A one-of-a-kind artist brings ballet to the people Special

Posted Oct 18, 2013 by W. Mark Dendy
Ron Cunningham is a truly inspirational artist. His canvas is limited only by the size of his stage, and his brushes are people moving to the rhythm of the music vivifying a tale. And this gifted man showed me that ballet is for everyone.
A scene from Cunningham s  The Great Gatsby  performed by the Sacramento Ballet.
A scene from Cunningham's "The Great Gatsby" performed by the Sacramento Ballet.
While sitting in the common area of the Sacramento Ballet Studio in midtown waiting to interview Cunningham, I could not help but notice a distinct dichotomy existed on that corner of 17th and K streets. It was mid-morning; people were still waking up around town.
I looked to my left and through the plate glass windows that separate the studio from the common area, I saw perfectly toned bodies moving in synchronicity, smiling, reaching upward to melodic sounds.
Then, straight ahead, from the same seat, I watched as a myriad of people walked past the plate glass doors that separated the studio from the outside world. Some strolled by with their lattes on their way to work, but most were bundled up in layers of tattered clothes, pushing a shopping cart or carrying a worn dirty backpack with all their worldly belongings in tow.
I looked back at the happy faces in the studio and then to the street as a woman with matted hair and oversize boots stopped in front of the doors and peered in. Her weathered face looked grim. It was unsettling.
Cunningham appeared and sat down beside me. Cunningham is the artistic director for the Sacramento Ballet, As I began the interview, the white-haired, vibrant man's wisdom led me to the realization of a different dichotomy - one not limited to that little locale or any other corner in our world.
The brilliant choreographer brought to my attention the separation that exists between ballet lovers and those who have never given ballet a chance. I asked Cunningham how we as a nation could use the arts to bring the great divide closer together.
He said, “A lot of people have the idea about ballet in particular, that it doesn’t relate to them. It’s old fashioned, it’s white, it’s European, it’s dusty, museum type stuff. When you say ballet to a person who has never seen ballet, immediately, in their mind, the connection is like Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty. And those ballets are great and relevant and we need to continue to do them. But there is nothing more relevant than contemporary ballet or dance, because it does so relate to our modern society.”
The 74 year old Cunningham’s age is well disguised in a remarkably fit body from his years of dancing and dance instruction.
He spoke softly; his blue eyes seemed to dance to the music emanating from the studio as he told me about his first experience with ballet. “I saw my first ballet at age 23. It was the first thing that ever made total sense to me,” he said.
New Year’s Eve, without a date, Cunningham bought a ticket to the ballet. At the time, he was just about to begin his last semester of college; he was majoring in business. Cunningham continued, “When I saw ballet for the first time, it was almost like a religious conversion to me. It made total sense to me. I am perplexed by how people say they don’t understand ballet.”
He quit school, looked in the yellow pages and found a ballet school. He had second thoughts, but they were short-lived.
His dance career has spanned more than four decades. Cunningham and his wife and co-director of the Ballet, Carrine Binda, met while working at the Boston Ballet. They were the first American Ballet troupe invited to the People’s Republic of China.
Cunningham credits his wife’s vision and “good sense” for helping them make it through the difficult times that all of the arts seemed to suffer four or five years ago. And that brought us back to our discussion of using the arts to close the divide – how to bring ballet to the people or the people to the ballet.
"We have programs at Sheldon High and McClatchy High where we bring the ballet to schools," he said. And we also open up our studios for people to just come in and watch us rehearse."
The Sacramento Ballet has "Inside the Director's Studio" events and "Beer and Ballet" in an effort to demonstrate that ballet isn't an art enjoyed solely by the elite.
Cunningham said, “Audience development is very important to us in making dance accessible. As a choreographer, I never want to lose the feeling I had as an audience member seeing my very first ballet. So that wife that’s dragging that husband along who’s saying, ‘I don’t think I like ballet!’ – He’s the one that goes, ‘Oh my gosh! I didn’t realize what this was.’ That’s the person I choreograph to. I want them to have the immediacy of understanding ballet the first time they see it. And hopefully become a fan of the art form.”
Cunningham said that is always in his mind when he creates a new work. He is a one of a kind artist!
I have watched Cunningham at work directing dancers as they rehearsed productions
Cunningham works so well with the artists he employs. The dancers seem to follow his direction with ease and enjoy being a part of his beautiful works.
This ability to lead may be rooted in one of the marketing classes he had prior to leaving the more stable business path on his venture down the risky arts road.
He said, “The professor walked into the room (there were only men, no women) and said ‘Gentlemen, we are here to study the world’s oldest profession.’ We all kind of giggled and then he said, ‘First, you have to sell it.’ And we all thought – oh yeah. That stuck in my head.”
So Cunningham said, "With that, not as a hired artist, but rather a creator, I know the idea must be saleable."
Then the master storyteller and choreographer said something very profound. He said, “The materials I works with are live, living people. They are not inanimate objects like paints or a piano or a score. These people, my medium, have opinions about my work. I can make a right stroke with a brush and it’s done. I ask a dancer to do something and they might say, ‘You want me to do what?’ They have an opinion about it.”
He said that in order to engage them he has to gain their trust – he has to "sell them so they feel they are vested. So I consider them collaborators."
There is no question that Cunningham has "sold" his dancers on his productions. You could feel the enthusiasm in the air as the dancers rushed from one studio to the other to rehearse various dance routines” gulping water and eating ”carbs” as they hurried past me.
Sarah Britton Hicks, has been a professional dancer for four years; this is her first season with the Sacramento Ballet. She said, “I have never loved being anywhere as much as here at rehearsal. "
The enthusiasm the exuberant Cunningham brought to Sacramento 25 years ago along with his creativity and passion for the arts is more evident today than ever.
That same man at age 30, only seven short years after making a dramatic career change, told the founder of the Boston Ballet that he would come to work for her, not as an artist, but as a choreographer. Cunningham with confidence told her, “I am a genius.”
Now, four decades later, he demonstrates that same “genius” he employed with the Boston Ballet and has continued to demonstrate season after season with the Sacramento Ballet.
The 2013-2014 season titled "Beauty, Bravura & Brilliance" begins Oct. 24 with "The Firebird" and ends in May 2014 with "Modern Masters." And this season will also feature Cunningham's brilliant interpretation of "The Great Gatsby" in March.
For more information about the Sacramento Ballet or to purchase tickets, click here.