Celia Fushille Presents Upbeat Future of Smuin in the Pandemic


"A lot is happening."

September 16, 2020—In a live Q & A session today that attracted over 60 fans, Smuin Ballet's Artistic Director Celia Fushille painted an optimistic and energetic view of how her company is adapting and overcoming the obstacles of the pandemic. Social distancing in an art form that involves artists and audience in close, physical contact presents challenges that the Smuin company is overcoming by harnessing their abundant creativity.

Celia Fushille in the online Live Q&A session
Celia Fushille in the online Live Q&A session

Inventive virtual experiences, including short films such as Social disDANCING and Recipe For Disaster, the popular Hump Day Ballet recordings of previous Smuin performances, Cocktails with Smuin, and dance-related films to stream at home, are only part of the ambitious plans to keep Smuin dancing and engage audiences.

To manage social distancing in rehearsals, the dancers have been split into "pods" of individuals who live together or otherwise keep company in the same social circle. "It's a challenge not to touch dancers in rehearsal," Fushille said. Two groups of four dancers and one group of five dancers rehearse separately. Two pods rehearse in the studios, while one is remote. Each studio is allowed by law to be at 10% capacity. And each pod has at least one choreographer arranging the dancers in solos and duets. The pods will create works on each other as well. 

Fushille emphasized that everyone involved is following all health protocols, including "very strict guidelines" for anyone coming into the building. Every day before anyone is allowed into the building they must have their temperature taken and must answer questions on an app about their recent activities and any symptoms. A Smuin supporter who is a doctor advises on sanitizing the rehearsal spaces.

Although the schedule for 2021 tentatively includes some theater performances in April and May, the company is not planning to have subscriptions this year. Subscribers' seats will be held nonetheless. As soon as small audience attendance is allowed, Fushille wants to do small outdoor performances. These ticketed, small performances will be by invitation-only to subscribers and donors.

To accommodate outdoor performances, Fushille is planning on getting a portable sprung floor, just one of the modifications she is looking at to continue dancing, performing, teaching, and holding online events. The studio is being equipped with cameras for livestreaming and recording. Other planned innovations include Window to Dance, in which patrons can watch rehearsals through interior windows. These innovations are all part of Fushille's efforts to find more ways of engaging audiences, including online events such as the Live Q & A, Backstage at Smuin, lectures, and options for digital on-demand, so that people could watch recorded events whenever they want to, as well as scheduled presentations.

In spite of all the positive reinventions, there are some limitations. Requests to replay the popular Hump Day Ballets run into a legal barrier—they require permissions from the choreographers or foundations who own the productions and music. In these tight financial times, the owners need to monetize their productions. To get around this hurdle, Fushille is looking at music in the public domain or that was created for Smuin. Dance companies usually get rights only for live performances, which precludes selling DVDs of them. Music rights are also a big challenge in selling DVDs.

Financially, Smuin's new building has been an asset. If Smuin had not gotten the new building, Fushille says, they would have had to spend $10,000 per month on a studio they couldn't use. Another big help financially has been $369,800 from a government Paycheck Protection Program loan. Fushille is optimistic that it will be forgiven completely.

But a big challenge was the dancers themselves. Initially they were afraid they wouldn't start the season. Some companies had already been laid off. The dancers also had a lot of anxiety about working in the Covid-19 environment. Then there was the task of getting the dancers up to speed physically after being out of a studio for months. Fushille says they had to be "very cautious" about increasing the dancers' movements in rehearsal spaces when transitioning from limited movements at home to expansive movements in the studio.

Some of the innovations, such as online classes, will continue after the pandemic is over. Fushille described it as, "a great thing we hope to continue."

Life in the pandemic has opened, "a whole new window on the world," Fushille said. People are looking at things in a whole new way with, "a whole new appreciation for so many things. We're determined and excited. A lot is happening."