Michael Smuin could not have timed his return to Salt Lake City better for his local admirers. Here to begin setting his "Romeo and Juliet" on Ballet West for the company's season opener Sept. 21-24, Smuin came to Utah just a day after winning the 1988 Tony Award for best choreography in the Broadway show, "Anything Goes." (he Cole Porter classic also won for best revival and best supporting actor.)
"The Tony was frosting on the cake, after the other two awards," said Smuin, speaking of the New York Drama Desk and Fred and Adele Astaire awards for best choreography."I used the movies of the '30s, notably from 1929-33, as my touchstone for choreographing `Anything Goes,' which has lots of tap," he said. "I loved the sophistication, the liveliness of that dancing, and I embroidered on it, using contrapuntal devices, getting three or four groups doing different things simultaneously for variety and excitement."
Smuin will be remembered by many Salt Lakers for his years here as a teenage pupil of Willam Christensen. He started out as a kiddy tap dancer in his home town, Missoula, Mont., and expressed respect for his first teacher, Pauline Ellis, who he thinks is still teaching.
In 1957 he joined the San Francisco Ballet, where he honed his balletic and choreographic skills. He tried Broadway in 1961, then toured a very successful cabaret act with his wife, Paula Tracy. Both joined the American Ballet Theatre in 1966, where besides the classic works, Smuin excelled in such Americana as "Billy the Kid" and "Fancy Free" and did considerable choreographing.
The Smuins returned to San Francisco Ballet in 1973 where Michael was co-artistic director, then full director in 1984 after Lew Christensen's death. Under Smuin the company had a flowering of modern-oriented choreographies, touring, building and expansion. For SFB, Smuin did more than 30 of his 120 choreographies, several of which were nationally televised.
Since leaving San Francisco Ballet in 1985 under acrimonious circumstances, Smuin has not been out of work; indeed, he has been extremely busy. Though he makes his home in San Francisco, he spent five months elsewhere last year - in New York, Mexico, Los Angeles. And he's making several times as much money as before, though he says money is not his criterion for judging success.
Major projects have included staging "Faustus in Hell" for San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater, and S.F.'s Aid and Comfort AIDS benefit show on television. He's put together a show for Linda Ronstadt based on her gold record, `Canciones de mi padre," which is touring and will be filmed by Disney in November. He's doing "lots of TV," which he enjoys. Now in New Orleans working on a Chevy Chase movie, "Fletch II," he will set his ballet "Hearts" on the Washington Ballet, and will direct a film, "Cowboy Girls."
All things considered, Smuin is reconciled to having moved along from San Francisco Ballet, though he still deeply resents the circumstances of his departure, which came after a bitter in-fight with SFB president Richard LeBlond. Ironically, LeBlond himself lost a power struggle eight months later, and is now retired to his chicken ranch near San Francisco.
Smuin gives the administration with Helgi Tommason as artistic director a mixed review, especially financially. "They are $3 million in debt, and they have used their endowment," he said. "When I was there we ran in the black, and earned more than 70 percent at the box office. Their earnings are nowhere near that today."