On an uncharacteristically hot San Francisco afternoon, the halls of City Ballet are swarmed with dancers young old. The younger ones are there for afternoon classes. The older ones, most of them members of Smuin Ballet, are just finishing up rehearsals for the launch of the spring season.
This is the 15th anniversary season of Smuin Ballet, founded by Michael Smuin, and on this particular afternoon, some of the older dancers are holding plastic cups with champagne to toast Smuin’s memory on the second anniversary of his death.
The show, as they say, must go on, and so it has for two years, with new dances, new choreographers and new dances carrying on the Smuin Ballet legacy.
Matthew Linzer has been with Smuin Ballet for two years. He never actually got to work with Smuin, but they did meet. Linzer, who is Juilliard trained, was dancing with Diablo Ballet at the time. Smuin watched Linzer in class and then joked with the 6’4″ dancer, “We’re looking for someone taller.” “I’ll work on that,” Linzer joked back.
That was just several weeks before Smuin died.
“I quite regret not having worked with him,” Linzer says. “My dance partner, Robin Cornwell (seen below with Linzer, photo by Marty Sohl), was close to Michael, and she thinks he and I would have gotten along very well. I miss him even though I didn’t really know him and I feel his influence in the people he did work with.”
Smuin Ballet as a company performs more short than full-length work and isn’t afraid to incorporate some Broadway-style showmanship into the work.
“There’s a unique diversity to the work done by Smuin,” Linzer says. “It can be playful, like last year in our Gershwin program, we did a kick line, and I never thought I’d be doing one of those. And it can be serious, too, like with Bouquet in this season’s program.”
Smuin choreographed Bouquet to the music of Shostakovich, and Linzer dances the pas de deux with Cornwell.
“It’s a beautiful, sexy story set in Hawaii with the woman on the beach and the man coming out of the water,” Linzer says. “They make love and it’s very intense, light but heavy. Very loving. It’s fun to have a character and a role.”
Linzer has another character in the program of three works. He plays the character Bigelow, noted by his green zoot suit, in St. Louis Woman: A Blues Ballet, originally conceived to the music of Harold Arlen by the Dance Theatre of Harlem in 2003. He also dances in the third piece, The Naughty Boy! created by Trey McIntyre.
“I like variety in my world,” Linzer says. “I get to dance and be beautiful, but then with a piece like St. Louis Woman, I get to act as well, and that brings a whole new dimension to performance.”
The 27-year-old Linzer grew up outside of Washington, D.C., and pretty early on his parents saw that he was a dancer. Even before he was in kindergarten, Linzer was taking weekend dance classes and ended up at prestigious Juilliard for 2 ½ years.
Having previously danced with Bowen McCauley Dance, Ballet Memphis and Oakland Ballet, Linzer lives the life of a professional dancer, which means when he’s not rehearsing or performing, he’s probably taking care of himself. It’s a hard life for friends to fully understand. He works from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Sundays. A sufficient amount of rest is essential to body maintenance, as are occasional Epsom salt baths, massages, stretching sessions, icing sessions and trips to the chiropractor.
“It’s a lifestyle, not just a job,” Linzer says. “When I go home, I’m exhausted. I have a lot of friends outside the dance world, and they want to go out and do something, but I can’t always go because at 9 a.m., I’m going to be lifting girls.”
Not that Linzer is complaining. He still manages to get to concerts (he recently saw the Fleet Foxes at the new Fox in Oakland) and spend time with his boyfriend. He says he loves his job and knows how lucky he is to be able to do it. And then there’s the relatively short shelf life of a dancer. Most professional dance careers are over between the ages of 30 and 40, which means Linzer has about a decade left of dancing.
“I know it will be time to go when the pain begins to outweigh the passion,” he says.
Linzer is enthusiastic about pursuing choreography, which he has done for the last two years in Smuin’s choreographic workshop in which dancers create dances for one another. Earlier this year, Linzer created the dance piece The Sound of a Circle, which was inspired by a trip he took to Israel several summers ago.
“When I was in Israel, I was struck by the contrast of the young and hip and the old and traditional,” Linzer recalls. “Creating that piece touched a different side of me. I think people in the audience were amazed by the variety of classical dance, hip-hop and humor. I like to reassure the dance audience. People tend to be afraid of the formality and don’t’ trust what they’re watching. People need to know that whatever they’re seeing, however they’re responding to it, that’s correct. There’s no such thing as a wrong answer.”
REEL to REAL:
Inevitably, people tend to see Matthew Linzer’s life as a dancer through the lens of whatever ballet movie they’ve happened to see most recently.
Linzer is not a fan of such hits as CenterStage or The Company. He deems those “awful.” But he does recommend Ballets Russes, Paul Taylor: Dancemaker and Billy Elliot.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Smuin Ballet’s Spring Program performs May 8-17 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco (tickets $18-$50), May 23-24 at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek ($40-$55), May 27-31 at the Mountain View Center for Performing Arts in Mountain View ($40-$55). Call 415-495-2234 or visit www.smuinballet.org for information.