Arts & Theater

After 30 years at helm, Sacramento Ballet artistic directors watch curtain close

After 30 years directing the Sacramento Ballet, husband-wife duo Carinne Binda and Ron Cunningham will watch the curtain descend on their last show this Sunday. They've received countless commendations and accolades, including a key to the city of Sacramento, but Cunningham said what's most important to him is the feeling of family they've fostered in the studio.

"They're like second parents, really," said Christopher Nachtrab, a ballet dancer who has worked in Binda and Cunningham's company for nine years. Cunningham and Binda's final ballet at the helm, "The Genius of Balanchine," runs from until Sunday, June 17, at The Sofia Tsakopoulos Center for The Arts.

Under Binda and Cunningham's leadership, the Sacramento Ballet became known for the quality and diversity of its repertoire. They put up ballet standbys annually like "Swan Lake" and "The Nutcracker," which Cunningham called "a Sacramento staple." But they also solicited contemporary productions, and Cunningham himself choreographed dozens of original ballets for their stage.

Through it all, Cunningham said their dancers were most excited to pirouette and pliè in work by George Balanchine. If you're a ballet insider, you probably know him by two nicknames, Cunningham said: "Mr. B," or "the greatest ballet choreographer of the 20th Century."

Binda and Cunningham directed a Balanchine for their very first season in Sacramento. So for them, ending with a Balanchine montage – eight distinct episodes stitched together from six shows – feels like coming full circle, Cunningham said.

Because Balanchine shows don't usually have plots, Nachtrab said, "they give you the ability to perform as yourself."

And Binda and Cunningham, too, must direct as themselves, a process all the more meaningful thanks to their decades-long marriage.

The pair met as dancers at the Boston Ballet. In 1997, they moved to the opposite coast to turn the Sacramento Ballet, then a smaller student-centered group, into a professional ensemble. Now, husband and wife have been co-artistic directors for three straight decades.

Cunningham described their working relationship as a "joy."

"(Binda) is brilliant at coaching," Cunnigham said. "She has a huge passion for outreach and children."

Indeed, local outreach has been a cornerstone of Cunningham and Binda's leadership strategy at the Sacramento Ballet, according to Nachtrab.

"As artistic directors, they've not only shaped us as dancers and performers, but as individuals in the community," he said. The company put on frequent performances at local schools and hospitals, always to rave reviews.

And what of Cunningham and Binda's controversial ousting by the Sacramento Ballet's Board of Directors, which left so many in the Sacramento arts community disheartened?

"What's done is done," Cunningham said. Instead of dwelling on his exit, which he and Nachtrab both described as "bittersweet," he said he's focused on celebrating the thirty years of art-making and community-building he has enjoyed. He wants his last production to be the "best Balanchine ballet it can be."

Amy Seiwert, who was a Sacramento Ballet dancer for eight years in the 1990s and created a ballet company in San Francisco, will succeed the pair as Artistic Director on July 1.

Binda and Cunningham will be named artistic directors emeritus, an honorific with "no duties, no responsibilities, no compensation, and no say-so," according to Cunningham.

Still, he said, the family atmosphere they've cultivated will live on. Figuratively, but also literally: their daughter, Alex Cunningham, has danced in the company for 13 years.

"(Binda and Cunningham) have brought out the best in me as an artist," she said. "To grow up here in Sacramento and dance works that major companies around the world get to do is really a dream come true."

"The Genius of Balanchine" runs from Thursday, June 14, to Sunday, June 17, at The Sofia Tsakopoulos Center for The Arts in Sacramento. Tickets are available online.