The cause of death was apparently a heart attack. Smuin suffered a heart attack in 1992 but was reportedly in good health recently. "The shock is foremost," Smuin Ballet dancer Shannon Hurlburt told the Chronicle. "He was in such a fantastic mood yesterday."
The paper writes that he was known for the "vibrant, expressive and brassy work" he created for his Smuin Ballet, which made its debut in 1994. Between 1995 and 2006, the company premiered over 40 works by Smuin (with music ranging from Haydn and Brahms to George Gershwin, Frank Sinatra and the Beatles) and has recently begun premiering works by a new generation of choreographers drawn from its own dancers' ranks. (The company will have a special New York engagement this summer at the Joyce Theater, August 13-18.)
Michael Smuin was born in 1938 in Missoula, Montana. (His father worked as a butcher at a Safeway supermarket, according to the Chronicle.) He studied tap dancing and saw the touring Ballet Russe at the University of Montana as a child. At age 14, he moved to Salt Lake City to study at the University of Utah on a dance scholarship. He was recruited to the San Francisco Ballet at 15; after eight years with the company (1953-1961), he moved to New York with his wife to join American Ballet Theatre, where he became a principal dancer and later choreographed a number of works, including Pulcinella Variations.
In 1973 Smuin returned to California, where he spent 12 years (1973-85) as co-artistic director of the San Francisco Ballet. (Both his tenure at the company and his departure were controversial.) He then freelanced for about a decade until founding his own company.
Among the troupes for whom Smuin made dances are Dance Theatre of Harlem, Milwaukee Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet and Washington Ballet. His film choreography credits include Rumble Fish, The Cotton Club and So I Married an Axe Murderer.
He won a Tony Award on Broadway in 1988 for choreographing the Lincoln Center Theater revival of Anything Goes (starring Patti LuPone) and was nominated for a Tony in 1981 for Sophisticated Ladies. He received an Emmy Award in 1984 for Great Performances: Dance in America.
The Chronicle quotes Dennis Nahat, artistic and executive director of Ballet San Jose and a colleague with Smuin at ABT as saying, "Michael was an American who danced and worked in an expressly American idiom. He was always trying to do different things or copy someone else and do it better. He had a great sense of humor and a never-say-die attitude. Nothing ever stopped him or slowed him down."