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Smuin Contemporary Ballet finds new ways to reach audiences

by Philip Mayard

Smuin artists Cassidy Isaacson and Brandon Alexander will perform in Program A of Smuin's "The Christmas Ballet," streaming December 11-24. (photo : Terez Dean Orr)
Smuin artists Cassidy Isaacson and Brandon Alexander will perform in Program A of Smuin's "The Christmas Ballet," streaming December 11-24. (photo : Terez Dean Orr)  

It simply can't be overstated how challenging the pandemic has been for performing arts organizations. In March, with spring seasons in full swing, live performances were suddenly halted. Some companies chose to "go dark" and wait it out, hoping they'd be able to get back on stage later in the year.

By late summer, it was clear that wasn't going to happen. Many dance and theatre companies, desperate to re-engage their audiences and keep a trickle of revenue flowing, scrambled to put together and monetize online content. The results have been mixed.

But throughout 2020, the artists and administrators at Smuin Contemporary Ballet have found success with a much different approach. Not only have they kept their dancers working and their local audiences engaged, they've built new audiences in unexpected ways. And they're creating and presenting new works — an unheard of feat during this pandemic. They even managed to squeeze in a few intimate outdoor performances for diners at John's Grill downtown.

When asked what has driven the company's innovative, aggressive approach to the challenges of the pandemic, artistic director Celia Fushille says, "The big word this year is 'connection.' Our audiences are at home, feeling isolated; they need to know we are here for them. We can't wait to be back on stage, but in the meantime we've found other ways to engage with our audiences."

Judging from audience reactions — captured in real time through a unique online platform that simulates a live performance experience — the company has indeed engaged and inspired audiences. Smuin's fall virtual season included four programs, each featuring a "pod" of four dancers performing ballets from the Smuin repertoire, as well as new works and dance films.

After each performance, audiences were invited to chat with the dancers via a live Q/A on Zoom. In preparation for the season, each pod of dancers worked together in seclusion under strict COVID guidelines — some of the dancers live together already — and the performances were filmed in a spectacular outdoor setting.


Smuin artists Lauren Pschirrer, Brennan Wall, and Tessa Barbour, who will perform in Program C of Smuin's  

Fushille says, "The response from our audience has been so rewarding. They've been generous with their giving and they appreciate the efforts we are making."

The company has also offered a full range of online dance classes, from ballet and tap, to jazz and hip-hop. Back in March, the company had just begun their first-ever semester of classes in their new studios on Potrero Hill. When the Shelter in Place order came down, they quickly pivoted to virtual classes. Much to the surprise of Fushille herself, the classes have attracted an even wider range of attendees than expected.

She says, "We have people who regularly tune in from across the country; we have participants in Germany! Some attendees say they would have been too embarrassed to take a class in person, but they feel comfortable doing it from home. It's been a silver lining. Of course we will resume in-person classes when it is safe, but some of these online programs will definitely continue in the future."

This month, the company will present the 25th anniversary edition of its popular holiday production, The Christmas Ballet. The show will be presented online in three different programs, filmed in a fully-lit theatrical setting, and performed by pods of four dancers in costume. Each program will feature classic favorites as well as new works.


Smuin artist Maggie Carey, performing in Program B of Smuin's  

Program B includes the world premiere of "Snow Day" by Smuin alum Rex Wheeler, set to Johnny Mathis' iconic "Sleigh Ride." Wheeler — better known in San Francisco's LGBTQ+ community as drag queen Lady Camden — acknowledges that this year has been challenging for people working in creative fields.

He says, "Sometimes you want to be creative and productive, sometimes the best thing to do is just stand still and reflect on what this time has taught you. Now, I really realize that our time is quite precious. Doing creative things is not just fun, it's really important. If I don't feel like myself, sometimes just doing small things like... putting rhinestones on a dress or taking silly photos. Those things might have seemed trivial in the past, but it's so important to keep your brain happy and find joy."

Wheeler was thrilled to choreograph for Smuin again, saying, "I'm so grateful to Celia's commitment to me and for letting me continue to be a part of the Smuin family. Choreographing via Zoom is not ideal, but having the challenge of making a ballet made me think, 'Oh yeah, this is who I am. I almost forgot.'"

He says "Sleigh Ride" was a great opportunity to make a piece that is just fun: "There's a side of me that's silly. I've not always been able to do that on stage, but the more experience I get and the more I do drag, the more I'm embracing my humor. For this piece, I was feeling nostalgic about being a kid, playing in the snow, knocking on our neighbors' doors. I think right now we're all wishing we could knock on our neighbor's door and have fun together, so I hope this piece will help people tap into that nostalgia."

Wheeler goes on to say, "Not everything has to be serious. Right now we so desperately need a culture where we are able to just be ourselves. To just go out there and be unfiltered and ridiculous, if that's who we are. That's what we fall in love with. We don't fall in love with filtered things."

"The Christmas Ballet" streams December 11- 24. Tickets: www.smuinballet.org

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