A Future for Ballet with Smuin Ballet’s Artistic Director, Celia Fushille












Written by Jade Shojaee

As part of our artistic excellence pillar, DRAA provides funding to the most inspiring, innovative and impressive organizations that grace the Lesher Center for the Arts. Smuin Ballet has long been a Cornerstone Producer of the DRAA and we are honored to be part of their success. This September they will launch the West Coast premiere of internationally-acclaimed choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Requiem for a Rose right here at the LCA.

Spearheaded by artistic director Celia Fushille, the company has taken giant strides into the future of ballet with their unique choreography, their attention to gender equality in and out of the studio, and their efforts to cultivate the next generation of choreographers.

In this interview, Celia talks to DRAA about being a professional dancer, raising her family in between rehearsals, the impact of DRAA’s support on the company, and above all, the importance of the arts, especially during times of political and economic uncertainty.

According to the SF Chronicle, you are one of nine women in the world to head dance companies with annual budgets of $2.5 million or more. That is quite an accomplishment. Why do you feel so few women are in leadership roles within major dance companies? What are your hopes for the future of female dancers in leadership/choreography positions? How do you feel Smuin is paving the way for that future?

I’m sure there’s not a single answer about why so few women are in these leadership roles, but when you look at dancers starting ballet when they’re young, you have predominately female dancers. The boys are taught early on, that they are very special. There are fewer of them, and girls are keenly aware that as they advance, there will always be several ready to take their place if, for any reason, things don’t work out.

There’s no question that with anyone who advances into roles of this nature, there’s going to be a certain amount of uncertainty, and even fear. I mean, I had never managed a company, and didn’t anticipate doing that. I thought I would be Michael Smuin’s right-hand man for a long time so there’s trepidation certainly, and if you haven’t been in an environment that’s encouraging you to excel, advance, and to think beyond the average role of standing in a line and being uniform, then it’s sometimes hard to break out of that. It takes a little bit of being bold, and I think that I was blessed to have been selected by Michael to be his assistant. I learned so much from him.

You also have to look at the fact that if women are focusing on their dancing careers, and if they desire to become a parent, then they have to figure out where and when to fit that in. So, I think you see many women who have their dancing careers, and then they start their families and that becomes their focus for a while, so they’re not thinking about becoming directors and what have you.

I kind of had a reverse on all the things in my life. I started my family when I was young and did my dancing after my children, which is not commonly done, and so I feel incredibly blessed.

Now that you are the artistic director, what kind of environment do you seek to cultivate in the studio? How do you deal with the disparity of treatment between men and women in the industry?
We do not cultivate that environment in our studio. We have mutual respect, the artistic leadership has respect for the dancers and the dancers have respect for the artistic leadership. We’re working on the same team and we foster an environment of collaboration, safety and exploration. We don’t want the dancers to feel there’s an element of fear in the way in which we manage which is a very old school attitude. Dancers often feel in fear of their director or their ballet master, and that’s just not how we operate. Michael Smuin cultivated this attitude and culture in the studio, and we have maintained that. Even when people come to audition at Smuin they feel that difference.

Ultimately the men and the women are equally respected, and as far as having women in leadership roles, I have a female ballet master and we have many women that help run the company. Furthermore, I’ve initiated a choreography showcase where all of the dancers, men and women, have an opportunity to create. This is a rarity at a dance company, to provide the dancers with rehearsal time, the theatre, the costumes, lighting designers and the opportunity to learn the process of dance-making. It’s something that has to be practiced. It’s not something that somebody wakes up and they’re suddenly a fabulous choreographer. It’s through this process that one learns.

I often have waited for a dancer to express an interest to me in moving into choreography or direction, but I think I can do more by having conversations with my dancers about the possibilities. Dancers are generally taught to be quiet, to stay in line and to be where they need to be on the music. They are not frequently asked, ‘what do you think? what do you aspire?’ I recently asked a dancer to assist me in the studio, and he was so honored. It’s interesting for me now, as a director. I always try to think of the dancer’s perspective. Having been there myself, I feel as if some directors cross into management and forget what it was like to be a dancer, and they don’t look out for the dancers in the same way.

I try to always look out for the dancers. We have a multitude of people who work behind the scenes, but it’s the dancers who are out there every night, and who have to be taken care of.

You have been dancing since you were very young. How did you discover your love for this art form?
My mother put my older sister and me (I’m one of seven children) into ballet classes, but I was too shy and too young (four years old) and it didn’t last very long.

When I was seven, I asked my mother if I could try it again. I don’t know what prompted me to ask her. It’s not as if we went to the ballet regularly. We did often go to the symphony and the community concert series, and sometimes there were dancers in the concert series, but I don’t recall a specific moment that motivated me to ask her. But I did, and I went back, and was very diligent about learning how to do it and do it right. And I never stopped.

I trained with one teacher for four years and then I switched to the woman who I consider my primary teacher, Ingeborg Heuser, who has trained with the Berlin Opera. To have this incredible training in El Paso Texas (my hometown) was a real blessing. I started training with her when I was eleven and two years later I got my first scholarship to the San Francisco Ballet School.

I started coming every summer to train at SF Ballet, but they were inviting me to stay and train through the year, and I knew my parents would never let me move to SF. So I worked on them for a long time, and ultimately graduated early from high school and moved to SF to continue my training. That’s when I met Michael Smuin.

Do you ever wonder what your life would have been had you not discovered your passion for ballet? How do you think being a dancer has shaped who you are as a person? As a mother?
I think primarily from dance, I learned incredible discipline. How you manage your time, the choices you make, and the physical discipline required to maintain your body and everything about your life, requires such structure. And that can be applied to anything I’ve ever done.

I think that as a mother, it required me to manage my time. I was juggling so much while I was dancing. The craziest thing was being able to [perform in the Christmas ballet and still find time to Christmas shop for my kids. That often happened after after midnight at Toys R Us on the way home from the theatre. At that point, I was also Michael’s Associate Director. I don’t know how I managed to be a mother, and perform, and do that at the same time. It just required supreme organization and time management.

Smuin Ballet is famous for bringing contemporary flair to classical ballet. Do you think that this has made ballet accessible to a wider range of audiences?
From the get go, it was Michael’s inspiration to make the art form accessible to many, whether it was the cost of our tickets, or what we’re presenting, or a combo of both. For a family of four to be able to see the Christmas ballet without breaking the bank. It was important to him to expose as many people as possible to the art form.

Many people may shy away from ballet but any culture has dance in it. Anywhere you go in the world, dance is just a part of life, and something that Michael never shied away from was using different kinds of music. Last season’s program was a perfect example of that. For us to start off with Tchaikovsky, and end up with Jefferson Airplane… that was quite a range. We love that at Smuin.

We do two triple bill programs a year, and it’s a thrill for us to be opening at the Lesher. We’ve had such a long and fruitful relationship with DRAA and the Lesher, and they’ve helped us and encouraged us in ways that are unique in our model. We don’t have quite the same support anywhere else. We go to other venues and self present, but to have that support from the Lesher and the DRAA is just fantastic. It makes possible what we do.

DRAA is proud to partner with and provide financial assistance to Smuin Ballet every year. How have cuts to arts funding affected Smuin Ballet? What does it mean to you to have support from organizations like the DRAA?
I don’t think we could do what we do without the support of DRAA. Funding has been a challenge. We’ve seen that since the downturn in ‘08. People continue to support social services and education, but it seems, sadly, that the last thing people think about is the arts. What would our lives be without art? If you look at anything in your office or your home, it required design. That is art, and without art our lives would be a boring existence. Without the color that the arts provide to our lives and our souls.

It’s just tremendous that we have maintained this relationship we so value with the East Bay. Having that support directly from DRAA really makes possible what we do in bringing in this world class dance right into people’s home theatre. They’re so appreciative, and we’re so grateful they are. We feel blessed that we get to do this. So many people say to us after the performance ‘I’ve never seen dance! I didn’t even know I liked dance!’

It doesn’t require an education in dance to be able to come in and enjoy it. It’s like walking into a museum, you don’t have to know how that painter painted the picture, but you can know that it touches your heart. In the same way, you can watch dance, and enjoy the music, the movement and the athleticism of the movement. There’s always something you can take away.

One thing that I’ve really found in the last year especially, is the art’s ability to unify. We’ve often talked about our dance as being entertaining, unusual, evocative and original, but what I’m really discovering is the capacity of the arts to bring people together. We need that right now.

We saw that last Christmas here, and perhaps it was the timing of everything happening in our country, and everything that continues to happen, but people are looking for things that bring them together instead of pull them apart. It’s a gift that we get to bring that to our audience.

What can LCA audiences look forward to in the upcoming season?
We open on Sept. 22 and we have a matinee on the 23rd. Walnut Creek will be getting the West Coast premiere of Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Requiem for a Rose. She’s an internationally acclaimed choreographer who is highly in demand all over the world, so we are thrilled. She’s in the studio right now, and it’s been such a thrilling experience working with her.

We are also reviving a work we did a couple years ago called Serenade for Strings. It’s another contemporary ballet. Its quirky and whimsical and humorous to a beautiful Tchaikovsky score.

We will close with Michael Smuin’s Sinatra tribute, Fly Me to the Moon. It is really great fun, and people dance out of the theatre after this fun evening. It’s going to be a fantastic experience.

You starred As Greeata, the Rodian dancer in The Return of the Jedi: Special Edition dance scene in 1997. What was it like working with George Lucas?
Michael Smuin was friends with George Lucas. George used to come see ballet at Smuin often, and he hired Michael to choreograph these scenes that he wanted to drop back in for the re-release of the original trilogy.

In this particular scene, we had to audition for the casting directors, and a couple of the dancers, including me, were hired. I ended up becoming Greeata. I called us the alien supremes. That is not the official star wars terminology, but that’s how I felt! We were three singers entertaining Java in his palace.

It will make you laugh, but I have a stack of about 15 pieces of fan mail from people who want me to sign their pictures and mail them back. I get far more fan mail as Greeata than I do as a former ballerina.

It was difficult wearing that costume. I was completely covered, head to toe, in that latex and I had this leotard under the costume that had foam padding on it, to give me a reptilian musculature. I had to step into this suit, and then step into shoes, and then put my head on and hold my hands out to get the gloves on. I was literally covered completely, and it was incredibly hot on the set covered with all of the stage lights. But George Lucas was behind the camera himself for those scenes. It was just one day of shooting, but it was quite an experience.