Earlier this month, Smuin Ballet celebrated its 25th anniversary as a company at its new headquarters in San Francisco, California — raising money for new choreographic commissions, new sets and costumes. Thanks to dedicated patrons of the arts, the company recently bought an old warehouse and transformed it into a studio fit for the acclaimed touring group. The glitz and glamour of the gala was a long way from the dance company’s beginnings, and something founder Michael Smuin only dreamed of.
According the their website, Michael Smuin was born in 1938 in Missoula and studied tap dancing as a child. His mother took him to see the Ballet Russe on tour at the University of Montana and he was instantly enamored. By 15, he was studying dance on scholarship at the University of Utah and soon developed his signature style of infusing ballet with modern expression, boundary-pushing athleticism and pop culture.
Smuin was recruited to the San Francisco Ballet in the 1950s to dance and was soon choreographing in California and New York for movies, theater and dance productions. He served many years as the artistic director of the San Francisco Ballet, raising the company’s profile to the international arts community and philanthropists.
In 1994, he founded Smuin Contemporary American Ballet. The touring group traveled the world and regularly paid homage to Smuin’s roots by performing in Missoula every few years.
Smuin collapsed while instructing a class and died from a heart attack in 2007. While some thought his dance company would die with him, his dancers and supporters were determined not to let that happen.
In a recent San Francisco Chronicle article, Smuin Artistic Director Celia Fushille said, “Michael would be amazed with what we’ve done. Not only that his company continues, but that there is going to be a building in the city with his name on it, after all of his contributions to the arts.”
Saturday’s performance by Smuin’s company of 16 dancers is the first time the group has performed in Hamilton.
“We’re very thrilled to host Smuin and to honor one of Missoula’s ‘sons,’” BPAC Executive Director Laurie Ruffner said.
Because of the expense associated with the technical needs of dance performances, the Bitterroot Performing Arts Council chooses to include dance in its annual series only every other year. But it’s obvious that local audiences have been waiting. The show has been sold out since early January.
“We offered some blocks of tickets to all the dance schools in Hamilton and Missoula,” Jacque VanDenburg said. She manages the BPAC box office and has many connections to the dance troupe that will bring the show full circle for her. For one, her daughter, Josie, is also a dance student at the University of Utah and was inspired by Smuin’s performance when she was a child watching a Missoula performance.
Bringing Smuin to the Bitterroot has been a long-time priority for BPAC Board member Judy Morrisey, who works with Ruffner on programming for the series. She toured for many years as a professional dancer and was a supporter of Smuin before moving to the Bitterroot from San Francisco.
Ruffner and Morrisey negotiated for an educational outreach and dance workshop to be held tonight at Ballet Bitterroot in Hamilton. VanDenburg said advanced dancers from all the dance schools in the region will be attending including Groovz, Ballet Bitterroot, Rocky Mountain Ballet Theatre, Ballet Arts Academy, On Center Performing Arts and the University of Montana School of Dance. The educational outreach is made possible by grant money and BPAC supporters.
“This will be the highlight of the year for many of these young dancers and for our audience members,” Ruffner said. “It will be a wonderful opportunity to see Smuin’s genius of merging classical ballet with contemporary dance. We look forward to inspiring a whole new generation of dancers.”
Ruffner warned that the show does have two intermissions to accommodate set and costume changes.
A few remaining tickets have been offered to the BPAC Box Office from subscribers who are unable to attend. A few extras may be available at the show; also, call Jacque VanDenburg at 363-7946 and leave a message to check for availability.
“We don’t want to leave an empty seat in the house,” VanDenburg said.
The last show in this year’s series is also sold out and has been since last fall. Award-winning singer-songwriter Judy Collins will be performing in Hamilton on April 12.
The Bitterroot Performing Arts Council is planning to continue the momentum of this year’s outstanding line-up and local support. They will make announcements about the next season at their annual Spring for the Arts gala on Saturday, May 4, at the Bitterroot River Inn and Conference Center. Tickets for the fundraiser are available online at bitterrootperformingarts.org or at the box office located at their new, larger office space in Signal Square in Hamilton at 127 W. Main St.