Smuin Contemporary Ballet Offers a Thriving Home for Creative, Collaborative Dancers

June 16, 2023

Known for its expressive dancers, diverse repertoire, and festive annual Christmas Ballet, Smuin Contemporary Ballet has been a fixture in the San Francisco arts scene since the late Michael Smuin founded it in 1994. “We are about joy and athleticism,” says artistic director Celia Fushille, “and showing what ballet can be.” Smuin is also about nurturing the creativity of its 16 company artists and the choreographers it commissions, like Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Ma Cong, Helen Pickett, Darrell Grand Moultrie, Val Caniparoli, and Trey McIntyre.

Celia Fushille, wearing a dark pantsuit, and Amy Seiwert, in a dark sleeveless top and yellow pants, stand side-by-side outside on a San Francisco street. Above them is a red sign that reads Smuin in white capital letters.
From left: Celia Fushille and Amy Seiwert. Photo by Chris Hardy, courtesy Smuin Contemporary Ballet.

“We do a ton of new work, a ton of creation process,” says Amy Seiwert, a former Smuin dancer who was its resident choreographer for a decade and, as of this September, is its associate artistic director. “We want active collaborators,” says Seiwert, who will continue to choreograph new work. “Dancers don’t need to fit into the mold of what Smuin dancers were before. They need to offer something new and brilliant and individual.”

Smuin also looks for dancers who love to perform—across three repertory seasons and the Christmas Ballet, the company does 60 to 65 shows annually, in four venues around the Bay Area. “We’re not rehearsing for two or three shows, we’re rehearsing for 20 shows,” says Terez Dean Orr, now in her 15th season with the company. “There’s a lot of room for artistic growth. You learn to be resilient and open to all the possibilities that can happen during a live performance.”

The company stays true to Michael Smuin’s mission, to“infuse ballet with the rhythm, speed, and syncopation of American popular culture.” Solid classical and contemporary technique, a sense of theatricality, and an open mind are key. Most shows feature a mix of world premieres or recent works, plus pieces from Michael Smuin’s original rep, which ranges from contemporary and tango to tap and classical choreography—and a jukebox of music from Elvis Presley to Cuban jazz and Chopin. “You might do something that’s really camp, and then something more serious,” says Dean Orr. “You have to be able to have fun onstage,” adds third-year dancer Brandon Alexander. “Who would have thought that I would ever be a tap-dancing Christmas tree? But here we are!”

A large group of dancers creates a dramatic tableau onstage, with one spotlit woman lifted high above the group with her right leg lifted and bent and her arms out, hands splayed. The corps of dancers are bathed in a dark pink light and pose in front of a fuchsia backdrop.
Smuin Contemporary Ballet in Darrell Grand Moultire’s Jazzin. Photo by Keith Sutter, courtesy Smuin Contemporary Ballet.

The troupe’s benefits extend far beyond the stage. Since taking the helm after Michael Smuin’s sudden death in 2007, Fushille, a former company principal, has shepherded the organization into a financially stable institution with its own building, complete with state-of-the-art studios, showers and changing spaces, a kitchenette, and administrative offices. Fushille and the Smuin board have also strived to raise compensation. This season, they increased contracts from 37 to 40 weeks and will cover 100 percent of health insurance, year-round. “I feel very well taken care of,” says Alexander. He’s not alone—because of the artistic opportunities, good compensation, and family atmosphere, the average tenure of a Smuin dancer is 7 to 10 years.

Smuin’s large number of performances and small roster means dancers get lots of time onstage, but it also means that cooperation and teamwork are essential. “It’s an all-star, no-star company,” says Fushille. “One night you’re doing the leading role, and the next you’re in the ensemble. We are looking for dancers who are versatile, willing team players—and full of personality.”

Erin Yarbrough-Powell and Robert Kretz face each other onstage in front of a starlit black backdrop. She wears a filmy white dress, and she tosses the skirt up while lifting her right arm to the side and holds her left hand on her hip, popping up her left foot onto pointe. Kretz, in a white shirt, light blue vest and khaki pants, tips his hat to her. They smile at each other coyly, clearly having fun.
Erin Yarbrough-Powell and Robert Kretz in Michael Smuin’s Fly Me to the Moon. Photo by Keith Sutter, courtesy Smuin Contemporary Ballet.

Smuin Contemporary Ballet at a Glance

Number of dancers: 16

Length of contract: 40 weeks

AGMA signatory: No

Performances per season: 60­­–65. The company typically has three repertory seasons (next year will include a fourth to celebrate Michael Smuin’s legacy) and the Christmas Ballet, all performed in San Francisco, Walnut Creek, Mountain View, and Carmel.


Audition Advice

“I’m looking for clean technique,” says Fushille, as well as at least two to three years of professional experience. “In a small company like ours, you’re going to have to hold the stage by yourself, so it’s rare that I can take somebody for their very first job.” Female-identifying dancers should be 5′ 3″ to 5′ 6″, and male-identifying dancers 5′ 9″ to 6′ 2″. Auditions include class, classical and contemporary rep, and 8 to 16 counts of improvisation—it’s an opportunity to show your personality and on-the-fly composure. “We’re not worried about it being perfect,” Fushille says. “Have fun with it!”

The company typically holds auditions in February in San Francisco, as well as in New York City when possible. Auditions are by invitation only, and about 25 to 30 dancers attend; Fushille then interviews potential hires via Zoom. “I need to know what makes them tick, how they work in a group, what their goals are,” says Fushille. “I love well-rounded people who are aware of what’s happening in the world around them.”