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'Incredible Journey': Sacramento Ballet's Carinne Binda, Legend Violette Verdy, And A Final 'Giselle'

Jay Mather / Courtesy of Sacramento Ballet

Dancer Kirsten Bloom Allen in Sacramento Ballet's 2004 production of Giselle.

Jay Mather / Courtesy of Sacramento Ballet

When Sacramento Ballet co-artistic director Carinne Binda was a girl in the 1960s, she adored Violette Verdy, the French ballerina who was a star with the New York City Ballet at that time. Binda would go out of her way to see Verdy on stage — and she wasn’t the only person to do so.

“Everyone was in awe of Violette Verdy. She was legend,” Binda recalled in an interview with Capital Public Radio.

Binda was inspired to become a professional dancer herself, and joined the Boston Ballet in the 1972. A few years later, Verdy — who retired as a ballerina n 1977 — came to Boston to direct Giselle.

A long friendship began.

This weekend, the Sacramento Ballet will stage "Giselle," the full-length classic from 1841 involving love, forgiveness and compassion. For Binda, it’s a chance to revisit a masterpiece that she learned under the great ballerina decades ago.

Binda recalled working under Verdy as a dancer in "Giselle," and then ultimately as her ballet mistress, “which was a very close relationship,” she said. She later became Verdy’s personal assistant.

She described her partnership with Verdy as “an incredible journey of a relationship.”

It continued long after Verdy and Binda left the Boston Ballet. In 1988, Binda and husband, Ron Cunningham, became co-artistic directors here in Sacramento, and in 1992, they mounted "Giselle.' At their invitation, Verdy came to the River City and spent several days coaching the dancers.

And just as it has in many other cities for more than a century, "Giselle" worked its magic, and captivated audiences.

“It’s always been a tremendous joy to work on this ballet. Whether it was in 1992, or 1996, or 2005, or now here we are in 2018,” Binda said.

"Giselle" is a tragic and ultimately spiritual story, about a young peasant girl who meets a handsome prince (disguised as a commoner) during a grape harvest festival. They fall in love at first sight — something that neither of them has experienced before — but eventually the prince is reminded that he’s already betrothed to a princess. Giselle literally dies of disappointment at the end of the first act.

In the second act, things turn otherworldly. The handsome prince goes to visit Giselle’s grave in a dark forest at night, where he is confronted by the Willis: vengeful spirits of angry women who were betrayed by men while they lived.

But Giselle’s spirit doesn’t want to see the prince die; she prevents the Willis from killing him, dancing with him one last time. And as the ballet ends, the prince weeps at Giselle’s grave, realizing the damage he has done, and how much Giselle was devoted to him, even in death.

For this production, Binda is coaching three young women in the title role, and four young guys as Albrecht, the male lead, as well as a host of women playing the Willis — nighttime spirits dwelling in a dark, misty forest. She is quick to tell you that she’s proud of them all.

But Binda also retires from the Sacramento Ballet in June, which makes this both a joyful and  bittersweet occasion. The teacher is well aware that she is passing the torch to a new generation, and she wants it to be special.

“There is so much investment into the leading dancers. And I wanted each of them to have that in their life, to be coached, the way I had the privilege of being coached as a dancer,” Binda said.

When the music rises on Friday, audiences can experience what Binda and her dancers have been energetically preparing for months.

The Sacramento Ballet performs "Giselle" on Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the Sacramento Community Center Theater.

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