In his 25 years as the co-artistic director of the Sacramento Ballet, Ron Cunningham has been on a mission.
"I want to take the capital 'C' out of 'culture,' " Cunningham said, seated in the lobby of the ballet's studios at 17th and K Streets.
"My mission is to develop the younger generation of ballet-goers, to show people that (ballet) doesn't have to be expensive or intimidating. I want people to come and realize it's not what they expected."
Loyal Sacramento audiences, however, have expectations of the company led by Cunningham and his co-artistic director and wife, Carinne Binda. Storytelling and breathtaking balletic athleticism keep them coming back year after year.
"I've choreographed around 75 ballets over my career," Cunningham said, "and I sweat over every one. When you're just starting out, there are no high expectations the more of a reputation you get, the more you have to come up with the goods."
Always up for a challenge, Cunningham has raised the bar for himself and his corps of 20 talented dancers for his silver-anniversary season. Of the five productions for 2012-13, four are Cunningham creations: "Romeo & Juliet," "The Nutcracker," "The Great Gatsby" (a world premiere) and "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
"As a choreographer, you don't want to repeat yourself," Cunningham said. "My goal has always been to make each ballet a standalone piece. If you saw 10 of my dances back-to-back, I'd want you to think they were by 10 different people."
Season opener "Romeo & Juliet" (which runs Thursday through next Sunday at the Community Center Theater) will start everything off on the right foot, so to speak.
"I consider 'Romeo & Juliet' the best choreography of my career," Cunningham said. "You can't get a better story. Everyone knows it. And the music (by Sergei Prokofiev) beautifully supports the drama. It's just perfect."
While the piece has been performed in previous seasons, Cunningham thoroughly believes that one can improve on perfection.
"Every time we repeat it, we refine it and work out the bugs," he said. "And because there are different dancers in the roles, we can play to their strengths. It's all about the chemistry between pairings of people."
Cultivating that chemistry this time around will be Amanda Peet and Stefan Calka, and Alexandra Cunningham and Richard Porter as the two pairs of titular star-crossed lovers. (The show is performed with two rotating casts to allow the dancers time off between each demanding three-hour performance.)
"Ron's attention to detail when coaching you on a role is amazing," Porter, a company member since 2008, said via email before a rehearsal. "And for doing a part like Romeo, it makes all the difference."
Calka, who's danced with the company for nine years, seconded Porter's praise.
"Ron is a flawless character actor," Calka said. "So he's a great coach, but he also trusts you and allows you to put your 2 cents in."
While Cunningham allows himself the occasional cameo this year as Friar Lawrence in "Romeo & Juliet" and Drosselmeyer in "The Nutcracker" he prefers to focus on the big picture.
"Being both the artistic director and the choreographer means you're wearing two very different hats," Cunningham explained. "As a choreographer, you just want to make the best dances. As the artistic director, you're more aware of ticket sales and what's best for the company. I have to sit through a finance meeting where we're figuring out how to make payroll, and then I go into the studio to rehearse, thinking, 'How am I going to pay these guys?' Luckily, my wife shares the burden."
Binda also provides the artistic support Cunningham craves.
"Carinne is the only editor I trust," he admitted. "She's tough; she pulls no punches. We've known each other for 40 years and have been married 30 and we work very well together."
The duo certainly has its hands full. After "Romeo & Juliet," the two move on to their beloved version of "The Nutcracker," which features 500 children from all over the region.
"We want children in the audience to be able to look at the stage and think, 'Those kids are just like me,' " Cunningham said. "The ballet is told from a child's point of view during the kind of Christmas I think we wish we all had very Currier and Ives."
February will welcome the world premiere of Cunningham's "The Great Gatsby," featuring live music by Boston-based jazz band Billy Novick's Blue Syncopators.
" 'Gatsby' is a novel about atmosphere," Cunningham said, "so the challenge was to capture the essence of the story in movement. It's very dramatic, and Billy did a brilliant job arranging the music. About half of it is music we all know from the Prohibition era, and the rest is original composition."
"A Midsummer Night's Dream" will play in March "Shakespeare is very language-driven, and ballet is a language in itself," Cunningham said followed by May's "Modern Masters: Protégés," which features dancers who started in Sacramento and have gone on to storied choreography careers.
Several special events and the popular series Inside the Director's Studio and Beer & Ballet (designed to capture that younger and perhaps ballet-phobic demographic) round out the company's season.
ROMEO & JULIET
What: The Sacramento Ballet opens co-artistic director Ron Cunningham's 25th anniversary season with this classic story of love and tragedy. Cunningham calls it "the absolute best choreography of my career." The ballet will not be seen again until the 2017 season.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; 2 p.m. next Sunday
Where: The Community Center Theater, 1301 L St., Sacramento