Edinburgh Castle in 1992. That scare inaugurated a program of healthy habits, including daily perambulations around Noe Valley.
On the morning of April 23 of this year, Smuin's heart stopped for good, in the midst of his marking the movements of his dancers for the current 13th season of the Smuin Ballet. At age 68, Smuin had spent more than half a century as an eclectic entertainer, including two long stints dancing with and administering the San Francisco Ballet; decades of directing and choreographing award-winning musical theater, film, and TV; and 13 years leading his own modern dance troupe, known for its razzle-dazzle blend of modern and classical ballet.
Watching the Smuin Ballet, we were--and will be--reminded of its founder's enchanting expression in dance of the modes of the heart: longing, excitement, jealousy, regret, and celebration. This emotional transparency and its manifestation as popular entertainment drew young dancers to the company.
Likewise, audiences of all sorts were drawn to this unusually accessible artistic experience. His staging of the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, for example, was a delightful surprise, as well as an Emmy winner.
Smuin's tribute to Sinatra--"Oftentimes it was as if he wasn't singing, he was talking to you, telling you something very personal"--could have been applied to himself, substituting "dancing" for "singing." He was always more the populist than the cultural snob. "The whole family can go, you don't have to take out a loan to buy tickets, they're affordable," he proclaimed about his outreach. "It's very heartwarming to see that, and it makes the ballet available to anyone."
Despite his long time in the spotlight in the company of legends like Gene Kelly and Bob Fosse, Smuin was genuinely modest and surprised when approached by fans on 24th Street. The genial impresario was not, however, beyond bartering free Smuin Ballet tickets for rental movies at local video outlets. He delighted in breakfasts and lunches at the neighborhood's eateries, and the feeling of living among friends.
Through all that, he found a permanent place in many of our own hearts, which is just where he'd want to be.
The 16-member Smuin Ballet company will continue to perform, as well as to preserve Michael Smuin's legacy. Plans for a memorial are pending. For information, go to www.smuinballet.org.