Choreography & Curation: A Conversation with Smuin’s Artistic Director
Since its debut in 2008, Smuin’s Choreography Showcase has become one of the Company’s much loved offerings. Artistic Director Celia Fushille ardently encourages Smuin’s dancers to develop their own voices as artists and choreographers. As Smuin’s seventh Choreography Showcase approaches, Fushille hopes to continue to give the Company dancers this unique opportunity to explore their craft and grow artistically. In a recent interview, Fushille offered insight into the creation, development, and future of the Choreography Showcase and the Company artists.
Photo: Chris Hardy
How did Smuin’s Choreography Showcase originate?
The Choreography Showcase started the first season after [founder] Michael Smuin’s passing, and it was very cathartic for the Company. That year, we had time in the performance schedule, and we were able to get the funding from some generous board members to help offset the cost. The Choreography Showcase is quite a luxury—it’s three weeks of dancers’ salaries, studio rental, and a small venue, so I have to credit [Smuin’s] board with supporting the vision of the showcase. If we don’t give choreographers a chance to hone their skill, we won’t have the next generation of dancemakers.
Giving dancers the chance to choreograph is a relatively rare opportunity in most dance companies. What initially inspired this project?
We thought it would be a great process for the dancers to have time in the studio to create on one another. Michael had given [his dancers] opportunities to choreograph—he had given Shannon [Hurlburt], Amy Seiwert, and me opportunities on the mainstage starting with Amy in our 10th anniversary season. I remember being so nervous—I had never choreographed before. As the creator of a piece there’s a tremendous amount of pressure. You’ve created this thing that you’ve become so connected to, and you don’t know if others will understand it and feel the way you do about it. There’s just a real sense of vulnerability about putting yourself out there.
I wanted [the Choreography Showcase] to be an environment that was very safe, with room to explore. The first year we didn’t invite the press, it wasn’t announced in such a big way. It’s amazing to see the progression and the sophistication of the choreography created each year. Now, [we have] dancers that are establishing themselves as choreographers with small companies across the country!
The other exciting part of the workshop is to see the dancers gain an appreciation for what it’s like to be running the rehearsal. The dancers are so wonderfully generous with one another. They have the willingness to help their peers [create] these works. They want to help [their colleagues] realize their vision, and they’re fully invested in making that happen.
How did the Q&A session with the dancers following the performance originate?
The Q&A was a part of the first showcase, and a piece that our audience has come to love. It’s fascinating to hear the choreographers’ and dancers’ thoughts and impressions. We’re used to seeing dancers dance, we’re not used to hearing them speak. So, every year I look forward to having a glimpse into the depth of their thoughts.
Does each choreographer disclose the nature of their piece in advance, or is it a bit of a surprise?
Some of them talk to me about it, but no one can come into the studio until they are invited by the choreographer. We have closed rehearsals to honor that feeling of privacy in the process, although some are more comfortable having people in [the studio] sooner. We usually have a rehearsal mid-way through, where they can show us what they’ve done so far and we can give feedback. I really don’t want to limit their vision or their creativity. It’s just remarkable to see how their thoughts fly and their vision takes shape.
For some dancers, this might be their first time choreographing for a professional company. Do they ever need coaching or guidance while creating their works?
We offered [more coaching] in the first season, and Amy Seiwert was very helpful in implementing that process. If they have a need, we would certainly oblige. [Our Ballet Master,] Amy London, has stepped into that role, and, because she’s in the studio with them everyday, they might pick her brain a little bit. We usually wait until we have a showing to determine the order of the program, which is when [each choreographer has] a chance to introduce their piece and talk about the inspiration of it, and the other Company members can make comments afterward. It’s a very supportive exercise, and intended to be reassuring.
Pictured: Dustin James, Tessa Barbour, & Robert Kretz, Smuin’s first-time choreographers in this season’s showcase.
Does the Choreography Showcase offer opportunities to curate Smuin’s future mainstage choreographers?
Like any choreographer that I invite to create on the company, I usually get to know them first, to see how they create and see their work. I need to see that it’s a good match for our company. The showcase has definitely opened up opportunities for our dancers to create on the mainstage. [Nicole Haskins, a Smuin dancer who has choreographed several works for the Choreography Showcase, is creating a mainstage world premiere for our upcoming Dance Series 02.]
As Smuin’s Artistic Director, what is the most surprising thing that you have witnessed that has come out of this showcase?
I am most impressed with the depth of [the dancers’] thinking, and getting to hear them articulate their ideas. Usually my time in the studio is limited, but when I have an opportunity, I enjoy talking to the dancers and getting to know them as people and know about their interests. It’s wonderful to see their inquisitive natures and their fearlessness. It’s just fantastic that they are comfortable and willing to take this opportunity and run with it. I’m thrilled and surprised every year by the variety of works they produce.