Dance dance evolution: Sacramento Ballet’s succession plan exposes rift between board and its artists

Longtime artistic directors say they’re not ready to leave

From left, Christopher B. Nachtra, Maggie Rupp and Jonathon Harris are among the four professional dancers who signed an email criticizing the Sacramento Ballet’s board of directors.

From left, Christopher B. Nachtra, Maggie Rupp and Jonathon Harris are among the four professional dancers who signed an email criticizing the Sacramento Ballet’s board of directors.

Photo by lisa baetz

The Sacramento Ballet’s board of directors is facing scrutiny over its decision to replace the company’s two long-standing artistic directors next year, publicly exposing contention over the ballet’s future leadership.

Despite an order threatening “disciplinary action” for any ballet employees who speak to the media, four company dancers blasted the board via email over their opting not to renew the contracts of co-directors Ron Cunningham and Carinne Binda beyond the 2017-18 season, a decisions the board publicly announced in January.

The dancers also accused the board of mismanaging the company, questioning its ability to decide what’s best for the ballet.

“We’re very concerned about the decisions they’re making,” said Alexandra Cunningham, a principal dancer and daughter of Binda and Cunningham, who are married. “This career is our life, and when we’ve expressed ourselves in the past, it felt like it fell on deaf ears. Our only recourse at this point is reaching out to the community.”

Among their list of grievances, the dancers complained that the board had financially neglected the artistic side of the company over the last three years, including when it abruptly canceled the last three weeks of the 2014-15 season and laid off dancers on short notice.

The following season, the dancers contend, they were overworked by a doubling of the number of shows after the board mandated a season of smaller-budget productions showcased in their rehearsal space, rather than larger shows in the Sacramento Community Center Theater. The dancers allege that the decision, along with the board’s slashing of the marketing budget that year, halved their subscribers.

The board also hired new administrative staff while around half of the company’s 26 dancers face near-poverty level wages—around $16,000 yearly. The dancers complained that the board had not delivered on a $250,000 campaign to improve ballet facilities, including dressing and physical-therapy rooms at the ballet’s rehearsal space since May 2015, the E. Claire Raley Studios for the Performing Arts, better known as Clara. The men’s dressing room, for example, is often dampened with dirty water from backlogged pipes.

“Sometimes we don’t feel like we’re taken seriously, like this isn’t a real job,” said Maggie Rupp, a company dancer. “It doesn’t feel like they understand what we do or what we need.”

Reached by phone, Cunningham said he and Binda were unable to comment on the transition under the terms of their contract. But it’s not just the dancers who have complained about the board’s practices.

The California Department of Justice laid a reckoning on the ballet board after it failed to file annual reports properly between 2012 and 2014 or pay registration fees during two of those years to the state’s Registrar of Charitable Trusts, threatening to suspend the organization’s charitable status in June 2015.

On January 27 this year, the attorney general agreed to stay the suspension on condition that the board pay $2,000 of its $10,000 in penalty fees by March 1 and disclose the results of an independent audit of its 2015 finances, among other requirements. The auditor concluded that it wasn’t aware of any theft, embezzlement, diversion or misuse of the ballet’s assets, and the stayed suspension remains for three years.

The situation won’t affect the ballet’s tenancy at the Clara, or its ability to receive public grant funding, city officials said.

David Temblador, a board member since 2014, said that the mistakes were signs of the company’s financial house being in disrepair. The ballet’s budget fell from about $2.8 million in 2013-14 to around $2.6 million in 2016-17.

On canceling the last weeks of the 2014-15 season, Temblador said it was necessary to avoid bankrupting the company after it identified an $80,000 shortfall. In response, the board followed up with an in-studio season to save money, decreased marketing and cycled through several executives and new hires.

The ballet is in a better state since its restructuring, Temblador said. Revenues are on an uptick from the 2015-16 season, the marketing budget has increased and Temblador said his colleagues want to shift money back to the stage, addressing the dancers’ concerns with salaries and renovations, once their administrative house is in order.

“We were a mess organizationally, and so the last couple of years, we’ve put a heightened focus on making sure the admin stuff is of the caliber of the artistic side,” Temblador said. “Having those staff people is spending on the artistic side. It doesn’t look like it to the outside world, and it’s because it’s not cool.”

But the central disagreement centers on Cunningham and Binda, who are slated to leave their posts despite the displeasure of many dancers, donors and ballet friends.

The Sacramento Ballet was founded in 1954 by Barbara and Deane Crockett. Crockett served as the first artistic director until 1986. Cunningham succeeded her in 1988, Binda joined him the following year, and the two became co-artistic directors in 1991.

Today, Cunningham is also the resident choreographer, and Binda serves as the ballet mistress, the dancers’ primary trainer and director of the ballet school, which teaches around 400 students.

The two have been pivotal in growing the ballet’s education and outreach programs, as well as establishing it as a nationally recognized company. Cunningham’s works have become synonymous with the Sacramento Ballet, including his annual rendition of The Nutcracker, which uniquely employs 500 children in its ensemble.

Binda, a renowned ballet instructor, has helped earn the dance troupe permission to perform a high number of shows, 18 in total, by the late choreography legend George Balanchine, whose works must be approved by a répétiteur at the Balanchine Trust.

The four dancers behind the email want to extend the succession plan by five years, with Binda taking over as the sole artistic director after 2017-18 and grooming a replacement over time.

“It’s their baby,” Rupp said. “You can see how much they adore what’s being produced. How it affects the community. You can see it: They’re not ready.”

A succession plan had been discussed for as long as five years, Temblador said. Under an agreement signed by the board and their directors last July, a newly selected artistic director would shadow Cunningham and Binda for their 30th and final season, and they would thereafter be named artistic directors emeritus.

But in a January letter to the editor in The Sacramento Bee, Cunningham and Binda declared that they were not ready to leave.

Temblador wouldn’t comment on whether the couple willingly agreed to the stipulations they signed on, but he said he hoped they would still be involved in the selection of their replacement, which is already underway. He also hoped the ballet could continue to use Cunningham’s works.

Nancy Garton, the board’s current president, was quoted in The Bee as saying she wanted to establish “Sac Ballet 2.0,” noting that succession was part of a new vision. The dancers alleged that the board has been unclear about what that vision entails.

Temblador said that the decision wasn’t about downsizing (the board is hiring only one director) or the couple’s artistic vision. He said a succession plan was necessary for the 63-year-old company.

“[Barbara Crockett] was there for 32 years, and we’ve been very fortunate to have Ron and Carinne lead it now going on 30 years,” Temblador said. “As an organization, we have to be realistic about the following 30 years and what that looks like.”

And the board’s vision for Sac Ballet 2.0? Increasing its budget and ticket sales, and consequently growing the artistic side.

“We want to grow our ticket sales from 40,000 to 60,000,” Temblador said. “We want to grow our budget from $2.6 million to $4 million. If we’re able to do those things, I absolutely hope that we can turn this company from a part-time professional ballet … to a full-time dance company.”

But that will be hard to do if patrons like Kathy Payne are any indication.

Payne, a donor and former board president, said that she, like many other donors, will be reluctant to continue funding the ballet in light of the change. The majority of the ballet’s grants come from individual donations.

“With the way the transition is going, it’s going to be more wait-and-see,” Payne said. “[The board is] going to need Ron’s blessing [on the succession], there’s no question.”

Several donors are unhappy, protesting not only the succession plan, but also the board’s lack of transparency. They include Eileen McCauley, a midlevel donor and ballet patron since the 1990s. McCauley said that she may pull her $3,000 in annual funding for the dance school’s Thomas E. McCauley Scholarship/Next Generation Fund if Binda is not involved with the school.

Around 780 ballet supporters have also voiced disagreement online through a petition titled “Save Sacramento Ballet.” The petition was started by Diane Cypher, an artistic director at Santa Cruz Ballet Theatre and a former Sacramento Ballet dancer.

Cypher hopes the public outcry will reverse the board’s decision and that Cunningham and Binda will remain at the ballet. “It’s time to celebrate their accomplishments as opposed to showing them the door,” Cypher said.

Temblador said he was disheartened by the backlash. He said that succession talks are naturally uncomfortable but necessary, and that he hopes the next season will still be a celebration of the couple.

“The arts are like a family,” Temblador said. “Sometimes your family argues, but hopefully, at the end of the argument, everybody moves on and we’re all the better for it.”

Whatever the outcome, the contention isn’t helping the company, Payne said. “The ballet can’t be successful if there’s this kind of publicity and animosity.”