Dance moves: Amy Seiwert on becoming the new artistic director of Smuin Contemporary Ballet

  • by Philip Mayard
  • Monday April 22, 2024
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Amy Siewert (right) in rehearsal for 'French Kiss'  (photo: Chris Hardy)
Amy Siewert (right) in rehearsal for 'French Kiss' (photo: Chris Hardy)

Anniversary seasons can be a tricky proposition for artistic organizations, requiring companies to strike a delicate balance between honoring their legacy and history, while looking toward the future and keeping programming fresh and relevant.

As Smuin Contemporary Ballet approaches the conclusion of its ambitious 30th anniversary season, it's clear that the company's leaders, Artistic Director Celia Fushille and Associate Artistic Director Amy Seiwert, have risen to the challenge. Smuin's 2023-24 season culminates in a month-long run of a triple-bill program in four venues across the Bay Area, followed by a week-long engagement at New York's celebrated Joyce Theatre in July.

Amy Seiwert being lifted in a dance by Michael Smuin (photo: Scot Goodman)  

Although it's been an exhilarating but exhausting season for the 16-dancer company, on a recent afternoon in the sunny Smuin Ballet headquarters on Potrero Hill, there was a palpable sense of change and excitement in the air.

Downstairs in the main studio, Seiwert rehearsed her work, "Broken Open," with the dancers, meticulously fine-tuning solos and duets, and ensuring that the performers understood the emotions driving each moment.

As rehearsal came to an end, Seiwert directed the dancers to prepare for a full run-through, while Fushille came down from her second-floor office and quietly entered the studio to observe.

As the ballet unfolded, the dancers energetically approached every move, fully embodying the work and performing as though they were in front of a packed house. At the conclusion of the piece, Fushille wiped tears from her eyes and walked over to Seiwert, looked directly into her eyes, whispered a few words of praise, and the two shared a long hug.

Amy Seiwert and Celia Fushille outside the Smuin Center for Dance (photo: Chris Hardy)  

Reflection and transition
In recent days, moments of reflection and acknowledgement have become more frequent for both of these women, as Fushille prepares to step down after 17 years as Artistic Director and turn the leadership of Smuin Ballet over to Seiwert.

Following the rehearsal Fuschille said, "I haven't had time to watch Amy rehearse. That's the first time I've seen a full run of the piece. Seeing these artists who I've worked with for so long, what they are doing, and what Amy is pulling out of them, it just brought tears to my eyes. The company is going to be in good, caring hands."

For several years Fushille and her board of directors had been working on a succession plan, conversations no doubt informed by the sudden death of the company's founder Michael Smuin in 2007, unexpectedly thrusting Fushille into the Artistic Director position.

She said, "I didn't have a departure date, but I felt it was important to talk about this for me and for other key staff members who have been with Smuin for so long and have so much institutional knowledge."

She added, "I had a short list of people in my mind who I thought would be appropriate for the role, but it was the board's decision. It was wonderful because we had time to really think about tough questions. Does the person who succeeds me need to have known and worked with Michael? Do they understand the ethos of this company or can we hire someone completely new to come in and start creating? What's important to us as an organization?"

For anyone familiar with the dance landscape in America, particularly here in the Bay Area, Seiwert's appointment to the position was a welcome if not totally unexpected surprise. A nationally prominent choreographer who has created works for companies across the country, Seiwert danced with Smuin Ballet for nine years and was the company's Choreographer in Residence from 2008-2018.

According to Fushille, "Amy is so invested in the art form, where it's come from and where it's going. She cares deeply about this company. She loved Michael, she cares about his work and she knows what this company is about. I told her, 'Amy, I have to know that you will keep Michael's legacy alive.' Amy said, 'Cel, I will not only keep Michael's legacy alive, I'll keep your legacy alive too.'"

Amy Seiwert strikes at stunning leap pose with the Bay Bridge and San Francisco in the background (photo: Tom Hauck)  

Creativity thrives
Seiwert is indeed committed to carrying on the tireless work of both Smuin and Fushille. She said, "Michael's legacy was all about creation. When I joined the company, he was making at least two new ballets each year. He believed strongly in the power of the words, putting 'World Premiere' on a poster. And, Michael gave me and other dancers the space to explore our interest in choreography, which was so critical in my career. Celia has followed that with the Choreography Showcase, which allows our dancers to create new works on each other. I want to continue and even expand on that. To be a choreographer, you need to keep making new works, and to have an idea that maybe doesn't work. I'm passionate about creating an environment where creativity can thrive."

Seiwert believes Fushille's legacy is grounded in curation, saying, "The day that Celia got a Jiří Kylián work for the company changed a lot of people's perception of who we were, and what we could do. To do the work of Jiří, Trey McIntyre, James Kudelka, Annabelle Ochoa (whose new work for Smuin makes its world premiere this month) and many others, these are incredible opportunities. I want dancers to know that if they come here, they're going to be collaborating with exceptional choreographers and making world premieres with them. It's not 'Just come here and point your foot on count three.'"

As she looks to the future, Seiwert doesn't envision a big change in the eclectic range of work the company presents.

"If you're really interested in doing 'Swan Lake,' this isn't the place," she said. "I have a deep love for classical ballet, and I did it for years and years. Then I wanted to do something else, and that's when I came here. What's most exciting is finding dancers who are really curious. Smuin performs more than most companies. Other companies, you can work your butt off for seven weeks and perform a piece twice. We do programs around 20 times, sometimes more."

Seiwert continued, "There are solos that Michael made on me that I would perform well over 100 times. You have to find something new about what you're doing. You have to stay curious and figure out how to approach things differently, not just to keep the audience engaged but to keep yourself engaged. Curiosity is one of the traits that allows an artist to thrive."

Smuin Contemporary Ballet Dance Series 2, May 3 - 31, $34-89, various Bay Area venues.

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