Dancing King

He was a principal dancer for the Boston Ballet, he choreographed the first American ballet in China, and he has performed with the legendary Rudolf Nureyev. On the verge of his 25th anniversary at the helm of the Sacramento Ballet, Ron Cunningham has his own Cinderella story to tell.
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Sacramento Ballet’s co-artistic director Ron Cunningham with dancer Isha Lloyd at the company’s midtown studio (Photo by Max Whittaker)

Silence descended when the curtain lifted on Cinderella at the Tianqiao Theatre in Beijing, and as ballet dancers flitted across the stage over the first 20 minutes, the hush only amplified, seeming to grow heavier, deeper. The packed house was inert, as if hypnotized. Or, worse, asleep.

The year was 1980, and the Boston Ballet company had traveled to China at the invitation of its government. It was the very first performance by an American ballet company in the People’s Republic of China. In the wake of the Cultural Revolution, Chinese officials wanted to revitalize the arts, and 30 million people were reportedly watching the performance on television—and, presumably, noticing the complete lack of applause in the theater. Was the then-largest broadcast audience in ballet history witnessing the flop of the century?

Cunningham leads an audition for "The Nutcracker" in September 2006. It is believed that the Sacramento Ballet’s production of the Tchaikovsky classic features more children than any other cast in the country. (Photo by Max Whittaker)

Cunningham leads an audition for “The Nutcracker” in September 2006. It is believed that the Sacramento Ballet’s production of the Tchaikovsky classic features more children than any other cast in the country. (Photo by Max Whittaker)

Ron Cunningham, then the company’s choreographer, recalled standing in the wings with Carinne Binda, his future wife and one  of the production’s featured dancers, and describes the silence as excruciating. “You could hear a pin drop,” says Cunningham. “No applause, no laughter, nothing.”

Moments later, as Binda took the stage, they heard the sound of one man clapping. Few in the building likely recognized Clive Barnes, the influential New York dance critic. But the crowd followed the stranger’s cue, slowly at first, almost imperceptibly, until their ovation drowned out the stillness.

“We learned later that the audience—the upper crust of Chinese society—was warned that this was a very important historic occasion and that they were not to disturb the concert. I’ve never experienced anything like it in my life,” Cunningham says.

Eight years after visiting the Far East to play a small part in China’s cultural renewal, Cunningham moved to the West Coast to take a leading role in reinvigorating the Sacramento Ballet as its new artistic director. Binda joined the troupe a year later and ascended to co-director in 1991. During their reign, Sacramento has moved from the shadows into the spotlight as a highly respected regional company, a testament to the couple’s creative ambition, economic resilience and an immunity to fatigue. As Cunningham prepares to celebrate his 25th anniversary with the troupe, the upcoming season—dubbed “A Silver Celebration” in his honor, and set to begin Oct. 18 with Romeo & Juliet—figures to inspire its share of awed silence and rousing applause.

Cunningham dancing in the Boston Ballet studios in 1976. (Photo by King Douglas)

Cunningham dancing in the Boston Ballet studios in 1976. (Photo by King Douglas)

The company’s 2012-13 season will offer a fizzy mix of the popular and the pioneering. The lavish staging of Romeo & Juliet boasts what Cunningham considers the strongest choreography of his career, along with more than 200 period-piece costumes and elaborate sets to match. (Miss the tale of poisoned love at your own risk: the company won’t perform it again until 2017.) Next up is holiday audience favorite The Nutcracker, with a cast of 500 children (picked from a range of socioeconomic strata, and some of whom are disabled)—believed to be the most of any production in the country. February brings the world premiere of The Great Gatsby, Cunningham’s first new, full-length ballet in five years, based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel of avarice rewarded and love thwarted in the Roaring Twenties. (Gatsby tops a double bill with Who Cares?, a ’20s and ’30s-era tribute conceived by George Balanchine, the famed founding choreographer of the New York City Ballet, with music by George Gershwin.)

Rounding out the season are a production on the lighter side of Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Modern Masters-Protégés, a program which this year brings back eminent Sacramento Ballet alums who have gone on to soar as dancers and choreographers with companies across the country. Returning performers include Amy Seiwert, now choreographer-in-residence with San Francisco’s Smuin Ballet, and Yuba City native Jared Nelson, who performs with The Washington Ballet in the nation’s capital.

Sacramento Ballet’s co-artistic director Carinne Binda as Cinderella during a Boston Ballet performance in China in 1980. (Photo by King Douglas)

Sacramento Ballet’s co-artistic director Carinne Binda as Cinderella during a Boston Ballet performance in China in 1980. (Photo by King Douglas)

The caliber of the onetime protégés reveals how the company has bloomed in the care of Cunningham and Binda. Early in their tenure, the pair traveled the country prospecting for talent, trying—mostly in vain—to lure dancers to Sacramento. Now performers come to them looking for a chance.
“At least part of our success can be traced to our having fostered relationships with key people at all of the best ballet companies in the country,” Cunningham says. Equally crucial has been the eclectic repertoire cultivated by the couple. They balance classics—Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Don Quixote and that Chinese favorite Cinderella—with contemporary works by the likes of Twyla Tharp, Trey McIntyre and Septime Webre, Balanchine masterworks and Cunningham’s own vast oeuvre of 60 ballets. Under their stewardship, the company has staged 38 world premieres, among them Carmina Burana and Bolero.

“We’ve acquired a reputation,” Cunningham says. “Dancers know our work ethic and standards, and that working with us will challenge them and add to their futures.”

His self-appraisal is affirmed by Charlie Neshyba-Hodges, ballet master for the Los Angeles Dance Project. (The art collective’s director and co-founder, Benjamin Millepied, served as the choreographer for Black Swan, the 2010 film that brought Natalie Portman—now Millepied’s wife—an Oscar for best actress.) Neshyba-Hodges assisted Twyla Tharp for a decade after leaving Sacramento in 2002 and two years ago, he received the Fred & Adele Astaire Award for best male dancer on Broadway.

Without the tutelage of Cunningham, whom he refers to as a “father figure,” Neshyba-Hodges says, “I never would have developed the confidence to walk onstage in the numerous leading roles I have had the thrill to perform, nor would I have been able to assume the same sort of purposeful roles in my personal life.”

At age 73, Cunningham, while plenty old enough to wear the appellation of “father figure,” retains the lithe athleticism that enabled him to forge a long, successful dance career despite a late start. Very late.

He grew up in Chicago in a blue-collar family, an indifferent student who, after finishing high school, attended junior college, with little enthusiasm and less purpose. One night in 1962 when he was 23, he stopped by Chicago’s Civic Opera House to watch the Royal Ballet and its legendary featured dancer Rudolf Nureyev. When the show ended, Cunningham was dazed and dazzled. He’d also found direction.

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)

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)

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.

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