A Winter’s Tale

Cue the tin soldiers, tiny mice, reindeer and falling snow. In December, the Sacramento Ballet celebrates 30 years of presenting its distinctive version of "The Nutcracker." As a large crew of dancers and children—500 in all—prepare to take the stage, Ron Cunningham and Carinne Binda, in their final season as the company’s artistic directors, visit the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future.
Carinne Binda and Ron Cunningham, co-artistic directors for the Sacramento Ballet, at the company's studio inside the Clara building in midtown. Portrait by Max Whittaker.

Visions of Sugar Plum Fairies dance in the heads Vof Sacramento Ballet co-artistic directors Ron Cunningham and Carinne Binda many months before the curtain rises on their production of The Nutcracker in December.

“By July I know who’s going to be doing what on Nov. 25, who’s going to be where on Dec. 5,” says Binda of the tightly orchestrated rehearsal schedule for the show. “The last week of October is when we [start] putting all of our energy into The Nutcracker. We live and breathe it 24 hours a day. It’s a well-oiled machine. Having danced together, having directed together and being married, there’s very little Ron and I don’t agree 100 percent on.”

“Well in ballet, at least,” quips Cunningham.

The making of their version of the classic ballet—which Cunningham originally choreographed in the late ’70s for the Boston Ballet, and marks its 30th anniversary in Sacramento this season—didn’t always go so smoothly. When Cunningham first arrived in the capital city in August 1988 to take over as the company’s new artistic director (Binda followed from Boston a year later, and became co-director in 1991), he inherited sets and costumes, some of which had been used since 1968, a small pool of about six professional dancers (the troupe currently boasts 27 pros), a handful of high schoolers—and no boys. Cunningham improvised.

“We were at the YWCA, where we were located my first year or so,” he recalls. “There were two boys out in front, playing marbles or something. I said, ‘Hey boys, do you want to come see a play?’ They said, ‘Yeah sure!’ So they came in and we did some [routines with] the professional dancers. They said, ‘Oh, that’s really cool!’ Those were my first two boys. I pulled them in off the street.”

A herd of tiny antlered dancers perform the role of reindeer in Ron Cunningham’s "Nutcracker." (Photo by Keith Sutter)

A herd of tiny antlered dancers perform the role of reindeer in Ron Cunningham’s “Nutcracker.” (Photo by Keith Sutter)

That kind of quick thinking paid off, and the local premiere of Cunningham’s Nutcracker was an instant hit. A 1988 Sacramento Bee review called the rendition a “pure delight,” noting that “what was once a dance for adults is here designed for both parents and children—a neat touch indeed.”

“We believe that we have more children participating in an annual Nutcracker than any company, not only in America, but in the world,” says Cunningham, referring to one aspect of the production—which started with a cast of about 200 kids and has grown to 500 per season performing 149 roles in multiple casts—that sets Sacramento’s Nutcracker apart. “The Nutcracker is like a stepping stone—it’s a microcosm for kids who are interested in dancing. At every level we wanted to ensure there was a role for the children to step up to. That’s why we kept adding [new junior parts] in the mix. They start as a little mouse or Christmas doll, and by the time they are teenagers, they are dancing ‘Waltz of the Flowers’ right next to a company member.”

See Sactown‘s 2006 photo essay of The Nutcracker audition process HERE.

One example of a dancer who pirouetted her way through the ranks is the couple’s own daughter, Alexandra Cunningham. Presently a principal dancer with the Sacramento Ballet who will take the stage this season as the Sugar Plum Fairy, she made her debut in 1992 at age 5 as a Christmas doll, and has assumed almost every part in between.

“I remember what it was like to be the [kids’] age looking up to these dancers wearing tutus and fancy crowns,” she says. “Now I get to play one of the most gracious, loving, giving roles out there, and to be on the other side in that role model position is pretty awesome.”

Count actress-writer-director Greta Gerwig (see Sactown‘s cover story here), who performed as the young heroine Clara one season while growing up in Sacramento, as another breakout star from the Nutcracker training program. “I so remember her as Clara,” says Ron Cunningham. “She was delightful—very serious and intense as a child and wonderful on stage.”

Clara and the Nutcracker prince wave goodbye to the Land of Sweets as a hot-air balloon takes them home. (Photo by Keith Sutter)

Clara and the Nutcracker prince wave goodbye to the Land of Sweets as a hot-air balloon takes them home. (Photo by Keith Sutter)

In fact, with decades of The Nutcracker under their belts, Cunningham and Binda’s lives are teeming with former Claras, Teeny Tiny Mice and Baby Bunnies. “I’ll be anywhere in the community—like I’ll be shopping at Raley’s and the checkout person will say, ‘Do you remember me? I played a reindeer in 1997,’ ” says Cunningham.

“We now actually have the children of people who appeared in The Nutcracker 30 years ago,” adds Binda. “It’s magnificent.”

Since Cunningham’s Nutcracker has become such a part of Sacramento’s holiday tradition, the question of what will happen next season looms large. (The Sacramento Ballet’s board of directors announced a parting of ways with the couple last January and has selected former company dancer Amy Seiwert as artistic director for the 2018-19 season).

“It’s a sensitive [situation],” says Cunningham, “and there’s been discussion on the board on ways to do my version of The Nutcracker in the future. So we have some tentative plans to do that, but we still have details to work out.”

For now, though, the show will go on as it always has, with 500 tiny dancers and one Ron Cunningham reprising the role of Clara’s kindly godfather Dr. Drosselmeyer, and the visions of Sugar Plum Fairies that have long danced in his and Binda’s heads will soon dance in ours too.

The Nutcracker will be performed on weekends through 23 at the Community Center Theater. For more information, call 552-5810 or visit sacballet.org.