Michael Smuin will not be typecast. The former principal dancer and director of the San Francisco Ballet and creator of the San Francisco-based Smuin Ballet Company lives a varied life. He served time in the Army at Fort Ord, and he worked with director Francis Ford Coppola. He sets ballets to the music of the Beatles, Stravinsky and Johnny Cash. He’s worked as director and choreographer on Broadway musicals and done choreography for feature films and television shows, picking up Tonys and Emmys along the way.
His wide-ranging experiences come together in a synergistic burst this weekend at Carmel’s Sunset Center, with a world premiere (Bluegrass/Slyde), a West Coast premiere (The Eyes That Gently Touch), his 1983 piece Romanze, and a piece called To The Beatles, Revisited.
The Weekly caught up with a very busy Smuin by phone in San Francisco last week.
Weekly: This is your first time performing at the new Sunset Center. What do you think of the space?
Smuin: They did a masterful job—it’s very beautiful, intimate, very elegant. I remember what it looked like before. This is really a welcome sight. I’m hoping it works out so we can add Carmel to our list [of venues].
What’s great about this whole thing is this is really a kind of homecoming for me. I spent about six months at Fort Ord in 1960 and fell in love with area. I had a lifelong friend there, Donn Squire, who ran the Cypress Swim Club. He died last year and I wanted to dedicate this whole series to his memory.
Weekly: How about a quick take on the program you’re bringing to the Sunset?
Smuin: Romanze is a continuous film on a front scrim with dancers behind who are in spotlights and then disappear. I worked on it with Francis Ford Coppola when he was working on Rumble Fish.
It was inspired by a diary found in a flea market in Sausilito belonging to a woman who lived in the Edwardian period. It had beautiful penmanship—it was a work of art. She wrote her diary in two columns: one what happened that day, and the second column was what she wished would happen. It’s very erotic and I thought, this is great for ballet, but I’m not sure how to do it.
Weekly: So how did you pull it off?
Smuin: The Edwardian couple in the film go to the locations she went to: Ocean Beach for picnics and Golden Gate Park. There was a brooch a young man had made for her and she described it so clearly it was practically no trouble to have one made for the film. The dancers are behind the scrim and when they go into the story the Edwardian couple vanishes and dancers come up in their place in flesh-colored unitards. They look naked but it’s not graphic. It’s romantic and probably a little on the silly side.
Weekly: What about the rest of the program?
Smuin: Eyes Gently Touch was choreographed by Kirk Pererson. He also danced for me when I was running the San Francisco Ballet. It’s elegant, it’s perfect for three couples. The next one is To The Beatles, Revisited, and Bluegrass/Slyde is sort of indescribable.
Weekly: Can you try?
Smuin: You have to see it. I could talk for half an hour and you’d be thinking, what the hell is he talking about?
Weekly: Just a little teaser, please?
Smuin: It’s scored by Edgar Meyer. He’s got a fantastic love for mountain music, like bluegrass. He wrote it through his prism of classical training—it’s highly complicated and sophisticated—it’s almost more urban than country. It’s a full-company piece—there’s a large contraption like a sculpture with three poles for dancers to spin on and throw off of. It’s like Cirque du Soleil meets the ballet. We just finished our last performance in San Francisco and got a screaming standing ovation.
Weekly: How do you see the cultural climate down here for dance?
Smuin: I think people are hungry for a good dance company to come here. Most of them usually go to New York or Paris for the ballet, but now they don’t have to.
THE SMUIN BALLET PERFORMS FRIDAY AT 8PM AND SATURDAY AT 2PM AND 8PM at THE SUNSET CENTER, SAN CARLOS AND 8TH, CARMEL. $57. 620-2048 OR WWW.SUNSETCENTER.ORG.