The art of living well.

Dancing King

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He attended several colleges, ending up with a degree from Chicago’s Roosevelt University, but he pursued his formal training in dance at the American Ballet Theatre and the Merce Cunningham Studio, both in New York City. Despite starting dance late in life (most professional ballet dancers begin as children), he began landing small roles in Chicago productions before catching on with the Allegro American Ballet Company, founded by former members of the Royal Ballet, but based in the Windy City. Three years later, when the troupe returned to England, Cunningham stayed behind and with a handful of ex-Allegro cohorts formed a small company that toured the Midwest. Around the same time, he began to delve into choreography, creating productions at a Jewish community center. A period of exploration followed—he visited several countries behind the Iron Curtain—and afterward he migrated to New York, sleeping on friends’ floors and soaking up the city’s creative ferment.

His big break arrived in 1972 when he tried out for the Boston Ballet when they were holding auditions in New York. The company offered him a job as a corps member and agreed to let him choreograph productions. He eventually rose to principal dancer and, in 1974, he arranged the choreography for the children’s ballet Tubby the Tuba; in its review of the show, The New York Times praised Cunningham’s work for its “wit, clarity and inventiveness.” Elevated to resident choreographer in 1975, Cunningham developed nearly two dozen productions over the ensuing decade. He also met Binda after she joined the company as a member of the corps in 1972, and they married 10 years later in Palermo, Italy.From right: Cunningham and Binda with Xin Lili, director of the Shanghai Ballet, and Yang Xinhua, vice president of the Shanghai Dance School, during the Sacramento Ballet’s trip to China in 2007. (Photo by Jay Mather)

Binda’s life has been ballet almost since its inception. Her mother has taught ballet for many decades and is still teaching at age 90. Binda, who grew up watching her, naturally followed her into dance, joining the Boston Ballet right out of high school. “I took to the stage like some people do to water,” says Binda. “The pointe work was very simple for me. It’s such a foreign thing to get up on your toes and to have a strong enough arch and an achilles [tendon] that can contract enough that you can balance up there.” 

The couple’s personal and professional collaboration has relied on a common vision and a shared sense of humor. “How do we work together?” Cunningham asks, grinning. “A famous couple was once asked that. They answered, ‘Do we think of divorce? Never! Murder? Often!’ ” A bit more seriously, Binda adds, “We have the same sensibilities, the same aesthetics.” 

The couple has two children. Alexandra, 24, is following in her mother’s footsteps, entering her eighth season as a dancer with the Sacramento Ballet. She grew up dancing in the company’s Nutcracker production from age 6. Christopher, 28, lives in Washington, D.C. where he works for the government on East African affairs.

Cunningham and Binda left Boston in 1985 after leadership changes in the company there, making stops at the Louisville and Baltimore ballets before heading west in 1988 for what he considered an enticing opportunity to burnish the Sacramento Ballet’s reputation (though he had turned down two previous offers from the troupe). He took over a company low on staff and revenues, deficiencies he countered with sweat equity, imagination and Binda, who joined him a year later.

Then as now, the couple logs 12-hour days, seven days a week during the season, a work ethic that has enabled the troupe to survive the Great Recession. Three years ago, during the company’s darkest hour, Cunningham and Binda were forced to trim its regular season at the Community Center Theater.

But by hosting a series of in-studio performances—including the popular “Beer & Ballet” series, created and performed by resident dancers—and staging programs at small alternative venues, the company has made a remarkably swift recovery. Season subscriptions are on the rise, performances during the upcoming season will be held in Davis and Folsom, and the ballet hopes to move into the planned E. Claire Raley Studios for the Performing Arts (along with the philharmonic, opera and California Musical Theatre) in a few years. As to the company’s recovery, Cunningham says, “Carinne and I have a history of reinventing ourselves as necessitated by circumstances.”

The company’s profile has grown since Cunningham and Binda have been at the helm, highlighted by its 2007 performances in China, one of which was held in the same theater where the Boston Ballet staged Cinderella in 1980. The Chinese had learned a thing or two about audience protocol in the intervening years—they stood and cheered for several minutes after the final curtain—but the feeling of joy that Cunningham and Binda experienced was no different. It is a feeling that has sustained them for decades. They don’t expect that to change anytime soon.

“Ballet,” Cunningham says simply, “is our life.” S