Known for its innovation, Smuin Ballet is preparing to raise the barre a few notches higher than ever before. “I come into the studio and [the buzz is] palpable,” says director Celia Fushille. “The dancers are fired up. They’re sore as hell, but they’re fired up.” Smuin secured permission to perform a highly sought-after ballet by Jiri Kylian, often acknowledged as the greatest living choreographer today, and a new piece from compelling young choreographer Ma Cong; the excitement surrounding the spring season can practically be dragged across the studio floor by a pointe shoe.
“This program is really representative of the direction I’d like to be taking with the company,” says Fushille, who aims to import the work of great artists who aren’t often seen in the Bay Area, as well as introduce audiences to new choreographers like Cong. “Through all of this sharing of the art form, it continues to grow and evolve,” she says. “We want to be a part of that.”
Hungry for these opportunities, the dancers’ passion and enthusiasm translates easily to observers. “It’s my challenge to excite and challenge my dancers and thereby excite and challenge our audience,” says Fushille. “I feel that energy and it’s what keeps us going and presenting fresh things at a high level.”
The heat wave of mid-March found Smuin dancers learning the choreography to Petite Mort with Roslyn Anderson from Nederlands Dans Theater, who was Jiri Kylian’s muse and is now his ambassador. First created in 1991 for a festival in Salzburg, Petite Mort has since been set more than 20 times by companies in such locations as Australia, Chicago and Prague. “I’ve had to explain sometimes what ‘petite mort’ means translated,” says Anderson. “In French, it’s literally ‘little death,’ but it’s also a euphemism for orgasm.”
Filled with twining legs, staccato twists and long stretches, Petite Mort is a very tactile ballet. “The music is just so beautiful and lyrical, but it’s an erotic piece. They’re not love duets—they’re more sensual than loving,” says Anderson. Elegant and physical, it’s a harmonic convergence of graceful limbs and sharp execution. “If you kick her in the head, she’ll know she’s not low enough,” Fushille calls to a dancer in rehearsal as his partner ducks under his extended leg. “Or your arabesque is too long.”
Jiri Kylian’s pieces are tough to secure, and being cleared to perform his work is both an honor and quite a process. After much communication, Anderson flew out to observe Smuin’s dancers—“to determine whether we would be worthy of doing it, was how we looked at it,” says Fushille. “Coming to dance at Smuin Ballet, they never imagined that they would have this opportunity,” Fushille adds. And everyone wants to dance Kylian. “So I have a great job,” laughs Anderson.
Ma Cong’s piece is an electric contrast to Kylian, the movement popping like sparklers at a Fourth of July picnic. First created at the National Choreographers Initiative, French Twist was rushed because of time constraints, but that only served to accentuate the raw potential. “The dancers were incredible, but it was what Ma was able to bring out of them,” says Fushille, who observed the process. “It was just beautiful the way he brought such depth and such artistry out of them. And I thought, ‘I want this for my dancers.’”
Inspiration for French Twist came in part from the work of a musician named Hugues Le Bars. “There are a lot of different secrets hiding behind the music,” says Cong. Pulling from three different albums and five different songs, he arranged them in the way he thought would be most dynamic. “Each had a different element and different movement,” he says. Most of the music is whip quick and the dancers are required to use their brains as fast as they use their muscles. “I can find what’s hidden inside their body,” says Cong, “and create something special for them.” He continues, “They have such long bodies that to be able to move really fast is quite challenging, but it’s working very well.” Ma’s choreography melds to the music in a similar way to Kylian’s work, both pieces flowing organically from the melody.
“What I see in Ma is something that I always loved about Michael [Smuin] and what I feel is necessary in a great artist—fearlessness,” notes Fushille. “You can’t agonize over what the public will think, what the dancers will think, what the board will think. You have to put out what’s in your heart,” she says. “You have to just lay yourself open and come what may. That’s when the voice of the true artist speaks. I see that in his work. The integrity is just tremendous.” She continues, “Michael would have loved Ma.”