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Smuin performing Dance Series 01. Photograph by Chris Hardy

Leading Light

Celia Fushille, artistic director of Smuin

When Michael Smuin, founder of Smuin Ballet (now known as Smuin), passed away unexpectedly in 2007, Celia Fushille, dancer and then associate director for the company, had but a few days to gather her thoughts.

“After Michael passed, we had a special board meeting and I was given about four days to prepare and present my five-year plan for the company. That was of course in the middle of the season,” Fushille said recently, speaking by phone from San Francisco, Smuin’s home city.

“I just said that the company wouldn’t survive as a museum company. I just knew that. I knew that if we only did Michael’s work exclusively, people would eventually say, well, I’ve seen that and they may not need to return.”

Now in their 22nd season, Smuin has earned a reputation as the company that could. Their repertoire includes work by choreographers such as Jiří Kylián, Val Caniparoli, Ma Cong, Trey McIntyre, and choreographer-in-residence, Amy Seiwert. The 16-dancer troupe was recently seen nimbly sailing through work by Stanton Welch, alongside Garrett Ammon’s new ballet, “Madness, Rack and Honey” in Dance Series 01, and the dancing “never looked better.”

In 2017, Fushille is coming into her tenth year as artistic director; a bittersweet anniversary, also marking a decade since of the loss of Michael Smuin, the man who influenced her artistry and shaped her career profoundly. “I felt blessed to have inspired Michael to create work on me. There’s no greater gift for a dancer than to have work made on them,” she says.

With five new dancers on board for the upcoming season, it is clear that the company is evolving. Yet, Smuin’s vision still drives what transpires in the studio, as well as on stage. Smuin founded the ballet in 1994, looking to challenge balletic paradigms, bringing his eclectic, energetic style to life through the then pick-up company of ten dancers.

“We continue to tell stories about Michael,” Fushille explains. “We only have one dancer in the company who was there in the studio the day that he died and she’s our senior member, but to the others we tell the stories of Michael and they understand his spirit and what he was like. And so many of them say, I so wish I had met him, I so wished I had worked with him.”

Fushille, tall, slender, with a dancer’s natural grace, mingled easily in the theatre, returning the enthusiasm of the fans who flocked to the 16/17 season opening at Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center for the Arts. Of Smuin she speaks warmly, and with reverence, but with a career that defies categorisation—dancer, muse, executive, she even has an entry on Wookieepedia for a role in Star Wars—is it any wonder that she finds herself once more in a leading role.

Fushille, hailing from El Paso, Texas, began ballet classes as a child. There was a false start at four—“I was very shy”—only to resume a few years later with a former dancer from the Berlin Opera Ballet. “I had a very theatrical upbringing and many opportunities to perform. I danced with a small regional ballet company, Ballet El Paso, which no longer exists.

“When I was thirteen, I auditioned for San Francisco Ballet School, and I received a scholarship. I was asked to stay, but there was no way my parents were letting me move at thirteen. But I worked on my parents, and graduated early from high school, and moved to San Francisco January of 1980. At that time, I officially met Michael Smuin.”

Fushille danced in the corps under the direction of Smuin at San Francisco Ballet. However, both careers at SFB were cut short with Fushille sustaining a knee injury and Smuin’s tenure ending in controversy, being “forced out” by the board, to be ultimately replaced by current director Helgi Tomasson.

While the irrepressible Smuin went on to forge a career choreographing for film and Broadway, Fushille started a family; another controversial move in the ballet world.

Celia Fushille. Photograph by Carla Befera
Celia Fushille. Photograph by Carla Befera

“When people heard that I was expecting very soon after I was married, if I had told them I was moving to Mars, it would have been easier for them. That’s how foreign it was.

“Thankfully attitudes are changing. It was viewed as the end of your hopes if you got married, let alone had children. It showed that you didn’t have focus on your artform. I think now, people are realising that it only makes your world even broader, and bigger.

There are other attitudes that Fushille is content to leave in the past.

“I was one of those young dancers; my body matured late. It was a challenge when directors are saying, you’re lovely, but you just have to drop a bit of weight. I even had a dance teacher say to me, you know, Celia, if you try a bit of cocaine you’ll be able to lose that weight. It was quite amazing.

“In some ways, my body finished maturing by having children.”

When Smuin called to say that he was starting a new company, it felt serendipitous. She had been away from the stage for some five years—“taking class, but not performing”—and now with her youngest daughter in kindergarten, the timing was right.

“Perhaps even in my dancing, I was a late bloomer,” she notes. “I had the bulk of my dancing from 30 to 43. When I started with Smuin at 30, I was going to have different things to bring to the plate than when I was 20. I just had greater maturity to bring.”

Smuin signalled a new chapter in her dancing, and without realising, heralded a new career. Michael was looking to Fushille for more than star talent. “He always appreciated my technique as a ballet dancer, and he used to talk about my text-book turnout; he always said you could set a teacup on my ankle in attitude devant. He appreciated my musicality.

“I asked him later why did he ask me to come work with him; he said I thought of you for two reasons: Clearly as a dancer, but also as a ballet mistress; he said I know you’re very smart. And I need help organising.”

This meant taking on a dizzying amount of multi-tasking with Fushille juggling dancing and rehearsals with managing schedules of company dancers, while mothering two young children. “It was constant,” she reflects, “I used to wonder, well, what would have happened had I not been so busy with the other things while I was dancing. Had I focused exclusively on the dance? It was all consuming, but I loved every aspect of it.

“When Michael would be looking for a new managing director, I would express some interest, and he would say, I know you can do that job but I need you in the studio.”

But she didn’t realise how much.

“I remember one time being in the library and going to the section of art books and picking a book off the shelf—I had never seen this book before—Michael was one of a few choreographers that were interviewed in this book. I was flipping through his section and he was talking about the three muses in his life: Cynthia Gregory, Evelyn Cisneros and then myself. And I was so overwhelmed.”

Fushille went on to perform leading roles in Smuin’s most popular narrative ballets, including Frankie in “Frankie and Johnny,” and title roles in “Roxanne” and “Medea.” For her final performance with the company in 2006, Fushille chose to dance the part of Lola-Lola, created for her in Smuin’s 1998 ballet, “The Blue Angel.”

““Blue Angel” was based on the Marlene Dietrich film. It was a fabulous piece, and probably my most challenging role because the character was the least like me. I read her biography, and I did a lot of research for all of the roles I danced, and really tried to inhabit the person, and how that person would act and react. Michael was a fabulous storyteller, and his narratives were just incredible. To get into those roles, it was fun for everyone in the ballet.

“To be so narcissistic, to be someone who cared little about other people; she did what was pleasing to her. It was so foreign to think that way, and to not be affected by potentially hurting someone. It was almost callous. It was a whole different attitude to the young ingénue of Frankie’s role.”

Smuin’s ballets feature regularly in current seasons, and Fushille is careful to strike a balance for the company and the audience in presenting new work. “I learned a lot about programming from Michael, and I continue to learn how much I can push the audience,” she says.

“A few years after Michael passed, I was able to acquire “Petite Mort,” Jiří Kylián’s masterwork. I had dancers from the San Francisco Ballet coming to watch our rehearsals because they were just, ‘Smuin’s doing Kylián?’ It was exclamation point exclamation point—they couldn’t believe that.”

In bringing new choreographers into the repertoire, Fushille has the dancers in the forefront of her mind. “I continue to look at the works and the choreographers that would inspire my dancers,” she says. “My dancers are not afraid of hard work—in fact, like any dancer, they are ready to get into the studio and give it their all. But I want it to be in an environment where it is not fear-based; we have created an environment where exploration is permitted and encouraged and growth comes from that.

“I try to seek choreographers who have that attitude.”

The results translate to the stage, with the company known for their bold and charismatic performances. “When the audience say, these dancers really look like they’re having fun; they look like they like each other; these dancers look like they love what they’re doing. It’s real, it’s not affected.”

From within this environment, Fushille is nurturing choreographic talent, too. The upcoming Dance Series 02 features a new ballet by company dancer Nicole Haskins, alongside work by Trey McIntyre and Amy Seiwert. “We have a number of budding choreographers in our midst.

“Something that I initiated after Michael died was our Choreography Showcase where dancers have the opportunity to create on one another.”

Recently two Smuin dancers were invited to take part in the National Choreographers Initiative, marking the first time two choreographers have been selected from any one company. “It’s pretty thrilling.

“The next generation of dance makers have to learn how to craft work. And you don’t learn unless you practice.”

The company is also ahead of the curve in other areas: the entire upper management, including their resident choreographer, is comprised of women. “It’s clearly an ongoing conversation about the lack of female artistic directors and choreographers,” says Fushille, who was also the company’s executive director until 2014.

“Michael used to say, if you want to get something done, ask a women,” she laughs. “And we are a fierce team of women.”

Ashley Dyer
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