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Difficult steps ahead for the Sacramento Ballet

Change is rarely easy for an arts organization, but what’s facing the Sacramento Ballet at the end of the 2017-18 season is a real toughie.

On Jan. 10, the ballet board of directors announced that the 2017-18 season will be the last for co-artistic directors Ron Cunningham and wife Carinne Binda, who are approaching three decades in charge of the dance company. It’s not a decision Cunningham and Binda got to weigh in on. But it’s the board’s decision to make and it’s one the two are accepting reluctantly. Their contract will end in June 2018.

Potential problems abound. It’s not just finding and hiring a new artistic director; it’s about dealing with a company of dancers who have been honed — and celebrated — by the current co-artistic directors. It’s about charting a new course in an arts environment that is not often friendly to dance in the first place — and it’s about what to do about the company’s repertory of works, some (many?) of which could be unavailable to a new director.

It’s complicated, and the board of directors hasn’t made a lot of effort to clear things up.

An email to Nancy Garton, president of the board of directors, asking for clarification on some of the issues, was not responded to by publication deadline. The group’s website does not contain a press release on the initial announcement. A Jan.17 posting, “Transition Announcement Follow-Up,” is available as “News” under the “Media” drop-down tab. The release states that about three years ago, as the ballet approached its 60th anniversary, discussions began about the troupe’s future. Among the topics, the release says, were “the leadership of the ballet, including the Board and the Artistic Directors.”

The decision, according to the transition report, was that:

“The time was right to re-evaluate and re-fresh the Ballet’s vision and explore efforts that would provide for a re-focusing that would help the Ballet meet its goals today and expand into the long future. The discussions that began 3 years ago, between the Sacramento Ballet Board of Directors, Artistic Directors and executive leaders, contemplated a vision and direction that would allow the Ballet to grow from its rich past and present to a sustainable and prosperous future.”

Former ballet board member Jeff Fekete, posting a comment to the original newspaper report on the transition, cited an apparent disconnect between the board and the artistic directors. I am disappointed that this transition as reported does not appear to be seamless and coordinated particularly given Ron and Carinne’s tireless dedication to artistic excellence.I am disappointed that this transition as reported does not appear to be seamless and coordinated particularly given Ron and Carinne’s tireless dedication to artistic excellence.“I am disappointed that this transition … does not appear to be seamless and coordinated, given Ron and Carinne’s tireless dedication to artistic excellence,” he wrote.

The Divide

Cunningham and Binda have their own take on the situation. In an email to me after the initial news report of the “transition,”  Cunningham said, “We want to make it entirely clear that we are not retiring or resigning as Artistic Directors. The Ballet’s Board of Directors have decided that they need a ‘new vision’ and are terminating our employment at the end of the 2017-18 season.”

The pair has taken the Sacramento Ballet from a little-known regional dance company to a nationally recognized organization, known Cunningham said “for our extraordinarily diverse repertory including the most sought-after edgy choreographers in the nation (and) … a deep commitment to engaging the community though education and outreach.”

Cunningham cited a flood of emails from former dancers who are stunned at this turn of events.

“Our current dancers give us a 100% vote of confidence citing they are here because of their strong belief in us,” Cunningham said.

The divide, Cunningham states, is over sustainability.  He maintains that the Board does not raise enough money nor do they provide enough resources for marketing. (The board has cut the marketing budget by 50 percent, Cunningham said,  and has shrunk the budget from $3.1 million in 2013-14 to $2.1 million in 2016-17. No one knows what the budget will be in the pair’s final season, nor what it might be for a new artistic director.)

According to Cunningham, the board has told him the company needs to “operate within its means.” But no one wants fewer performances. But plainer productions might be a possibility. It may come down to pay or staff cuts. Fewer dancers? Maybe. Any of these cost-cutting measures  surely will harm the product.

As anyone who has worked for an organization that has cut staff  but promised no reduction in output or service can tell you, that’s impossible. You can’t do more with less. You do less with less. Look at your local newspaper.

For his part, Cunningham said he subscribes to the wisdom of Michael Kaiser, the Kennedy Center’s ex-President and turn-around expert for ailing ballet companies.  “His mantra is ‘don’t cut the art,’ ‘don’t cut the marketing,’ and ‘you cannot save your way to success.'”

“The Board has done all three,” Cunningham said.

More Hip?

The consensus is that the Board wants to put a lean, mean, contemporary face on the ballet company. It wants to get hip (on the cheap, if possible) .

But the Sacramento Ballet under Cunningham and Binda is plenty hip. It’s Sacramento itself that needs to get hip. Ballet, like the symphony and opera — and even theater, to some extent — is perceived as old folks’ entertainment. It isn’t — or doesn’t have to be — but the board hasn’t done a lot to change the perception. It’s true that the company has a lot of “classics” in its repertory (works by Mikhail Fokine and Marius Petipa, plus a dozen and a half George Balanchine gems) but it has many “newer” pieces (by such contemporary choreographers as Ma Cong, Septime Webre and Trey McIntyre and dance-makers championed by Cunningham, including current company member Stefan Calka and former company member Amy Seiwert, who went from the Sacramento Ballet to San Francisco’s well-regarded Smuin Ballet).

Yes, Cunningham is about 75, but a younger person won’t necessarily think “younger” or create hipper. Cunningham continues to make new dances that include both “classic” and “contemporary” works. Have you seen his “Dracula” or “Peter Pan”? How about his “The Great Gatsby,” which combined classic literature, spoken word, jazz-age music and modern dance?

John Clifford, who has been coming to Sacramento for 29 years — many times to set a Balanchine ballet on the company — said in an email exchange: “I really do not understand the board’s thinking on this matter. It’s precisely because of the popularity of Ron’s dramatic and story ballets … that have kept the audiences coming back. They always program modern, cutting edge works as well as the Balanchine masterworks, so I don’t see what more any directors could do.

“The board is fooling itself if they think reducing the company to a ‘Contemporary’ size and repertory would increase sales,” he said.

Where to Go From Here

Clifford also noted that when a company replaces one artistic director with another one, “What normally happens is … everything starts from scratch.” In other words, you may kiss goodbye to those 18 Balanchine dances in the ballet’s repertory. “The (Balanchine) Trust will need to know who the new artistic director is and if they’ve had a history with Balanchine ballets.

“Ron and Carinne have had a long and successful history with me and the Trust and that is why they’ve gotten most anything they’ve asked for and at a much reduced fee.”

As a dancer, Clifford was a protégé of Balanchine’s. He has a long history with the Trust, too, sometimes determining that a company isn’t capable of performing a dance to Balanchine Trust standards.

Clifford offered an appraisal of the Sacramento audience as it relates to a company’s success. “Your audiences are not the college-age sophisticates found in NYC or San Francisco,” he said. “Your audiences want story ballets and things that play well with families and children. The ‘cutting edge’ repertory (whatever that is) just doesn’t draw big crowds.”

And what about the dancers? What does their future hold? In 2015, a group of them launched the Capital Dance Project, originally planned as a summer employment program between seasons. They have produced two very successful multi-media programs that celebrate the diversity of the local arts community as well as delivering some kick-ass choreography. Could that sustain them as professional dancers if the board  decides to “re-focus” and “re-fresh” the company’s “vision”? That’s probably something that — if it isn’t already — will be on a lot of dancers’ minds as the 2017-18 season  approaches.

Only two things are certain: Something’s going to happen and it’s likely not going to be easy on anyone.

Note: The next program of the current season will be Beer & Ballet, a collection of dances created by members of the company. Performances will be Feb. 3-5, Feb. 10-12 and Feb. 17-19. For more information, go to sacballet.org.

Photo: Carinne Binda and Ron Cunningham, Artistic Directors of the Sacramento Ballet, study dancers as they rehearse. Courtesy of the Sacramento Ballet.

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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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