When one watches Celia Fushille crossing the street, it’s clear that she carries herself like a dancer. She has a determined yet elegant sense of direction. One wonders. Dancing since she was a child, it must be extraordinary to have spent almost as much time with your feet on the ground as your feet have been floating above it.
These days as the new artistic director of the Smuin Ballet, Fushille’s feet have to adhere to terra firma a bit more than during her gluten-free, salad days as a dancer. She never lost sight of where she was going. She was the company’s principal dancer for years, and the muse to Michael Smuin, the brilliant choreographer and founder of the eponymous troupe. Fushille was, indeed, the inspiration for many of Smuin’s dance triumphs.
What does a muse have to do exactly? Do it well, whatever it is. I imagine it requires one of mystical beauty to induce artists, poets – and choreographers – to relentlessly come up with new ideas.
The Fly Me to the Moon show that was performed at the Palace of Fine Arts Theater in October, choreographed by Smuin, is an example of the classic meeting the classical – or perhaps two iconoclasts meeting on the artistic field of play.
“Michael picked out his favorite Sinatra songs and wrote dances for them,” says Fushille. “He was a so good at doing that. He loved Sinatra.”
I’m not surprised. The style of Sinatra, the arrangements, the era – dance is all part of it. It seems that in some ways, both Sinatra and Smuin enjoyed making trouble … for all the right reasons, of course.
Amy Seiwert, a former Smuin dancer, now a choreographer, and whose work Soon These Two Worlds premiered in October with the company, told the San Francisco Chronicle, “I used to repeat Michael’s words back to him: ‘If I only did the things I was supposed to do, I would never do anything.’”
Smuin also liked to say, not so philosophically, “When Sinatra sings, you naturally want to dance.” True, there’s a distinctive American elegance to the Sinatra excursion – its romance, its sweeping onstage gestures – like the songbook of the great composers and the lyricists. It adds up to class. Smuin had it.
When Smuin died, the board of directors at the ballet agreed that Fushille has it, too. They unanimously recommended she be the new artistic director.
There’s an element of providence in her story, being linked artistically to Smuin for all these years, starting as a teenager.
Smuin died suddenly on April 23, 2007. The company, with a complement of 20 dancers, was sent into a tailspin.
“We were devastated, I was devastated,” says Fushille. “He had a great gift, he had a great heart, but I knew it was a damaged heart. It’s been a tough year without Michael, the economy’s been awful, and …”
She trails off.
Smuin was a terrific force. He also had a great ability to upset the powers that be at the San Francisco Ballet. After 12 years there, working on Broadway, and working in the movies, Smuin set out to start his own dance company in his adopted hometown of San Francisco. That was back in 1994. He asked Fushille to join him, and he made her the ballet mistress of the company.
Hers was and is truly a life in dance.
“In order to be a great artist,” Fushille likes to say, “One must be fearless.”
No question this gal had moxie from the beginning.
It was 1976 when 13-year-old Fushille from El Paso won a scholarship and began her training. That led to four summers at the San Francisco Ballet School – heady stuff for a kid. Some of the magical moments from those days include the times she sat in the Geary Theater and watched the dress rehearsals. She saw some of the ballets that she would later perform, including Smuin’s Medea (also performed last month at the Palace of Fine Arts Theater), The Eternal Idol and Romeo and Juliet.
Celia (pronounced CELL-ee-ya) was one dazzled teen.
“Michael Smuin spoke to us over the ‘God-mic,’” she recalls. “He was larger than life. Then Evelyn Cisneros executed a perfect trip attitude turn. Michael said, ‘Fifty bucks if you can do that on opening night.’ He continued to say that for years, and despite the rise in the cost of living, his offer always stayed at 50 dollars.”
By the way, working in a ballet company does not seem to garner a whole lot of money. But it sure attracts dedication, discipline – and sacrifice.
It occurs to me that there are things we are expected to do, things we like to do, and there are things that we are compelled to do.
Fushille’s compulsion was clear at a very early age.
“I actually figured out what I wanted to do when I was 7 or 8 years old,” she says. “I asked my mom to take me to the ballet in Texas. I asked to be taken to ‘my first dancing doctor.’ I think my father saw me grow up quickly so he thought it was all right, a good thing for me.”
Fushille never went to high school dances. Instead, she went to performances and classes at the El Paso Ballet.
“But that was my fun,” she insists.” I gave up dating, I gave up going out. It gave me time, time to mature.”
Dad trusted his instincts, and he trusted his daughter. He even permitted her trips to San Francisco in the 1970s. (Does anyone recall San Francisco in the 1970s? Well, don’t look at me.) Fushille did keep going back to Texas at the end of the summers – until she was 17. She graduated early from high school in El Paso and then moved to San Francisco in 1980. No looking back now.
Some people talk about fate. It makes one wonder. Fushille met the master dance teacher Tatiana Grantzeva, who was working with the San Francisco Ballet. Fushille likes to remember how Grantzeva took her by the wrist, dragged her over to meet Smuin, the choreographer and co-director of the ballet (and famed voice of the God-mic), and declaimed, “Michael, Celia is a good dancer. You should hire her!” She was in. A year later, an 18-year-old Fushille was made an apprentice with the San Francisco Ballet. She stayed with the company for 17 years until a change was going to come.
Fushille stepped away from the stage for five years, married, raised two boys who are now 20 and 22, and is now divorced. She went to work as a dancer for the San Francisco Opera Ballet. Staying off her feet does not agree with her.
“It was in 1993 that Michael approached me about working with him on his new venture,” Fushille recalls in a memoir. It was the Smuin Ballet. “I was thrilled at the prospect and gladly accepted his invitation. Michael approached me first as a dancer, but he also asked me to be his ballet mistress, helping to rehearse the ballets.
In the fall of 1998, Michael would later promote me to associate director.”
What does a ballet mistress do? It sounds so exotic. Is there a lot of yelling?
“Yelling really doesn’t help too much in ballet,” she says. “But I do insist on punctuality.”
I assume that also applies to the dancers, not just the audience.
Speaking of audiences, one of Michael Smuin’s most popular works, The Christmas Ballet, will be performed in San Francisco and other Bay Area cities this season. (Fushille’s performance of Santa Baby was a hit over the years.)
“It means a lot to us to perform The Christmas Ballet this year,” says Fushille.” It’s for all of us, including Michael.”
The Smuin Ballet is on the road to repair. We could add words like renewal and redemption, and
all that. But it’s mostly about pretty people doing beautiful things with terrific music. Aside from the holiday season, this is a good time for it.
Smuin Ballet: The Christmas Ballet, Dec. 16–27, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 700 Howard Street (at 3rd); tickets at 415-978-2787 or www.smuinballet.org; additional performances Nov. 27–28 in Walnut Creek, Dec. 4–5 in Carmel, and Dec. 9–13 in Mountain View.