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Ballet Theatre of Md. gives Baltimore its first professional ballet company residency since 1993

Why the Ballet Theatre of Maryland thinks it can succeed in Baltimore when bigger troupes have failed.

Don't let the toe shoes fool you. They might look like nothing but pearl-colored satin and glossy ribbons, but those kicks are made to take a pounding.

When the Ballet Theatre of Maryland's dancers bourree onto the stage Saturday to perform "The Nutcracker" in the Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric, they'll take a bold and perilous step with significant consequences for Baltimore's arts scene.

On Saturday, the Ballet Theatre will officially make Baltimore one of its three performing homes. For the first time since 1993, the city will have a fully professional resident ballet company, though that means sharing the troupe with Annapolis and Bowie. No longer will Baltimore be just a stop on a national ballet company's tour — and in recent years, the city has barely been even that.

The Ballet Theatre eventually hopes to mount a full season of up to four productions annually at the Lyric, the same number it performs at its home base of Annapolis. The company also stages two productions a year in Bowie and tours the state, serving about 33,000 Marylanders annually.

In addition, the company plans to make a long-term commitment to Baltimore by sponsoring free or low-cost performances in neighborhood senior centers, church basements and school auditoriums. The troupe also will send dancers to work with pupils attending local elementary schools.

"If we're going to succeed in Baltimore, outreach will be key," Dianna Cuatto, the company's artistic director, said. "For me, children are the future of everything."

This "Nutcracker," which features Cuatto's original choreography, is a coming-of-age story in which the 15-year-old Clara dreams of the woman she will become. The roles of Clara and the Sugar Plum Fairy are danced by the same ballerina.

Cuatto also has tinkered with the first act to make it more technically challenging. Because young children are on stage for the Act I party scene, most "Nutcrackers" feature little bravura ballet until the adults take over after intermission.

"My kids really dance," Cuatto said. "They've been rehearsing since July. It makes for much more energy and more dynamic scenes."

There will even be a live orchestra in the pit; the Concert Artists of Baltimore will play Tchaikovsky's lush score.

And yet — the Ballet Theatre's investment in Baltimore is full of risks. Though "The Nutcracker" is a beloved holiday staple, there are at least three more versions competing for audiences around Baltimore in December:

The semi-professional Baltimore Ballet performs at Goucher College Dec. 10-11; the Moscow Ballet returns to the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center Dec. 16-17, and the Baltimore School for the Arts performs to recorded  music at the school Dec. 9-10 and 16-17. *

The Ballet Theatre's big Baltimore experiment also is perilous because America's arts groups have been shedding audiences like autumn leaves in the past decade. Expensive art forms such as ballet and opera are particularly vulnerable.

And yet, in this age of contraction, the Ballet Theatre of Maryland is seeking to expand.

Despite the 19th-century music and tutus, ballet in America is a relatively youthful art form, with most companies created after 1970.

Not only has the Ballet Theatre of Maryland, which was founded in 1978, survived for 38 years when many other dance companies have crumpled, it's been operating consistently in the black. So, it's not easy for Cuatto to plan a venture that she knows in advance will lose money, even in the short term.

The set for the "Nutcracker" alone cost $50,000 — a model of frugality in the ballet world, but a considerable investment for the Annapolis company with its $1.5 million annual budget. Between 65 and 70 costumed dancers will take the stage, not including the musicians.

"We had to invest an extra $100,000 to make it work at the Lyric," Cuatto said. "Our audience might not be big enough the first year for us to break even. People are just getting to know us, and they aren't aware of the quality we provide. If we can hang in there, subsequent seasons should be easier."

But for Cuatto, the move into Baltimore and the Lyric's huge stage is vital if her company is to grow artistically. In Annapolis and Bowie, the dancers perform in much smaller venues.

"When we do 'The Nutcracker' in Maryland Hall in Annapolis, some people in 'The Waltz of the Flowers' have to dance in the wings," said Lynne Bellinger, who will perform the dual role of Clara/The Sugar Plum Fairy in two performances at the Lyric.

In addition, rigging-system limitations in Maryland Hall mean "The Nutcracker's" magical Christmas tree lacks the desired wow factor as it can only "grow" about a foot.

The Lyric's big stage allowed Cuatto to choreograph an extra scene for the Baltimore production featuring a Victorian streetscape with ice skaters, carolers and a toy shop.

"At the Lyric, my dancers can dance to their full capacity," Cuatto said. "My men can jump higher and farther. That lets them build strength and stamina so they can master more difficult techniques."

If Cuatto's troupe develops a following in Baltimore, the local ballet scene could regain a vibrancy not seen since the 1970s, when the Maryland State Ballet was at its peak. Dancers won medals in prestigious European competitions, and the company landed high-profile world premieres.

But the troupe never fully recovered after a 1979 fire destroyed company offices. A 1986 successor, the Harbor City Ballet, ran into financial difficulties and folded in 1993.

That alone would make Baltimore a daunting challenge for a small regional troupe like the Ballet Theatre of Annapolis, which has only about 18 salaried dancers. In addition, Baltimore's dance history over the past quarter-century is disheartening.

Time and time again, larger and better-funded troupes with national reputations tried to establish a toehold in Baltimore. Time and time again, they failed.

The Washington Ballet performed a regular season in Baltimore from 1986 until the series was canceled in 1992 because of low attendance. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater launched a residency in 1991 that lasted for three years before collapsing with a $139,000 deficit. Financial factors also put the kibosh on plans by the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre to perform its lavish "Nutcracker" here every two years, and on the Pennsylvania Ballet's attempt to establish a residency in Baltimore in 2013.

Pittsburgh performed its "Nutcracker" here only twice, most recently in 2009. The Pennsylvania Ballet pulled the plug before it had even tried to send its dancers across the state line.

Elvi Moore, the Washington Ballet's former general manager, told a Baltimore Sun reporter in 2003 that she tried to broaden her troupe's appeal by changing its name to the Baltimore-Washington Ballet for local performances.

"I was in Baltimore two to three times a week for three years, and I tried my darndest to get the community behind us," she said. "I think there was a feeling that we were carpetbaggers, that we weren't really from Baltimore."

Harris Ferris, the Pittsburgh Ballet's executive director, said that successful residencies often start when a local philanthropist who loves dance volunteers to organize fundraising for a visit from a nearby troupe.

"It helps if there's a local advocacy group willing to do a little legwork," Ferris said. "There has to be as much pull as there is push. You can't force your way into a community."

As the corpses of failed residencies began piling up, Baltimore got a rep as a place where there isn't an audience for dance. But the reality may be more nuanced.

Ferris was pleasantly surprised by the large turnout when the Pittsburgh Ballet performed its "Nutcracker" in Baltimore, though ticket sales weren't large enough to justify the travel expenses for the unusually costly production. "The size of the audience wasn't the problem," he said.

Baltimore has enough dance lovers that 1,500 people living within 30 miles of the city made the trek to Washington to attend choreography performances last season at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, according to a spokeswoman. Presumably, those same fans would be interested in attending high-quality ballet closer to home.

And for the past three years, the Ballet Theatre of Maryland has performed an annual production of such classic ballets as "Swan Lake" at the Lyric that drew audiences of between 1,600 and 1,850, or more than two-thirds of the hall's capacity.

"I do think there's an audience for ballet in Baltimore," said Carol Hess, chairwoman of the dance department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

"The Ballet Theatre of Maryland is a strong company. Dianna is a good choreographer and she has vision. It will be exciting to see them spread their wings."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

If you go

"The Nutcracker" will be performed at 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. Dec. 3 and 4 at the Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave. $29-$54 plus fees. Call 410-547-7328 or go to www.lyricbaltimore.com.

* This article has been updated. A previous version of this story contained an incorrect location for the Baltimore School for the Arts performances of "The Nutcracker" and incorrect information about the musical accompaniment.

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