Dance Party

Posted on December 18, 2008 – 7:05 PM | by OldManFoster
  • Share

by Niki Kangas  photos by Jesse Vasquez

He’s quite an articulate man, so I’ll let Ron Cunningham, co-director of the Sacramento Ballet for the last 21 years, say it himself: “Old-fashioned, European, white, dusty, museum… all those kinds of adjectives are what most people often associate with ballet, but contemporary ballets like ours… we couldn’t be further from that! It’s highly athletic, very visceral, stunningly beautiful, and incredibly sexy.”  This year, Sacramento Ballet kicked off its season in October with a brand new adaptation of Alice in Wonderland— that means Cunningham chose new scenery, costumes, and music (John Clifford’s Mozart Divertamento), choreographing a fresh ballet with wife and co-director Carinne Binda.


Ron Cunningham wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his little mouth.  Instead, he grew up in a working class family not connected in any way with the arts. In his senior year of obtaining his business and marketing degree, he went out to a ballet, and just happened to catch a performance by a young Russian defector named Rudolf Nureyev.  That performance by Nureyev changed Cunningham’s life. “It inspired me to the point that I quit school and became a dancer… and very early on I knew that I wanted to create dances,” he remembers.

Most dancers begin their education early in life– the age of 23 was considered a late start. Making up for his tardiness in entering the dance realm, Cunningham was compelled to learn as much as he could, and quickly. He studied both modern and classical dance, which at that time, was uncommon; for that reason, he became a vanguard of the day. “I think it served me well, that as a creator of dance, I’m not really limited to a particular style.” He was trained in Chicago by the Royal Ballet of London, and took jobs in opera, TV, and on Broadway, endeavoring to understand dance from every angle. With exuberance, competence, and dedication, he quickly acquired a seat of power at the Boston Ballet, where he worked for thirteen years prior to coming to Sacramento.

Since Cunningham has come on board, the Sacramento Ballet has gone from a three-person staff with a $400,000 budget to a twelve-person staff with a $3 million budget– impressive growth, yet still paltry compared with the infrastructure of other cities’ ballets of the same size and scope. Binda and Cunningham choose staff and dancers with meticulous care, looking for qualities of dynamism and supportiveness, and “…that translates into a spirit onstage that is very recognizable, very palpable to the audience,” he beams. Every hand that touches his projects is not just coached to rise and fall with grace, but is ready to slap a high five to the team. That is what has leant itself to the success of Sacramento Ballet’s ability to do such amazing productions on such a diminutive budget, and, says Cunningham, “They are all a joy to work with.”

More development is currently in the works.  The Sacramento Ballet now finds itself smack dab in the middle of a $25 million campaign to procure a new space for itself, the opera, the philharmonic, and the California Musical Theatre. The building will stand adjacent to the Music Circus and Brew it Up! on 14th and H Street;  the ballet will have approximately half of the square footage. The challenge in terms of fundraising in our region is the lack of corporate headquarters, and also that Sacramento is a relatively new city without the history of wealthy philanthropic individuals that the East coast enjoys. Still $4 million shy of the goal, planners think the prime real estate they’ll find themselves in will further the success of all four organizations– and thereby raise the philanthropic bar higher.

The Sacramento Ballet, beyond giving the community another option in top-notch entertainment, also gives back with many outreach programs. Beyond gifting free tickets to thousands of children and holding inexpensive matinees for schools, the Sacramento Ballet created ‘Dance Power’, in which dancers go into 4th, 5th, or 6th grade classrooms and get the kids off their feet, involving them in theatre games and all forms of dancing. Ron explains the mission behind ‘Dance Power’: “They come away learning a little bit about our world, that it’s fun, it’s physical, that we actually make a living at it. The message to the children isn’t to try and make them ballet dancers, but that we’re doing something that we LOVE, and as you’re growing up, thinking about what you want to do with your life, there a lot of possibilities, and if you can dream it up, you can do it.”

Five hundred ‘Nutcracker Kids’ are selected for his annual (and upcoming) Nutcracker production, and no other company’s homage to the famous Christmas ballet boasts as many young dancers. He expressly hires children from all socioeconomic backgrounds, including handicapped children, to teach the group that anyone can cut it. Working with children, for him, brings social responsibility; “Yes, ballet is pretty and entertaining, but it’s also about communicating and sharing with people.”

An additional social hurdle that Cunningham bounds over with aplomb is making ballet accessible to everyone. The annual event, Beer and Ballet, held informally in the dance studio, puts dancers in charge of the choreography; spectators sit up close and personal in their everyday garb on folding chairs. Beyond being a way to, as he puts it, “Take the capital ‘C’ out of culture,” he adds, “It’s kind of like a laboratory to produce new works.”   The event tests choreographers as well– several of the participants have gone on to begin real choreography careers. Spectators get a free beer (for many of us the two magic words that get us off our couches) and can mingle with the gorgeous dancers. Hardly Average Joe’s notion of what ballet is like, and that’s exactly the point, of course.

Cunningham and Binda work seven days a week, at least twelve hours a day, and wouldn’t be caught dead doing anything else. The relatively small size of the Sacramento Ballet, coupled with its enormous vision demands rigor and ardor from every staff member and dancer. As an artistic director, Cunningham is responsible for everything- hiring and training dancers, inventing dances, obtaining costumes and sets, fundraising, promoting, and attending board meetings, and he admits, “You have to keep a lot of balls in the air, as a juggler would, and it can be a little hard to switch gears from coming out of a difficult finance meeting… to walking into the studio, wearing the creative hat, and suddenly you’ve got to be inspirational!”

Sacramento Ballet studios, 1631 K St, Sacramento, CA 95814. (916) 552-5800

The Nutcracker, accompanied by the Sacramento Philharmonic, takes the stage December 6th-December 24th at the Community Center Theater in the Convention Center Complex.

  1. One Response to “Dance Party”

  2. avatar

    By john cullen on Mar 14, 2015 | Reply

    Is this Ron Cunningham from allegro? Congratulations. You’ve made it big

Post a Comment