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New Sacramento Ballet season plays to its Balanchine expertise

The Sacramento Ballet’s 59th season, “Beauty, Bravura & Brilliance,” is a mélange of old and new, lavish and spare – a hallmark of co-artistic directors Ron Cunningham and Carinne Binda’s long-standing stewardship of the company. The season opens Thursday with Igor Stravinsky’s works: “The Firebird,” “The Rite of Spring” – which is celebrating its centennial – and George Balanchine’s “Rubies,” danced to Stravinsky’s Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra. This also marks Binda’s 25th year as co-artistic director (she took on the title one year after Cunningham).

Cunningham and Binda share more than the artistic director title. They also share a marriage, an artistic aesthetic – developed during their many years dancing and working together – and a deep appreciation for passion and hard work.

“The reason the ballets look good onstage is because of Carinne,” Cunningham said.

“She’s the idea generator – I’m the one who puts on the brakes, but she’s very strong. She’s my editor. She knows what I’m trying to achieve – and she’s usually right.”

Cunningham met his creative counterpart when he joined the Boston Ballet, where Binda was busy working her way up from the corps de ballet to soloist to ballet mistress and personal assistant to artistic director Violette Verdy. Through their seasons in Boston, Cunningham and Binda developed the shared aesthetic that has informed their work in Sacramento, as well as their reverence for the work of famed choreographer Balanchine.

“I love his musicality,” Binda said. “He has such precise footwork, it really keeps the dancers’ technique sharp. I can see the level of the company noticeably go up.”

Russian-born Balanchine is often credited as the father of American ballet. He choreographed for the Ballet Russes and collaborated with composers such as Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev and Maurice Ravel to create innovative ballets that are still considered some of the best the art has to offer.

Less than three months after landing in the U.S., Balanchine opened the School of American Ballet in January 1934. A year later, he founded the American Ballet, which became the house company for the Metropolitan Opera. After a brief stint in Hollywood, Balanchine founded Ballet Society, which in 1948 became the New York City Ballet. Balanchine remained its ballet master for 35 years; he died in 1983.

To keep Balanchine’s tricky technical steps straight – and to make sure ballet companies can dance them decades from now – the George Balanchine Trust selects current choreographers who studied under the master to travel around the world disseminating his masterpieces. The Sacramento Ballet is hosting John Clifford, a Balanchine protégé, for rehearsals of all of Balanchine’s pieces slated for the season, including “Rubies” this month, “Allegro Brilliante” in March (alongside the return of Cunningham’s “The Great Gatsby”) and “Apollo” – Binda’s favorite – which will be featured in May’s “Modern Masters” program.

“John brings more than just the staging,” Cunningham said. “He brings the spirit of the work; he knows what Balanchine was looking for. He’s actually so enamored of how we produce the pieces that he brings videos of our performances to the Bolshoi Ballet and the Paris Opera.”

Clifford is not the only one who’s noticed that the Sacramento Ballet is wild about Balanchine. Dancers from around the world audition for the company based on its extensive repertory – the ballet has done 18 of his pieces. But their devotion to the eminent artist serves another useful purpose.

“We always look for a piece that will anchor the season based on name recognition,” Cunningham explained. “Balanchine’s dances are universally recognized as masterpieces; he’s mentioned in the same breath as Stravinsky and Picasso. We always have an eye toward what will sell.”

Binda agreed.

“It’s always a back-and-forth of what will get people in the door and what will challenge the dancers,” she said. “It’s a question of what we can afford and what will help our dancers grow. It’s a constant balance. We want people to come to the ballet and become part of our community, so we have to do a lot of creative thinking to broaden our reach. We still have to be missionaries.”

Cunningham and Binda spread the word through community outreach to area schools and hospitals, audience-building activities like the Inside the Directors Studio series and themed events before each program. It helps that they have a unified artistic vision.

“Carinne and I will watch a run-through from opposite sides of the room and then talk about it when we get home, and we’ll have the same critiques,” Cunningham said.

“It’s important to both of us that the inside is there, too, not just the technique. You have to be emotionally invested.”

“Dance should transcend the steps,” Binda added. “It should speak to the human spirit.”

THE SACRAMENTO BALLET

What: “The Firebird,” “The Rite of Spring” and George Balanchine’s “Rubies”

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Oct. 27

Where: Community Center Theater, 1301 L St., Sacramento

Tickets: $26-$67 at www.tickets.com, the community box office or call (800) 225-2277

COMING SOON

What: Ron Cunningham’s “Cinderella”

When: 1 and 5:30 p.m. Nov. 2 and 1 p.m. Nov. 3

Where: Community Center Theater

Tickets: $25-35

Information: www.tickets.com, www.sacballet.org; (800) 225-2277

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