How to kill a princess

The Sacramento Ballet prepares for its season opener

Photo by Larry Dalton

CHASSé, GLISSADE, GRAND JETé …” Ron Cunningham (left) supervises the company. Kirsten Bloom rubs her tired, aching feet. She has been on her toes, literally, for two hours straight, rehearsing for the Sacramento Ballet’s Oct. 26 season-opening performance, American Composers. The company has just completed a successful run-through of George Balanchine’s Western Symphony, and most of the dancers have left the studio.

But not Bloom.

She hobbles to the dressing room, removes her worn pointe shoes and changes her sweaty tights and leotard. Then she hobbles back and takes a seat near the edge of the black marley dance floor, where artistic director Ron Cunningham and a few remaining dancers are working out the steps for Medea, an original work that will debut opening night, just three short weeks away.

“I can’t walk,” she says, full lips parting in a brilliant dancer’s smile. “I can dance. But I can’t walk.”

Based on the play by Euripides, Medea is Cunningham’s latest effort to present “dances that tell stories,” as opposed to most contemporary works, which focus on dance for the sake of dance, with little or no narrative. Previous Cunningham adaptations in this vein include Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet and A Streetcar Named Desire, all three of which proved highly successful with Sacramento audiences.

At the moment, Cunningham and Whitney Simler are trying to figure out how to kill a princess. Cunningham says he doesn’t have a penchant for violence, just a love for the classics. Most of the classics he chooses to translate into dance are tragedies, and “in tragedies, people die.” Medea is no exception. The title character, spurned by her husband Jason for the younger princess Creusa, goes on a jealous rampage, killing Creusa, Creusa’s father and Jason’s two sons.

How then, to kill a princess? The dance floor, a black, empty canvas, remains silent. Cunningham’s aristocratic features narrow tightly beneath a shock of silver hair. In his mind, he flips through the Rolodex of combinations he’s collected during more than 30 years in dance.

Then he moves.

He bobs and weaves and pivots, arms gesticulating wildly, conjuring up steps out of thin air. “Chassé, glissade, grand jeté, and step back,” he dictates, as much to himself as to Simler, whose long, limber torso easily assimilates each command. Cunningham turns to Bloom.

“Are you on yet?”

“I’m on!

Big smile.

Bloom ties the ribbons on her pointe shoes and, sore feet forgotten, joins Cunningham and Simler on the floor. Like a pair of delicate spiders, the two women pair up, bodies twisting and intertwining, arms thrusting and parrying, as Cunningham watches the movement of their feet intently. They practice the sequence a half-dozen times, nailing it on the last one.

“Yeah!” they say in unison, arched back to arched back.

“We’re close?” Cunningham asks.

“We’re real close,” Bloom answers.

But Cunningham decides to rearrange the entire sequence.

Three weeks to go—and counting.

There’s really no need for Cunningham to put this kind of pressure on himself. Since taking over as artistic directors of the Sacramento Ballet 13 years ago, he and his wife, Carinne Binda, have transformed a fledgling troupe of six dancers seen by only 15,000 people annually into a legitimate company of 21 paid professional dancers and six paid apprentices who last year were seen by nearly 90,000 people. They’ve developed an impressive repertory of Balanchine works, which makes Cunningham’s decision several years ago to begin choreographing narrative dances all the more interesting.

That’s because more than any other modern choreographer, Balanchine is responsible for the eclipse of narrative dance. Often acknowledged as the 20th century’s greatest choreographer, the Russian-born Balanchine was classically trained in piano as well as ballet. After he emigrated to America in the early 1930s, he developed a style that focuses on movement first and musicality second—whether or not each dance tells a story is tertiary. To see a Balanchine ballet performed by a first-rate company—as anyone who viewed Sacramento Ballet’s production of Serenade last season can attest—is to be mesmerized by a visual spectacle.

Balanchine died in 1983, but a trust set up in his name keeps tight control on all of his works. Although Cunningham and Binda gained extensive experience in the Balanchine technique during their years at the Boston Ballet, John Clifford, one of a handful of repetiteurs licensed by the trust to produce the works of Balanchine, has flown in to stage Western Symphony.

Casually clad in tennis shoes, blue jeans and a T-shirt, Clifford watches with approval from the sidelines as the company performs its final run-through of the piece before he returns to New York City. It goes something like this:

A dozen dancers move in a large circle at center stage as the first strains of the late Hershy Kay’s Western-tinged score kick in. They partner up, boy-girl, boy-girl, illustrating both the depth of the Sacramento Ballet as well as Balanchine’s obsession with the allure of women. The couples do-si-do and reverse direction several times; then the circle explodes in kaleidoscopic motion, and suddenly it’s a square dance, with couplets at each corner.

Whitney Simler, head held high, gallops diagonally through the square.

“Ain’t she sweet!” drawls Clifford.

And the dance is on.

Simler pairs with tall, muscular Jack Hansen, a newcomer to the Sacramento Ballet. Bloom cavorts with irrepressible fireplug Charlie Hodges, who may be the ballet’s most agile dancer. Michael Separovich couples with newcomer Angelica Burjos, as pretty and petite as a music-box figurine. They bow and curtsy and kick and spin and twice throw Burjos across the floor through a gauntlet of dancers into the waiting arms of Separovich.

Binda, sitting on the sidelines next to Clifford, silently gestures to dancers to pick up their feet, move this way, move that way.

Balanchine’s patterns are so complex and change with such rapidity that they are almost impossible to perceive individually—it’s the whole show that affects the viewer. As the tempo speeds up, the entire company becomes involved, forming three-dimensional shapes that grow progressively more intricate. Western Symphony has no story to tell, no lesson to take home, but when the dancers finish, there’s a feeling of having been in the presence of great beauty.

“Girls, you did a great job,” Clifford says. “Other than a couple of boy mistakes, everything is good. You feel it; it’s fun. That’s what you want the audience to feel. Fun for them—hard for you.”

And then he’s off to New York. Later in the week, choreographer Kathryn Posin will fly in from New York to stage the performance’s third piece, the John Adams Violin Concerto. Meanwhile, Cunningham is out on the black, empty canvas, trying to figure out how to kill the princess.

“I think we said the kill happens at 4:30?” he asks, fiddling with the CD remote.

“4:30, it happens,” Bloom agrees.

Simler stands off to the side, rubbing her face where Bloom nearly stuck her in the eye with a finger on the last pass. Cunningham is still not satisfied with the choreography. He can’t strike the right balance between dance and narrative, between show and tell.

“If you want, I’ll body slam her,” Simler says with mock viciousness.

“4:50!” Cunningham says as Samuel Barber’s 1946 score booms through the PA.

“I think I’m feeling some fear,” jokes Bloom.

The two dancers pair off again; the sequence is beginning to take shape. Now it’s clear that Simler is Medea; she stalks Bloom’s Creusa with grim determination. They come together in a clash of whirling legs, twisting torsos and flailing arms. Bloom misses a step and ends up in Simler’s arms, who pretends like she really is going to body-slam Bloom to the mat.

They giggle.

Cunningham is still not happy with the result, but time is pressing. He brings in Charlie Hodges and Grant Spencer, who’ve been off to the side stretching the entire time, to work on the next sequence. They play Creusa’s sons and will present her with a wedding gift from Medea that will prove to be their mother’s undoing. Then, of course, they must die.

How am I going to kill the boys? Cunningham thinks, his mind racing. I need to build sympathy for Medea. She’s been chosen by the gods. How much choice does she really have in the matter?

He knows he might scrap all of his choreography when the company moves into the Community Center Theater for final rehearsals. He knows the choreography won’t really be complete until two or three days after the final performance, and he’ll never be totally satisfied with it. The curtain goes up October 26, and he has to have a ballet out there.

He knows he will have a ballet out there.

Three weeks to go.

And counting.