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From China to Sacramento, the history of Cunningham’s ‘Cinderella’

"Cinderella" creates a fantasy world on stage in the Sacramento Ballet production this weekend at the Community Center Theater.
Photo courtesy Sacramento Ballet
Dancers from the Sacramento Ballet’s “Cinderella,” including Stefan Calka (second from left) as the prince, and Alexandra Cunningham (third from left) as Cinderella, pose on the street outside the ballet company’s studio.

Thirty-million Chinese can’t be wrong. They cheered Ron Cunningham’s “Cinderella” when it was performed by the Boston Ballet in 1980 in Beijing, Shanghai and elsewhere and broadcast live to a television audience of millions. Sacramento audiences have three chances this weekend to see the full-length fairytale dance performed by the Sacramento Ballet Company.

Cunningham, now co-artistic director of the Sacramento Ballet, was the choreographer for the Boston dance troupe when, in 1980, it was the first American dance company to perform in the People’s Republic of China after the end of the Cultural Revolution. Carinne Binda, Cunningham’s wife and co-artistic director here, was one of three ballerinas who danced the title role in the performances in China. “Cinderella” was performed here about 18 months ago and is being restaged as part of the dance company’s “commitment to family values,” Cunningham said in a recent interview. There’s special pricing, too, with all seats going for $35 for adults and $25 for children.

“Cinderella” was first performed in Boston in 1976, in “basically the same production we took to China,” the choreographer said. The set, which will be employed here as well, was “designed particularly for touring,” Cunningham said. “The packing crates used to ship the set became part of the scenery. They all fit together.”

As is his wont, Cunningham incorporated children into his production of “Cinderella,” and it was quite an experience, he said.

“We asked for young children for the show, and we got the first round of kids chosen (after the Cultural Revolution) to become future dancers,” he said. “They were scared to death of me. You could practically see them trembling.”

As he explained to the children what he wanted, there was a lot of giggling and enthusiasm, he said. “And the teachers were like, ‘This is not supposed to be fun!’”

During the first performance, “There was no response,” Cunningham said, adding, “We learned after the show that all the people who had been given tickets were told that this was an historic event and it was very important that they not distract from it in any way.”

At a subsequent performance, American critic Clive Barnes, who was covering the historic tour, applauded at appropriate moments, giving the audience a clue that it was acceptable. The audience then roared approval when they saw young Chinese dancers on stage. The performances garnered standing ovations from then on out.

Reflecting on the experience of dancing “Cinderella” in 1980, Binda wrote on the ballet’s Facebook page: “The experience of dancing Cinderella during a three-month tour around the world in 1980 gave me the awareness of how dance transcends all cultural barriers and speaks directly to the heart in a language that is universally understood. While Cinderella is a simple story, it deeply touches our common humanity with its lessons in kindness, acceptance and forgiveness.”

Binda and Cunningham’s daughter Alexandra will dance the lead role this weekend.

“Cinderella” will be performed at 1 and 5:30 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday in the Community Center Theater, 1301 L St. Tickets are available in person at the box office, or by phone at (916) 808-5181.

And, if your own little princess is so enamored with the production, the ballet will host a Cinderella Ball at 3:30 p.m. Sunday at the Sutter Club, 1220 9th St. A limited number of $30 tickets are available at the door. For more information: www.sacballet.org.

From China to Sacramento, the history of Cunningham’s ‘Cinderella’ via @sacramentopress

About the author

Jim Carnes

Jim Carnes

Jim Carnes has masters degrees in English and journalism and is a former National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow in popular culture at Stanford University. He has covered Sacramento arts and entertainment for more than 20 years. He currently writes about and reviews theater, dance, music and events in the Sacramento area.

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