Smuin dancers Terez Dean Orr and John Speed Orr.
Smuin dancers Terez Dean Orr and John Speed Orr. Photo credit: Chris Hardy

Celia Fushille is running a little late for our phone interview. Still buzzing from Smuin Contemporary Ballet’s Sunday performance at Cal Shakes’ Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda for a real, live audience, the company’s longtime artistic director describes the maskless, vaccination-unleashed dancers as “exuberant and smiling ear to ear.” 

“It was amazing, overwhelming, for them to be on a stage with an audience,” she said. “The warm response was so touching. We could all feel the love.”

It’s not the post-performance high that delays the interview, though. She’s dealing with the afternoon’s fallout. A Smuin dancer suffered a serious injury in the middle of the performance, despite the gradual return to dancing after being away from the barre for so long. 

“A ruptured Achilles tendon,” she says, while noting that it’s not a typical malady in the injury-prone profession. “We were very careful with the way we’ve operated. They were off for six months. We had two weeks of classes to get their bodies back, and the repertoire has been less technically demanding as they were getting stronger.”

Until just a few weeks ago, the dancers were working in pods, which would have made replacing an injured dancer difficult. The post-vaccination reality means that she’s got a lot more casting flexibility and access to Smuin’s vast repertoire, including audience favorites by the company’s late founder, Tony Award-winning Michael Smuin (who died in 2007). 

“It’s hard to do what we do and stay socially distanced,” Fushille says. “We pulled out a lot of beautiful solos and duets. And the dancers have been creating works on each other within their pods. We have stayed so busy. The art never stops, a dancer said.”

After a quarter century as an itinerant organization, the company settled into its first home at 17th and De Haro Street in Potrero Hill in the fall of 2019. The pandemic shut down the Smuin Dance Center five months later. The facility has gradually returned to limited action with classes, rentals, and rehearsals, but no performances yet. At least inside the building.

Smuin is presenting an intimate series of nine outdoor performances on Fridays, with 30 tickets available for each of three nightly shows May 14, May 21, and May 28 in an open lot on Rhode Island Street behind the Dance Center. Smuin al Fresco features company favorites set to pop standards by Michael Smuin, excerpts from his story ballet The Tempest, new works by company dancers, and a recently commissioned duet by Smuin alum Rex Wheeler, set to the Louis Armstrong standard “What a Wonderful World.”  

“It’s a musical revue in a way,” Fushille says. “Each program is about 30-35 minutes and followed by a short Q&A with the dancers. People are curious about how they’ve managed throughout the pandemic, and with these small audiences you can really have a conversation.”

Smuin isn’t the only dance institution in the area that’s starting to teach and present in person. Theatre Flamenco of San Francisco is now offering classes both virtually and in the studio. “Very limited indoor seating” will be available when Dance Mission Theater returns to live presenting June 25 to 27 with Untitled by performance troupe Tim Rubel Human Shakes. 

With so much uncertainty about permitted and safe indoor capacity, ODC Theater decided to transform the annual Walking Distance Dance Festival into a virtual event rechristened as the ODC Theater Festival. Live-streaming over two Thursday-through-Saturday runs between June 3 and 12, the festival features six individually ticketed stand-alone events, while festival pass holders get access to the full festival through the end of June.

Most of the nine world premieres were filmed at ODC Theatre, including Dads by Geoff and Dan Hoyle, Reverie by Nicole Maria Hoffschneider, Before Bakkhai Before (part 1) by Hope Mohr and Maxe Crandall and The Soft Solace of a Slightly Descended Lost Life (Suck it) by Robert Moses’ Kin. The programs also include two dance films by the resident company ODC/Dance, Love on the Run and Walk on Air (against your better judgment).

Miche Wong in Walk on Air. Photo by Natalia Roberts for ODC Dance
Miche Wong in Walk on Air. Photo by Natalia Roberts for ODC Dance.

“We’ve never produced something virtually like this, with 13 artists over two weekends,” says Chloe Zimberg, a dancer and choreographer who recently stepped into ODC Theatre’s newly created role as creative director after holding half a dozen other positions at the campus. 

“It was a really hard decision. Some artists wanted us to produce outdoors, but with a really wide roster of artists, finding one space in the city that would work for everyone and that our audience could get to was really complicated. And the public health question is so on top of our minds. We didn’t want to create a situation where we bit off more than we could chew.”

By any measure, the ODC Theater Festival is a generous terpsichorean repast. The big question remains: when will the theater reopen? After major maintenance, including the installation of a hospital-grade HVAC circulation system, the space is ready.

“We’re looking to the fall, fingers crossed,” Zimberg says. “Our fall season will be hybrid, kicking off October 2 with the premiere of Christy Funsch’s Epoch, a 12-hour durational piece.”

Originally programmed for 2020, the postponed work presented the challenge of how to track audience members wandering in and out over the course of the all-day performance. “The fact that that’s the first piece is so serendipitous,” Zimberg says. “It allows for a floating audience moving around, which is kind of necessary now.” 

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