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Celia Fushille-Burke, Dancer, Smuin Ballet

Prima ballerina ready to hang up her slippers

by Mary Ellen Hunt

June 7, 2006 -- Walnut Creek, California

Looking like a typically sleek, athletic ballerina, Smuin Ballet's Celia Fushille-Burke rushes apologetically into the cafe — late for the interview because she's been working on casting changes and just gotten out of rehearsals for the company's season, which brings them this weekend to the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts.
Between pushing paper and running rehearsals, Fushille-Burke still must find time to sew her pointe shoes so she can take the stage in one of her signature roles, as Lola-Lola in "The Blue Angel."

Of all the dance companies in the Bay Area, there is none harder working than Smuin Ballet, and there's no harder working company member than Fushille-Burke. Earlier in the season, she announced she would retire from her role as Smuin's prima, though she will continue on as a full-time associate director.

"I will miss the dancing, there's no question about it, because I've had such a blast with Michael," she says. "But it just seemed like a good time personally and professionally to stop."

A founding member of the company, Fushille-Burke has long been Michael Smuin's muse and his mainstay, creating roles in some of his most memorable ballets, from the romantic Roxane in "Cyrano" to the cold-blooded Lola-Lola. Not to mention dozens of other vignettes in revue ballets such as "Dancin' With Gershwin" and "Fly Me to the Moon," which is also on the program at the Lesher Center.

Indeed, when she walked in to tell Smuin of her decision, she says, he threw up his hands crying, "No, don't tell me! Don't tell me!" But at 43, Fushille-Burke is pragmatic about her age, even though she notes there are dancers older than she still performing in major companies like New York City Ballet.

In the past few years, Fushille-Burke has appeared more selectively in the company's shows, but the little aches and pains start to catch up with you, she says.

"You know, if I'm going to play on this team, I've got to do what the other teammates are doing," she says. "I want to be able to pull my weight — but that gets harder and harder to do. You know how for Barry Bonds, it's no day games after a night game? I'm like Barry Bonds: no matinees after an evening show."

She's come a long way from the shy 13-year-old bunhead who used to watch from the shadowy balcony of the Geary Theater back when Smuin was co-artistic director of San Francisco Ballet. As a starry-eyed student, she loved the romantic choreography Smuin created for the company's stars and dreamed of one day dancing in his ballets.

Fushille-Burke joined San Francisco Ballet as an apprentice after graduating from high school. But after only a few years, she was sidelined by a devastating knee injury. Then Smuin was fired from the company, to be replaced eventually by Helgi Tomasson. It seemed as though dancing those ballets was not in the cards for her.

"And I met my husband at that time," she recounts. "We got married, and started our family right away. Then, after my second child, my daughter, was born, I went back and auditioned for Helgi, but there was no room, and Helgi wasn't interested."

So she danced for the opera for a time, worked in retail, raised her kids. Then, in 1994, Smuin approached her with a proposal: He was starting a new company and needed not only a dancer, but also a ballet mistress. Fushille-Burke jumped at the opportunity.

She has no regrets about the decision to have a family and go back to dancing afterward. Her husband Jim, she says, has always been incredibly supportive. And the life experience her family gave her has given her perspective too, she notes.

"In a way, as a young dancer, every day is such a big deal," she says. "You cannot miss a day of rehearsal. You have an option to go on a trip and you say, 'Oh no, I can't because I can't take class there.' You become so paranoid. But giving birth to a child, to another human being, is the most miraculous thing. You think to yourself, I'm lucky I get to do this dancing thing, but it's just not the big deal I was making it out to be."

Nevertheless, juggling the roles of wife and mother, along with being a principal dancer in a small company, plus all of her duties as associate director has been a high-wire act. Retiring from the stage looked even more attractive, given that it's her daughter Catherine's senior year at Lick-Wilmerding High School in San Francisco.

"I look forward to having the time and energy to focus on the dancers," says Fushille-Burke. "I've always been torn. There's times when I can't watch a cast rehearse, because I've got to go do a few releves before I have to go dance it myself. As a dancer, you've got to be selfish with your time, but as an associate director, you have to be selfless."

At a gala last month in her honor, Smuin articulated just how much he will miss this dancer.

"I'm already feeling the sorrow of not seeing Celia on the stage," he said. "That presence and smile that slices through the theatre to the last seat in the balcony! — When people ask me, 'Who is going to replace Celia?' I always just say, 'No one. She is unique.' "


This review first appeared in the Contra Costa Times.

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