Smuin artists Ricardo Dyer and Terez Dean Orr rehearse with Amy Seiwert (right) for Seiwert’s “French Kiss.”
In 2012, when her small pickup company was preparing an evening of new risk-taking ballets by women, Amy Seiwert gave an interview to a male dance critic.
“He said, ‘I like your work but I don’t agree with your program’s premise’ (of promoting women choreographers),” Seiwert recalled recently at Smuin Contemporary Ballet’s Potrero Hill headquarters, her hair flying everywhere in a messy topknot after a busy day in the studio. “Finally I told him that in 19 years of performing in ballet companies, I’d danced one piece by a woman. That got him to hear me. And that’s when I realized, we need stats.”
More than a decade later, change is happening for female leaders and creators in the ballet world, emblemized by recent high-profile appointments at companies like San Francisco Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. What’s easy to overlook in this late-breaking wave is that for years now, San Francisco’s smaller, pluckier Smuin Contemporary Ballet has been ahead of the curve.
A Gender Equity Index released by the Dance Data Project in February confirms this, ranking Smuin “Best of Leadership” and “exceptional” for its track record of commissions by women and other company practices. (San Francisco Ballet ranked a tier below, as “good.”)
Amy Seiwert and Artistic Director Celia Fushille outside the Smuin Center for Dance.
Now, Smuin has solidified its standing with a big announcement: Seiwert, in demand as a choreographer across the country, has just been named Smuin’s associate artistic director. And the spirited 16-dancer troupe will maintain its track record of gender equality this coming month, when its season finale presents ballets by Michael Smuin and Val Caniparoli alongside a company premiere by Polish-born choreographer Kate Skarpetowska and a world premiere by Seiwert in Walnut Creek, San Francisco and Mountain View, beginning April 28.
For the national ballet community, Seiwert’s appointment was greeted with cheers, an unexpected development but also natural since Seiwert danced with Smuin Contemporary Ballet for 11 years, made many of her early works there and served a decade as choreographer-in-residence after her retirement from the stage. For Celia Fushille, who became the company’s artistic director after Michael Smuin died suddenly of a heart attack in 2007, the appointment is a dream fulfilled.
“We’ve been talking about it for a long time,” Fushille said, noting that she would have liked to hire Seiwert a year earlier were it not for Seiwert’s five commissions to fulfill in 2022-23 for companies like American Repertory Ballet.
Artistic Director Celia Fushille (left) and Amy Seiwert outside the Smuin Center for Dance.
Smuin also has a female managing director, Lori Laqua, and ballet master, Amy London. It might seem ironic that such a woman-led company would grow from the troupe founded by a man whose Broadway-influenced ballets often feature women as leggy pin-up girls. But Fushille, who served not only as the troupe’s star dancer but also its associate director under Michael Smuin, notes that he was fond of saying, “If you need to get a job done, give it to a woman.”
Dance Series 2: Smuin Contemporary Ballet. Works by Amy Seiwert, Kate Skarpetowska, Val Caniparoli and Michael Smuin. 7:30 p.m. April 28; 2 p.m. April 29. $59-$79. Lesher Center for the Arts, Walnut Creek. • 7:30 p.m. May 5, 11 and 12; 2 and 7:30 p.m. May 6 and 13; 2 p.m. May 7 and 14. $34-$84. Blue Shield of California Theater at YBCA, 700 Howard St., S.F. • 7:30 p.m. May 25-26; 2 and 7:30 p.m. May 27; 2 p.m. May 28. $59-$79. Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. www.smuinballet.org
In addition to Dance Series 2, the final program of Smuin Contemporary Ballet’s 2022-2023 season running April 28-May 28, the company has just announced its 2023-2024 season:
Dance Series 1: A world premiere by Darrell Grand Moultrie, to music by Charles Fox; “The Man in Black” by James Kudelka, to music by Johnny Cash; “Tutto Eccetto il Lavandino (everything but the kitchen sink)” by Val Caniparoli, to Vivaldi. Sept. 15-16 at the Lesher Center for the Arts; Sept. 21-24 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts; and Sept. 29-Oct. 7 at the Cowell Theater, 2 Marina Blvd., S.F.
“The Christmas Ballet”: Nov. 18-19 at the Lesher Center for the Arts, Walnut Creek; Dec. 1-2 at the Sunset Center, San Carlos Street at Ninth Avenue, Carmel-by-the-Sea; Dec. 7-10 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts; and Dec. 14-24 at the Blue Shield of California Theater at YBCA in S.F.
Celebrating Michael Smuin: “Zorro!” and “Fly Me to the Moon,” by Michael Smuin. Feb. 29-March 3. Blue Shield of California Theater at YBCA in S.F.
Dance Series 2: A world premiere by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, inspired by the works of Elvis Presley; “Untwine” by Brennan Wall, to Vivaldi; “Starshadows” by Michael Smuin, to Ravel; and one additional ballet to be announced. May 3-12, 2024. Blue Shield of California Theater at YBCA, S.F. • May 16-19, 2024. Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. • May 24-25, 2024. Lesher Center for the Arts, Walnut Creek. • May 30-31, 2024. Sunset Center, Carmel.
Tickets are $25-$119 and will be available in August at www.smuinballet.org.
Seiwert has a more nuanced view: “Michael never brought in an established woman choreographer, even though he helped people like me and Celia choreograph. Celia was really the one who started commissioning women.”
Yet Fushille never consciously set out to achieve gender parity in the choreographers she added to the Smuin repertoire: “It just evolved.” She speculates she may have been influenced by her childhood in El Paso, Texas, dancing with a semi-professional company run by a woman.
“My director was a woman and she choreographed,” she said, “so there was never a question of ‘Can a woman do it?’ ”
Smuin artists Claire Buehler (left), Brandon Alexander, Lauren Pschirrer, Mengjun Chen, and Alison Ramoran rehearse Amy Seiwert’s “French Kiss.”
After Michael Smuin’s unexpected passing nearly 16 years ago, “I was just doing what I had to to get through, working seven days a week,” Fushille said. But steadily, figuring out how to expand the company’s stylistic palette while staying true to Smuin’s spirit of accessibility, she added marquee names like Anabelle Lopez Ochoa and Helen Pickett to the programming, and boosted the early choreographic efforts of former Smuin dancer Nicole Haskins as well as current members Tessa Barbour and Brennan Wall.
Seiwert’s world premiere, set to fun French pop songs recorded by the band Pink Martini, will be her 12th main-stage work for the company. Her dances are always formally rigorous, but this new piece is bright and cheerful, a pivot from the solemn “Witness” she premiered last month at ODC/Dance.
“Each piece having its own unique identity is really important to me,” she said.
Company member Brandon Alexander draws energy from this aspect of Seiwert’s process. “Seeing how one person’s mind can have so many different ideas is inspiring,” he said.
Smuin artists Terez Dean Orr and Ricardo Dyer rehearse with Amy Seiwert. Seiwert’s “French Kiss,” set to chansons by Pink Martini, will enjoy its world premiere in Smuin’s Dance Series 2 program, touring the Bay Area from April 28 to May 28.
Terez Dean Orr, who has worked with Seiwert more than 15 years as a Smuin member, appreciates the inclusion work Seiwert did with her own company Imagery, offering things like audience descriptions for the visually impaired. Orr also remembers being a green dancer learning a technically challenging solo in Seiwert’s 2008 ballet “Been Through Diamonds,” as second cast.
“Amy requested a private rehearsal to allow me time to be in the full space dancing the solo,” Orr recalled. “She was giving me, the underdog, the opportunity to grow as an artist.”
Seiwert’s appointment, though celebrated, is also bittersweet. She will be stepping away from her own company, Imagery, which she incorporated in 2013. Imagery’s dancers only rehearsed together for about five weeks out of the year, but the company had a big reach, touring to New York’s Joyce Theater, completing a residency at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center, holding an annual “Sketch” program of new choreography and even providing administrative fellowships to rising leaders in the last decade.
Smuin artists Terez Dean Orr and Ricardo Dyer rehearse Amy Seiwert’s “French Kiss,” set to chansons by Pink Martini. “French Kiss” will enjoy its world premiere in Smuin’s Dance Series 2 program, touring the Bay Area beginning April 28.
Imagery plans to present what may be its last live performances in a final installment of its new-works series, “Sketch,” July 28-30. While its board is discussing the organization’s future, Seiwert is looking ahead to new possibilities.
“At Smuin, the dancers are working a 35- to 40-week season,” Seiwert said. “We can be together consistently. The dancers start to know your movement language so well, and they can bring more ideas, more nuance. The possibilities of a more developed language are really tantalizing.”
The Smuin dancers, meanwhile, are feeling optimistic as the company heads towards its 30th anniversary in 2024.
“What I’ve learned from Celia and Amy is that women can carry equal weight,” Orr said, “and we all have full, complex minds.”
This story has been updated with an additional May 2024 performance of Smuin Contemporary Ballet’s Dance Series 2.
Rachel Howard is a freelance writer.
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