Bread and ballet roses: Amid leadership furor, Sacramento Ballet dancers look to unionize

Board names ballet co-founder Barbara Crockett as head of search committee for new artistic director

Amid tensions over their artistic future, the Sacramento Ballet’s dancers are seeking to unionize for the first time in the company’s recent history.

The move comes against the backdrop of a feud gone public within the 63-year-old ballet, whose longtime artistic directors are fighting to stay on beyond the 2017-18 performance season.

The pair, Ron Cunningham and Carinne Binda, has led the ballet’s artistic side since 1991. While the ballet’s board of directors announced last July that the couple had agreed to resign after next season, the couple upended that script in January, when Cunningham and Binda wrote that they weren’t ready to leave their posts in a Sacramento Bee letter to the editor.

Since then, several of the company’s 26 dancers spoke out against the transition, despite the board’s warning of disciplinary action. (See “Dance dance evolution” by Mozes Zarate, March 9, 2017.) Last week, the dancers unanimously signed a petition seeking representation from the American Guild of Musical Artists, a national labor organization that represents performers and stage managers in dance companies including the New York and San Francisco ballets.

“They want to be able to influence decisions, and they want a forum,” said Nora Heiber, AGMA’s West Coast dance executive.

The union sent a letter to the ballet’s board of directors last Thursday asking it to voluntarily recognize AGMA as the dancers’ collective bargaining rep by March 23. If not, AGMA will file with the National Labor Relations Board pushing to officially elect them as the dancers’ union.

The board declined to comment.

On March 8, the ballet issued a release updating the search for a new artistic director, boasting of a pool of more than 20 candidates from the United States and Europe. The release also named Barbara Crockett, who co-founded the ballet with her husband in 1954 and served as company director until 1986, as leading the board’s search advisory committee, made up of some current Sacramento Ballet dancers, former dance professionals and longtime patrons.

Crockett, 96, did not reply before publication. She recently retired from the Deane Dance Center in Sacramento, which she co-founded with her daughter in 1994.

“The support and assistance that the Board is receiving from these great individuals, without question, will greatly enhance the Board’s ability to select the best suited candidate that will allow the Sacramento Ballet to sustainably grow and flourish both locally and nationally,” board President Nancy Garton said in the release.

The release made no mention of Cunningham and Binda in its historical summary of the ballet, provoking furor from their supporters. Some characterized the omission as “alt-facts,” a “whitewash” and “historical revisionism” on Facebook.

“The fact that Ron and Carinne have disappeared from the company history is certainly a slap in the face at the very least,” Diane Cypher, a former Sacramento Ballet dancer, wrote via email. Her petition protesting the transition, titled “Save Sacramento Ballet,” has garnered 845 supporters.

In the past, dancers have said they’ve felt ignored by the board. Depending on the outcome, a collective bargaining agreement could address some of their complaints, including how much they get paid. Half of them make near-poverty-level wages—around $16,000 a year.

“If [the union] being there gives the company incentive to pay the dancers better, then we’re going to use that strength,” Heiber said. “But we’re certainly not going to ask the company to do anything that would break them.”

Heiber added that negotiations could also give dancers a greater ability to influence Cunningham and Binda’s future involvement with the ballet, depending on the board’s response.

“Should the board decide to replace them, it is important to the artists that the transition be handled with the respect and esteem that these two individuals deserve,” Heiber said. “It’s not a mystery that, after a time of uncertainty, they would have made this move, and it’s long overdue.”