Arts & Theater

Ballerina at the pointe of return

Alexandra Cunningham, 10 months after surgery to rebuild her left knee’s anterior cruciate ligament, prepares to return as Daisy in the Sacramento Ballet’s production of “The Great Gatsby.” “I want to be able to relax and just focus on being Daisy,” she said. Below right, she rehearses with Stefan Calka, who will also reprise his role as Jay Gatsby.
Alexandra Cunningham, 10 months after surgery to rebuild her left knee’s anterior cruciate ligament, prepares to return as Daisy in the Sacramento Ballet’s production of “The Great Gatsby.” “I want to be able to relax and just focus on being Daisy,” she said. Below right, she rehearses with Stefan Calka, who will also reprise his role as Jay Gatsby. mcrisostomo@sacbee.com

When the curtain rises tonight for the first of four performances of “The Great Gatsby,” which opens the Sacramento Ballet’s 60th season, there will be live music, eye-catching costumes from the Roaring Twenties, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s poignant story of big dreams, lavish parties, love, obsession and loss told through the elegance and precision of ballet.

Starring as Jay Gatsby’s love interest, Daisy Buchanan, will be Alexandra Cunningham, who reprises her role from last year’s premiere of the ballet. Known for both her poise and passion as a dancer and charisma as an actor, the accomplished 27-year-old ballerina has handled the demands of numerous leading roles. To the casual fan of ballet, it might seem like just another gig.

But for Cunningham, who has been rehearsing for the past month, this is a new beginning, a comeback from a complete tear of her anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee and major surgery by the same doctor who tends to the Sacramento Kings players.

“I feel overjoyed to be back performing and being around the other dancers doing what I love every day,” said Cunningham three days before the premiere. “I feel nervous about the performance. There is an expectation from other people, but mostly from myself.”

There are so many questions to be answered in the hours ahead, so many leaps and lifts and landings, and all those twists and bends that will test the knee at the intensity of a live performance, with a packed house looking on and adrenaline pumping through a dancer who has been healing and waiting for 10 months, sometimes wondering if this day would ever happen.

Will she push too hard? Will the knee hold up? Will it buckle, as it sometimes did in the early days of rehearsal? Will the dancer herself be able to trust it? And more than anything, can she recapture that same magic she once knew so readily as an artist in full flight, that incomparable feeling of losing herself in the role and performing her choreographed pieces without being too self-aware, too cautious?

“Since this is a story ballet, I’m looking forward to delving into the character as soon as I’m on stage and not really worry about the steps. I want to be able to relax and just focus on being Daisy,” she said.

For much of the past year, Cunningham had focused simply on reclaiming her life as a dancer. She had experienced pain that left her writhing and in tears. She had focused on swelling and stiffness and doubt. She looked ahead with optimism. And sometimes, she fought back doubts that crept in when the knee wouldn’t respond.

The dark day came out of the blue. It was Oct. 25, 2013, a Friday, and Cunningham was going through the paces of a rehearsal of George Balanchine’s “Rubies” with her partner, Christopher B. Nachtrab.

“I was super excited to be able to do this dance, and I was having so much fun with Chris,” Cunningham recalled. “We were warming up one day, and I felt my knee click and crack and shift and do lots of weird things. It was a simple movement. I was pushing off the left leg to do a double pirouette, which is not a big deal.”

It was just over an hour before the actual performance, and Cunningham shrugged it off. And this is where things start to go terribly wrong.

To understand ballet is to appreciate the graceful beauty of movement and the exacting lines that make everything seem so natural, if not dreamlike. But ballet is as much an illusion as it is an art, for behind all the beauty and ease are the aches and pains of a dancer’s everyday existence. They suffer for their art, and they suffer so often that it becomes the norm.

“When girls first start on pointe at about 13, it is really painful because your feet are going through a ‘what the heck are you doing to me?’ moment,” Cunningham said with a laugh. “Ballet is pretty unnatural for the body. You know that going in. You know that turning your legs out from the hip sockets is pretty unnatural to do. It’s an interesting juxtaposition of natural and unnatural body movement. Our goal is to make it look seamless.”

Dancers who make it into the professional ranks understand this and even embrace it. And they learn to tune out pain. This time Cunningham was so determined to keep going that she danced for two more months, sometimes finishing performances in tears or making road trips in a cramped van and arriving barely able to move her left leg. As an MRI eventually confirmed, she had been tuning out more than discomfort.

Eventually, she knew she couldn’t keep going. The pain got worse. Dance was now torture.

“Suddenly, I realized how much denial I had been in and I was overwhelmed,” she said upon learning the results of the MRI. “I was scheduled to perform Sugar Plum (Fairy) like eight times, and I knew it was going to be a hassle for the entire company if I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t believe this was happening. I cried and all that embarrassing stuff.”

She had surgery Dec. 23. Dr. Marty Reed said an examination showed that the rest of her knee was in good shape, making her a candidate for a full recovery.

“She’s strong-willed, she’s motivated, and she’s athletically gifted. All of these things work in her favor,” said Reed, an orthopedics specialist at Kaiser Permanente. “I look at Alexandra as a top-level athlete, and what these athletes do, it’s a double-edged sword. They have an amazing physical gift and in large part they are created that way.”

Reed believes the knee is strong and stable by now, but he says the challenge moving forward will be more mental than physical.

“It’s going to take a couple of ballets and a couple of different performances to be comfortable with her own knee. Structurally, she is very close to 100 percent. There is no question in my mind that she is strong enough to proceed with her activities.”

For the past month, the dancers have been rehearsing and training six days a week at the Sacramento Ballet studio in midtown. It’s a grueling schedule from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. that leaves nothing to chance. The movements are performed over and over. The co-artistic directors, Ron Cunningham and Carinne Binda, who happen to be Alexandra’s parents, are known for their long hours and attention to detail.

Alexandra started six days earlier with her dance partner, Stefan Calka (Jay Gatsby), gingerly at first as she plotted out some of the choreography and tested what her knee could do. To fix the ACL, which provides stability to the knee and is involved in one of the most serious of football and basketball injuries, Reed used a portion of tendon from Cunningham’s hamstring to essentially construct a new ACL for her left knee. The recovery time is generally nine to 12 months.

After the surgery, she returned to the midtown home she shares with her boyfriend, former dancer Michael Vester. Cunningham went to bed in comfort, thanks to the ongoing effects of the anesthesia. But it didn’t last.

“I woke up in the middle of the night in excruciating pain,” she said. “It felt like there was a huge gash in the back of my leg and and a gash in my knee. I couldn’t get comfortable. I couldn’t figure out a way to lie in the bed. It was the most pain I’ve ever experienced.”

After two hours, she passed out. Eventually, she got new medicines and learned to manage the pain, but Cunningham had to deal with the waiting and inactivity until she could begin rehab. She wouldn’t be dancing for months.

During that time, Cunningham watched ballet as a fan instead of a dancer and learned to see it and love it in a new way. She became a different dancer, even if she was too hobbled to do a basic plié. She gained a fresh perspective. Maybe she had danced for so many years that she had taken it for granted. Maybe she could rededicate herself to the fundamentals when she was strong enough again. She couldn’t wait.

“We get so involved in looking in the mirror and criticizing ourselves and taking criticism so personally. It’s easy to get pretty negative and jaded as a dancer,” she said, shrugging. “The feeling I got from watching a performance was incredible. To sit in the theater, have the lights go down and wait for the start, it’s magical.

“I think dancers lose touch with that because we spend our days criticizing ourselves. Taking a step back was a good thing. Now I feel so happy every time I’m in the studio. It’s like, ‘How cool is this? I get to spend my whole day dancing.’ This was my dream when I was a little girl, and now I’m here and I’m back.”

Editor’s note: This article was changed on Oct. 23 to expand the identification of Dr. Marty Reed and on Oct. 24 to correct the spelling of Carrine Binda.

Call The Bee’s Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @Blarob.

THE GREAT GATSBY

What: The ballet, choreographed by Ron Cunningham and based on the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, opens the Sacramento Ballet’s 60th season, which honors founder Barbara Crockett.

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday

Where: Sacramento Community Center Theatre, 1301 L St., Sacramento

Cost: $17-$57

Information: www.sacballet.org; (916) 552-5800

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