Friday, March 27, 2015

Alexandra Cunningham and the Sacramento Ballet opens Swan Lake with a flawless performance

After watching Alexandra Cunningham's performance in Swan Lake at the Sacramento Community Center Theater, the best comparison I could come up with, Cunningham performed on the same level as the late great Freddie Mercury of Queen.

I had the pleasure of witnessing Freddie Mercury on three separate occasions  in the late 60s and early 70s and his spectacular stage presence and performance,  He was very seductive and crowds adored him.

Alexandra Cunningham as Odile with Stefan Calka as Prince Siegfried.
Photo credit: Keith Sutter
The same was so true for Miss Cunningham last evening when she danced the duel role of Odette and Odile.  As Odette her dance moves were precise, yet so fluid, and she captivated the audience.  But when she appeared as Odile, she quite literally seduced the audience as she beguiled Prince Siegfried, a role danced by the very talented Stefan Calka.

I spoke with Calka and Alexandra both after the show.  She told me she made some "mental notes" during her performance one that I considered flawless.  When I complemented Calka on his performance, he gave most of the credit to Miss Cunningham saying, "With a partner like Alex, it is s much easier."

It is a role that most every ballet dancer aspires to, and no doubt Miss Cunningham nailed it on this her first ever performance of Swan Lake.
Maggie Rupp, Lauryn Winterhalder, Karina Hagemeyer, and Evelyn TurnerPhoto credit: Keith Sutter

The quartet of Maggie Rupp, Lauryn Winterhalder, Karina Hagemeyer, and Evelyn Turner was unbelievable as they moved in perfect synchronization, not a miss-step anywhere.  There routine was extremely difficult as they traversed back and forth across the stage in tandem.

The entire troupe was inspiring to watch and the theater overflowed with beauty, talent, and most important of all a cast of people, reaching beyond those on stage who are committed to bringing the best in Ballet to the Sacramento region.

Hats off and thanks to Ron Cunningham, Carrine Binda, co-artistic directors of the Sacramento ballet, the Board of Directors, and all the stage crew and behind the scenes.

It was truly an amazing show!

Three performances remain so don't miss out.  Get your tickets now!
Now is the time to purchase your tickets before they sell out! There will be four performances of this incredible production of the grand ballet Swan Lake. Purchase tickets by clicking this link.

March 27 @ 7:30pm
March 28 @ 7:30pm
March 29 @ 2pm

Monday, March 23, 2015

Alexandra Cunningham - In the Spotlight

Alexandra Cunningham epitomizes beauty, grace, elegance, and sheer artistic brilliance on stage and in the studio. I have watched Miss Cunningham dance for almost half of her professional years and have seen her grow and flourish into a world-class ballerina.

What is so utterly amazing is that Cunningham could have chosen any field to go into - medicine, law, technology, public service, education, but she chose dance, a field within the performing arts which at times encompasses through artistic expression each of the many career paths for which she could have opted.

Ron Cunningham
Photo: Sacramento Ballet
Alex Cunningham is no doubt extraordinary. She is am amalgamation of her father, Ron Cunningham, known early in his career for his artistic inspirations as a principal dancer and choreographer with the Boston Ballet and her mother, Carinne Binda-Cunningham, known for her poise and beauty and technical expertise as a soloist, also with the Boston Ballet.

Carinne Binda-Cunningham
Photo: Sacramento Ballet
For the past 27 years the Sacramento community has been blessed with Ron Cunningham's creativity and artistic vision as Director of the Sacramento Ballet, and for the past 24 years we have enjoyed Carinne Binda's Cunningham's work alongside her husband on both creative and technical aspects of the ballets performed over their tenure at the Sacramento Ballet.

Now, that was just the lead-in to the reason for this brief "Artist Spotlight" article, and I apologize ahead of time to you,  Alex, for putting the added pressure on you.

Alexandra Cunningham
Photo: Sacramento Ballet
The Sacramento Community Center Theater should be packed Thursday night at the opening of Swan Lake, to see the culmination, the coming together, the apex of three brilliant artists' careers who not only share a love of ballet, but have something much more - they are family.

And when Miss Alexandra Cunningham steps on the stage to dance the roles of Odile and Odette, it is my hope that Sacramento stands up and takes notice of the trio of Cunningham's that have given so much to Sacramento!

I will be the first to stand and applaud them in their hard work and tremendous efforts to bring joy and art through the beauty of the ballet to the Sacramento community.

Now is the time to purchase your tickets before they sell out! There will be four performances of this incredible production of the grand ballet Swan Lake. Purchase tickets by clicking this link.

Opening night March 26 @ 7:30pm followed by three additional performances.
March 27 @ 7:30pm
March 28 @ 7:30pm
March 29 @ 2pm

Friday, March 6, 2015

Alexandra Cunningham and Susan Gartell prepare to take the Sacramento Community Center Theater's stage in the classical ballet Swan Lake

Two maidens, Alexandra Cunningham and Susan Gartell, some two decades ago, were both captivated by the beauty and grace of ballerinas moving on stage. But unlike Swan Lake's Odette, they were not subjugated by an evil prince; their holder was the dance- its power drawing them out of the forest of callings, and onto a clear and chosen path to becoming ballerinas.

Alexandra Cunningham
Sacramento Ballet
Cunningham, a dancer with the Sacramento Ballet and Gartell, a dancer with the Milwaukee Ballet, both being the epitome of grace and beauty, took time out of their busy schedules preparing to take the stage March 26th through the 29th in the the Sacramento Ballet's production of the classical ballet Swan Lake to give an interview about the exciting upcoming production.

Susan Gartell
Milwaukee Ballet
Each ballerina will assume dual roles of Odette and Odile, for two of the four performances. Neither has performed either role. Gartell has performed in Swan Lake as a professional dancer. But this will be Cunningham's first professional performance of Swan Lake.

Gartell said that Swan Lake is a great story about betrayal, redemption, falling in love and many human experiences and emotions and even though technique and stamina are important, she was quick to point out that "you can't do it {the ballet} without that," however "you have to make the audience love you and care about you."

Cunningham in the studio.
Both ballerinas have danced professionally now for a decade, and we talked about their evolution as dancers.  Cunningham said that over the years from apprentice to her current stage as a principal dancer her technique has improved tremendously and her fear has all but subsided.  She said, "I still get butterflies when I go on stage, but I'm not scared and I can just perform."

Visiting Milwaukee Ballet artist Gartell followed with a statement that spoke volumes about the strength of Swan Lake and how important this ballet is.  She said, "I have always referred to myself as a ballet dancer, but after playing Odile and Odette, I can call myself a ballerina."

Gartell on pointe.
Cunningham said that the role is "one of the most mature roles" she has ever had to play adding "It's a role that every little girl dreams of doing."

Both agreed that their upcoming roles are like the "pinnacle" of their careers and wonder where do they go from here.

This is an exciting time for these young ballerinas and an exciting time for Sacramento and its own World-class Ballet company.

Now is the time to mark your calendar or better yet purchase your tickets now any one of four performances of this sure to be incredible production of the grand ballet Swan Lake. Purchase tickets here.

March 26 @ 7:30pm
March 27 @ 7:30pm
March 28 @ 7:30pm
March 29 @ 2pm

Also next Friday, March 13, is the Sacramento Ballet's "Inside the Director's Studio," an informative event at the studio. Purchase tickets here.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Ron Cunningham's 25th World Premiere with the Sacramento Ballet, "Peter Pan," takes a packed audience to the land of dreams

Artistic directors, Ron Cunningham and Carinne Binda, did it again last night. A spectacular World Premier of a timeless story Peter Pan told through the beauty of dance, a beautiful blend of classical ballet and modern dance movements. This was Cunningham’s 25th World Premiere for the Sacramento Ballet in his 27 years of tenure.

The show opened with Wendy Darling, danced by veteran Alexandra Cunningham, and brothers John and Michael, veteran Richard Smith and newcomer John Whisler respectively, all frolicking in their bedroom with Nana the dog. Nana was a hit, a big shaggy dog with a flopping slobbery pink tongue; Alexander Biber worked the crowd well in the role as Nana.

Photo Credit: Keith Sutter
Animated Christopher Nachtrab who is as talented as a non-vocal actor as he is a dancer paired with the long-limbed elegant Katie Miller as Mr. and Mrs. Darling. Miller’s silk like movements provided a stark contrast to Nachtrab as the rigid and strict patriarch. But the WOW factors of the show came shortly after Mr. and Mrs. Darling exited the scene.

The first was Tinker Bell’s entrance through the large wardrobe in the corner of the elegant set. Maggie Rupp was the enchanting little fairy, a role she confessed to me in an interview that was “a dream come true.” Rupp said she was "inspired by the story ever since she was a little girl"and had loved Tinker Bell.  She added that Tinker Bell was "a little air headed" and fairies, "because they are so tiny, can only hold one emotion at a time." Rupp demonstrated those nuances in the way she danced the role. It was as if she wasn't playing a character. Maggie Rupp WAS Tinker Bell, live and on stage. Her infectious smile and flittering together were worth the price of admission.

Ron Cunningham, known for his superbly choreographed productions, made his World Premiere of Peter Pan both remarkable and memorable with the entrance of Peter Pan  The lovable dancer from London with red curly locks, Rex Wheeler, was adorable as the boy from Neverland who lost his shadow as he came flying through the window head-on towards the audience.. Wheeler’s grand entrance was met by a long round of applause, and I thought for a brief moment the crowd would rise to its feet. Wheeler spun and performed dance moves with perfection, a feat that appeared much more difficult to do in mid air due to the lack of a foundation from which to spring and leap.

Photo Credit: Keith Sutter
As the story goes, when Peter Pan became enamored with Wendy, Tinker Bell’s infectious smile turned upside down as she became a jealous little fairy, threatened by the other girl, and the talented and animated Rupp, raised the level of drama much to the audience’s delight.

The flight of Peter Pan, Wendy, and her two brothers was an all new experience for the four dancers. This was the first Ballet in which Ron Cunningham incorporated flight; the novel technique added flare to the ballet even though it was a part of the original story line. The harnesses arrived at the ballet only a week prior to the World Premiere, leaving little time for the dancers to get used to their restrictive nature and the feel of moving eloquently while suspended in mid-air. But the Sacramento Ballet is a welled trained a disciplined company, and certainly met the many challenges aptly.

Photo Credit: Keith Sutter
The scene  transitions from the Darling’s home to the lagoon in Neverland was another novel approach that demonstrated Cunningham’s brilliant artistic mind and collaborative skills. Cunningham employed the artistry of Stephanie Taylor , hand paintings in video scenes.  The depictions of Peter's and the Darling trio’s trip to Neverland were projected on the giant foreground drop and added a new dimension to what otherwise may have been just a quick scenery change.

Once the Darlings accompanied by Peter were over Neverland, Wendy was shot from the sky by the Band of Lost Boys who were enticed by the jealous Tinker Bell. The scene from a critical review standpoint was lacking, but was nonetheless quickly forgotten as the nefarious Captain Hook and his band of pitiful pirates arrived on scene.

Christopher Nachtrab was Captain Hook; his grand appearance was reminiscent of a mutant cross between Yanni and Liberace. Nachtrab told me in an earlier interview that his biggest fear was “The crowd would hate me.” That was not the case however; Nachtrab who is delightful and fun to watch couldn't have wished for a more receptive audience. One of the challenges Nachtrab faced was the precise control his movements to keep from injuring himself or himself with his “hook.” And he did so remarkably well, showing no stricture or dilution of his movements.

There was a hilarious moment in which the audience, or at least I, was not sure whether it was planned or accidental that the crocodile while chasing Hook, lost its head. The head jointed at the back of the neck flipped open and laid on the croc’s back. After two failed attempts to replace it, one by Hook and the other by Smee, the hunched over pirate played by Stefan Calka, it was obvious that it was not planned, but the audience got a rise out of it.

Photo Credit: Keith Sutter
Laura Winterhalder, as Princess Tiger Lilly, led the band of Indians in a dance which it appeared Cunningham had drawn elements from his famous Carmina Burana. The rhythm of the drums pulsed through my veins as I watched the sleek dancers in a beautiful tribal fusion of modern steps combined with classical. Another scene in which Cunningham's casting ability, choreography and direction proved to be a crowd pleaser.

Photo Credit: Keith Sutter
As Captain Hook led the captured Lost Boys, another layer of the "not so evil" character was revealed; Nachtrab with his hook hand and his grand captain display led the parade on a tricycle.

Photo Credit: Keith Sutter
The jealous Tinker Bell confided in Captain Hook about her jealousy of Wendy.  This led the scheming hook to devise a plan to place a bomb in a cake.  But the cake was abandoned by Wendy when she and her brothers and the band of Lost Boys were taken captive.

The climax was nearing.  Tinker Bell realizing that Peter was going for the cake, snatched it up and ran away, the bomb exploding offstage.  Tinker Bell lay there lifeless.

Peter Pan stepped to the front of the stage and shouted, "Do you believe in fairies?"  He returned to the lifeless Tinker Bell, and back to the front of the stage.  "If you believe in fairies, clap your hands," he exclaimed in his British accent.  The audience erupted in applause, and in response, Tinker Bell's legs began flitting rapidly.  It was truly a magical moment!

Credit: Keith Sutter
If you want to know the rest of the story, get to the Sacramento Community Theater and see it.  It is a brilliant production with only three more shows.

It will make your Valentine's weekend memorable and take you back in time to where dreams were not just imagined, they were real.

This Ballet deserves none less than FIVE STARS!  Ron Cunningham and the Sacramento Ballet have done it again!

Tickets for the show can be purchased by clicking this link: Peter Pan tickets. 

Friday, February 6, 2015

The Sacramento Ballet to bring a World Premiere of the timeless classic story "Peter Pan" to the Sacramento Community Center Theater

Ron Cunningham is in the midst of creating his 25th world premiere for the Sacramento Ballet, that of Peter Pan, set to open February 13th for a four performance run.

Sitting upstairs in the Midtown ballet studio, Cunningham explained how he has always wanted to make a ballet of the classic children's story. His love of dance, the visual art to tell a story, movement, people, music, are all a part of this fascinating and highly talented choreographer's psyche.

Cunningham said he has been wanting to create Peter Pan the ballet for a number of years, but he needed the right music for the storytelling aspect.  He had been "waiting for the perfect piece of music" and he came across Silvio Amante's Score for Peter Pan which he said is "perfect to tell the story."

"The casting," said Cunningham, "fell right into place."  Rex Wheeler is Peter, Maggie Rupp plays Tinkerbelle, Alexandria Cunningham is the girl Wendy, and the character that Cunningham says "people will try to hate but can't take him to seriously" is Captain Hook played by the illustrious Christopher Nachtrab.

Sacramento Ballet - Maggie Rupp and Rex Wheeler

I watched part of the run through in the studio on Thursday, and I have to tell you that this is a fantastic work of art that Cunningham has put together along with the dancers as individuals and as a troupe. 

Cunningham says that it is his wish that when people see the Sacramento Ballet perform Peter Pan in the theater it will "reconnect them to the lost dreams of their own childhood and just suspend reality for a bit."

And after seeing part the action in the studio, I can safely say that it shouldn't be difficult to forget about all the cares of the world and "let your imagination soar on a non-stop flight past the second star on the right to Neverland with the boy who won't grow up. Join Peter, Wendy, Tinker Bell, Tiger Lily, and the Lost Boys as they outwit the nefarious Captain Hook, the baddest pirate of them all."

Watch for my article next week on the interviews with the main cast and more with Ron Cunningham. 

For tickets and more information go to: Sacramento Ballet's Peter Pan

Friday, February 14, 2014

Review: Sacramento Ballet opens on Valentine's eve with 'Wunderland'

The Sacramento Ballet opened Thursday, Feb. 13, with a Valentine's Day weekend program.
The program of three ballets billed "Wild Sweet Love" was designed for the world class Sacramento Ballet with "Cupid" in mind.
 1 of 4 
The first performance was “Wunderland,” choreographed by Edward Lang to music by Phillip Glass. "Wunderland" was followed by "Acceptance," a world premiere choreographed by Ma Cong. And the evening ended with "Wild Sweet Love," a Trey McIntyre ballet.
Although, the execution of "Wunderland" was none other than exemplary, the artistic message brought about through the choreography left me, well - "wundering."
The ladies costumes were certainly inspired by romance. Red leotards with plunging necklines, while the men adorned flesh colored leotards and pants.
The theme that kept coming to mind throughout the performance was that of relationships and how complicated they can be. And not just romantic relationships, but all relationships, family, friends, colleagues. Demonstrated throughout the piece through a mix of modern dance and classical ballet were relationships - harmonious at times, but oft, very difficult and challenging.
The shapes formed through the movement of the dancers were very geometric and generally symmetric, as the dancers were put through the rigorous program.
The lighting was dramatic and fit the choreography well. Puzzling though, was the snowfall during parts of the ballet. It seemed very random and did not lend itself to any interpretation.
Lang said in an interview posted on YouTube that the idea came to mind when he was working in Russia and became fascinated with snow globes.
Rex Wheeler was able to shine in three acts he danced including in Act IV which he danced with the great Christopher Nachtrab and Mate Szentes. Wheeler with his curly hair and dimpled smile reminds me more and more of Nachtrab - he loves to dance and has fun doing it.
The final pas de deux was performed by Lauryn Winterhalder and Stephan Calka. Calka, a solid and serious performer coupled well with Winterhalder who demonstrated great technique and fluidity in her movements.
The brilliance of co-artistic directors, Ron Cunningham and Carrine Binda, once again was demonstrated by utilizing the right performers, coaching them in an un-limiting fashion to turn what could have been a lackluster performance into a stellar one.
There are only three shows remaining. Treat your Valentine to a spectacular show by the world class Sacramento Ballet.
February 14, 7:30pm
February 15, 7:30pm
February 16, 2:00pm
Get your tickets before they sell out!
Tickets for all shows can be purchased online or at the Ballet box office.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

'Red Hot Valentine' presents preview of Ma Cong's World Premier

Preview of 'Wild Sweet Love'
Preview of 'Wild Sweet Love'
Susan Raines
On Feb. 8, 2014 at 7:00 p.m., the Sacramento Ballet welcomed visitors to their studio for a "Red Hot Valentine" wine and dessert reception accompanying an intimate preview of the upcoming Wild Sweet Love performances scheduled for Feb 13-16. Excerpts from all three pieces in the triple bill were performed as the limited rows of chairs were occupied with an enraptured audience. As a semi-exclusive preview, Ma Cong's Acceptance was revealed as his world premier readies to hit the stage at the Sacramento Community Center Theater on L St.
Red Hot Valentine
Susan Raines
In viewing only excerpts, the impact of Cong's "original, interpretive piece" is difficult to assess. However the dancers performed a variety of movements and choreographed scenes that were both disturbing and passionate, summoning ideas of struggle, resistance, letting go, and bits of chaos and peace scattered like the influences of love travel through one's life and soul. "Acceptance" is difficult for many when things break or conceptions are challenged. "Acceptance" can even be difficult in the throes of passion when the release of ecstasy overwhelms one with a sense of loss followed by acceptance and joy. Cong's piece presented in the Wild Sweet Love trio of ballets summons feelings that relate to many of these variances of love and passion.
During an interview with W. Mark Dendy for the Digital Journal, Cong stated that the World Premier is “very, very physical and intense and, at the same time, [has] a lot of emotional moments." The piece is " based on the classical ballet technique but interpreted in a very contemporary way.” The oddity in some of the style not typically expected in traditional ballet actually empowers the choreography by prodding our rigid barriers to "Acceptance."
Ma Cong's background in Classical Chinese dance whispers subtly into his contemporary ballet creation. His striving for dynamic expression succeeds in capturing one's attention and has endeared him to the Sacramento Ballet dancers who are excited to perform his works. The Wild Sweet Love trio of ballets is an ideal placement for this World Premier as it broadens the coverage of love "in all of its complexities." The audience will be gifted with a full range of love's expression including moments of humor in the Mexican Trio from the Wild Sweet Love piece, a wedding march, a duet filled with love and passion, and so much more both lighthearted and deep, painful and refreshing, cute and glorious.
More information is available at the Sacramento Ballet website here. Additional articles including candid comments from the Sacramento Ballet dancers can be found at "Wild Sweet Love ballet dancers speak on love," "Ballet dancers reveal Wild Sweet Love, and "Wild Sweet Love ballet dancers speak candidly."The ballet will be performed Feb. 13-16, 2014 at the Sacramento Community Center Theater with tickets running from $19-$90.