Last October the prestigious San Francisco-based Smuin Ballet performed two sold-out shows at the Montana Theatre. Although the company’s attraction usually rests in the pristine movements and vibrant aesthetics of its dancers on stage, the large local turnout was certainly more to celebrate another return of the company’s namesake, Missoula native Michael Smuin.
“There were over 1,000 people at that ballet,” recalls George Lambros of Lambros Real Estate, a family friend who employed Michael’s mom, Shirley, as his assistant for 12 years. “They were just beautiful evenings…I’d seen Michael and his company perform in San Francisco and New York, but he loved performing his work in Missoula. It was always special for him to return here.”
On Monday, April 23, Smuin died after collapsing while teaching a Smuin Ballet company class in San Francisco. He was 68.
“His dancers are going to be devastated,” says Lambros, who had plans to meet the choreographer later this week to discuss a return engagement in Missoula. “They all looked up to him so much.”
Smuin performed as a principal dancer and choreographer with American Ballet Theatre in the 1950s, served as co-artistic director of the San Francisco Ballet from 1973 to 1985 and opened his own company in 1994. In addition to ballet, Smuin gained recognition for popular chorography that stretched across various entertainment outlets. He won a Tony Award on Broadway in 1988 for his choreography of Anything Goes; received an Emmy Award in 1984 for “Great Performances: Dance in America”; and his film credits include work on The Cotton Club and Rumble Fish.
According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Smuin studied tap dancing in Missoula and fell in love with ballet when his mother took him to see Ballet Russe at the University of Montana. Smuin attended Hellgate High School and lettered in boxing before moving to Salt Lake City at the age of 14 on a dance scholarship at the University of Utah.
Says Lambros, “We were lucky enough to be associated with a genius.”