Donner for dancers

Sorry, we just can’t avoid coining the term canniballet

But at least we didn’t use a snarky photo caption.

But at least we didn’t use a snarky photo caption.

Ron Cunningham’s new ballet has been gestating for 30 years.

It began when a dancer gave Cunningham a book by her mother, the poet Ruth Whitman. In Tamsen Donner: A Woman’s Journey, Whitman re-imagines the journal kept by Tamsen Donner, a widow who married the 50-ish widower George Donner when she was 35. Middle-aged for their time, they had three daughters. In 1846, they left Illinois for California in a wagon train, through prairie, then desert, then mountains. The journey, as we’ll recall, ended badly. Whitman’s book impressed Cunningham, but then he forgot about it.

Fast forward to 1988, when Cunningham came west from Boston to become the artistic director of the Sacramento Ballet. He drove on Interstate 80, largely along the Donner Party’s fateful route.

Entering California, Cunningham caught his first glimpse of Donner Lake. “Suddenly it all came back to me,” he recalled recently. “I spent the whole day there, feeling the place.”

Once established in Sacramento, Cunningham considered a Tamsen Donner ballet. “But I kept postponing it,” he said, “because I wasn’t sure how to deal with the material.”

That is, the cannibalism.

Cunningham’s ballet alludes to it, but tells a larger story. “I wanted to show the dignity of people who are educated and older, approaching a second life together. … What they must have felt, moving west,” he said. “Our country was very new at that time; California wasn’t even California yet.”

This year—Cunningham’s 20th with Sacramento Ballet—he felt the time had come. To accompany the themes of late-blooming love, high hopes and tragedy, Cunningham picked music by Aaron Copland, iconic pieces and also less familiar chamber music. The choreography draws on classical ballet and square-dancing. One scene gives voice to Whitman’s poetry: “The need to find oneself within a man is not so great the second time,” Tamsen tells us.

At the end, Tamsen, portrayed by dancer Ilana Goldman, stays with her dying husband, knowing she’ll die, too. “But the ending is also majestic,” Cunningham said. “It’s very spiritual. As Tamsen says [in Whitman’s book], ‘If my boundary stops here, I have daughters to draw new maps of the world. … I will wake in the eyes of their children’s children—they will speak my words.”