Sacramento’s Mr. Nutcracker sees his 30th season as a milestone, not a goodbye.
“This is not my swan song – I want to make that clear,” said Ron Cunningham, the Sacramento Ballet’s longtime artistic director, as he prepared the ballet for its annual holiday run of “The Nutcracker.”
With Cunningham’s choreography and staging, Sacramento’s “Nutcracker” is a unique blend of artistry and community tradition. Each year, 500 children – as young as 5 years old – take part in productions with about 150 kids in each performance. Besides directing and rehearsing the ensemble, Cunningham himself plays the role of Dr. Drosselmeyer, the toymaker.
After 30 years, this “Nutcracker” has been billed as Cunningham’s farewell, although it may not be his last. He wants to keep working and to keep this particular tradition alive. He also has four more productions left in his final Sacramento season.
With co-artistic director Carinne Binda, Cunningham will bow out in June at the end of their contract, which was not renewed. Starting in the late 1980s, the husband-and-wife team built the Sacramento Ballet’s “Nutcracker” production into a powerhouse, using Cunningham’s original choreography for the Tchaikovsky classic. They also established the Sacramento Ballet as a year-round arts leader, both locally and on a national stage. The couple will stay on as artistic directors emeritus.
Facing long-term economic challenges, the ballet’s board of directors opted for new leadership, starting in July 2018. Last January, the board announced its decision to search for a new director. In July, choreographer Amy Seiwert, who was a Sacramento Ballet dancer in the 1990s, was named the company’s new artistic director. She takes over next season.
As for Cunningham, he’s immersed in all things “Nutcracker.”
“Farewell? It’s not really,” said the 78-year-old director. “I’m not retiring. ‘Retirement’ should be in quotation marks. I’m not operating (the ballet) any differently. … Right now, we’re busy orchestrating 500 schoolchildren.”
“The Nutcracker” runs Dec. 9-23 at the Sacramento Community Center Theater. Between rehearsals, Cunningham shared his thoughts on “Nutcracker” philosophy, his next chapter and more. Here are excerpts from that interview:
Q. How do you manage to a production so big, especially with 500 young dancers?
Carinne and I have been co-artistic directors for a long time. We’ve always worked collaboratively. We believe two heads are better than one, we divide the workload. But orchestrating 500 schoolchildren is an unbelievable task. Teaching them steps is simple; scheduling is hard. Carinne does all the scheduling; she’s really brilliant at it. By August, we know where every child is going to be September through December.
We use about 150, 160 children each performance. The very young kids do very few performances; you don’t want to stress them. We do a ton of rehearsals.
Most of the children are accompanied by a professional dancer on stage. I tell the dancers, this is their dress rehearsal before having children of their own. They’re responsible for these kids. While on stage, every child in “The Nutcracker” has professional dancers’ eyes on them. The kids can’t possibly screw up because they’re always being monitored by the pros.
Q: Have you always had a lot of children in your production?
When we got here (30 years ago), I started putting lots of children in it. It’s part of our “Nutcracker” philosophy.
We see “The Nutcracker” through multiple lenses. As a tradition, it’s one thing we return to year after year after year. Besides that tradition for audiences, it’s a chance for professional dancers to assess their progress. There are so many roles! If you dance for five or 10 years with a company, you will rotate through almost all of them. It’s a way to push yourself and improve your skills. A real spark-plug type, who might be a natural for perky fast roles, could stretch (her) skills through a part with more artistry.
And doesn’t every professional dancer, when you get right down to it, aren’t they dancing now because they were inspired by “The Nutcracker”? I want our dancers to remember they’re role models, that youngsters are watching them. This is their opportunity to pass it forward. Those children may not become professional dancers, but they can learn to love dance.
Q. Do any of the “Nutcracker” kids become ballerinas?
We’ve seen some dancers grow up in “The Nutcracker.” Our daughter, Alexandra, started as a Christmas doll when she was 5 years old. Then, she was a baby bunny and so on. This will be her 25th “Nutcracker.” She’s our Sugar Plum Fairy.
Most kids in “The Nutcracker” won’t become professional dancers, but the skills and discipline they learn can be applied to lawyers, doctors, any professional career. Attention to fine detail, follow through, working in a group; all those things. Typically, “Nutcracker” children are very good students. They want to learn.
At every age, there’s an age appropriate role for that child, starting with the Christmas dolls (as the youngest). When the children are on stage, they do what children do (playing and dancing). Audiences respond to that; that’s what they love.
Q. How do you keep something as familiar as “The Nutcracker” fresh?
We cast each divertissement (short dance) five or six deep, so there are five Arab dance groups or six sets of Chinese dancers, etc. They rotate through the performances. So, every show is completely different because we keep mixing up the casting. You could see the show three or four times and each would be totally different.
We absolutely adore “The Nutcracker.” Some companies, they’ve been doing it so many years, they’re kind of … tired. Every company in America does “The Nutcracker” at some level. It’s a unique American phenomenon. You rarely see “The Nutcracker” in Europe; they’ll do some “Nutcracker” (excerpts) but not usually at Christmas.
But in America, “The Nutcracker” is part of our holiday traditions. People can’t imagine the holidays without “The Nutcracker.” It’s usually the first ballet an audience ever sees.
Q: What’s your favorite part of “The Nutcracker”?
My favorite part is the traditional production. It’s quite beautiful. We’ve never changed it. Why mess with pure success?
But what I really love is working with the children. Every year, I spend so many hours – about 150 hours of just children’s rehearsals. Each child gets individual attention. I really do enjoy working with the kids. That’s what keeps me young.
To me, “The Nutcracker” really is an act of love. It’s a way to give to others.
Q. Have their been any memorable “Nutcracker” moments like the giant Christmas tree toppling over?
I’m sure there have been millions of them. Just the other night (during a performance in Fresno), the sled clipped an angel (suspended by wires) and it went swinging around the stage like crazy. Stuff like that happens all the time. But the dancers are so quick and so prepared, the audience doesn’t even realize something happened.
I still do Dr. Drosselmeyer (the toymaker) and kids will want me to pick them up. Some kids have been in “The Nutcracker” a number of years. This one little girl, who had grown considerably, wanted me to pick her up again and … it wasn’t easy. Those moments happen every show.
Q: What’s the future of Ron Cunningham’s “The Nutcracker”?
(The Sacramento Ballet) wants to continue to do my “Nutcracker.” We’re still in discussions. So much thought has been put into this show; how to work with kids, how to be efficient. It’s not just the choreography. For now, (future) staging is still up in the air.
I do not believe it will be the last “Nutcracker” of mine.
Q: What’s your next chapter?
The idea of retirement is unimaginable to me. I don’t golf, I don’t fish. The day is long; what do you do?
I’m 78, but I don’t feel 78. I still think I have many days of working ahead of me. I don’t want to give up working completely.
I don’t know what the next stage is. I have four more shows here this season. I’ll do some staging of my ballets with other companies. (In October), I did “The Great Gatsby” with the ballet company in Dayton, Ohio. I was really nervous. It was the first time I staged one of my ballets with a different company than Sacramento in 30 years. It was a wonderful, delightful experience. I just loved it. I had a blast.
This could be a blessing. I could stage ballets without worrying about the bottom line.
Where: Sacramento Community Theater, 1301 L St., Sacramento
When: Dec. 9-23