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Ballet Theatre shows creativity in 'Firebird,' 'Scarlet Letter'

Two seldom-produced productions show choreography, production strength

By Mary Johnson, Special to The Baltimore Sun

5:48 PM EST, March 3, 2012

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Midway through her season, Ballet Theatre of Maryland artistic director Dianna Cuatto presented an ambitious, innovative program offering two seldom-produced one-act ballets.

Striking in originality, "Firebird" displayed Cuatto's choreographic artistry in all its fiery intensity. "The Scarlet Letter" showed her profound insight into a literary classic.

Introducing three BTM performances last weekend, Cuatto shared her fondness for both works and their significance in her career as a dancer and choreographer. In 1968 Cuatto was the first American ballerina to dance the role of Princes Tsarevina in Ballet West's premiere American production of "Firebird," and 20 years later she danced the title role.

Her "Firebird" choreography reflects insights gained by dancing both roles. The first to choreograph Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Scarlet Letter," Cuatto brought compelling drama to the novel.

Set to Igor Stravinsky's first major work, "Firebird" was originally choreographed by Michel Fokine in 1910. Based on Russian folk tales of magic, adventure and love, it tells the story of a glowing bird captured by Prince Ivan and later freed after promising to grant him protection and magical power. After a series of adventures that involve numerous monsters, Ivan wins the love of Princess Tsarevina.

In Cuatto's version, Ivan's adversary is changed from male Kashchei to sorceress Kascheia, eventually vanquished by Ivan with Firebird's sword. Kascheia is later transformed into a serpent by Firebird so she can seek redemption.

In the Friday and Sunday performances I attended, the Firebird role was exquisitely danced by Erica Wong, who captured the magical bird's vitality and regal courage. Her beautifully fluttering arms added to Wong's portrayal as she soared in a gorgeous pas de deux with Calder Taylor's Prince Ivan.

Taylor brought his distinctive dramatic skills to his powerful portrayal of Ivan in dazzling solo dance and sensitive partnering. He executed superb two- and three-stage lifts with Wong's Firebird and later in his tender pas de deux with Valerie Walker's Princess Tsarevna.

From her joyous entry into the Princesses group, Walker portrayed Tsarevna in strong ensemble work and sensitively expressed a growing reliance on Taylor's Ivan.

As Kascheia, Alyssa Johnson captured the fearsome power of this sorceress role.

BTM's "Firebird" was enhanced by a six-dancer troupe of Princesses. A 10-member company of large menacing "Monsters" added excitement — along with an 11-member "Little Monsters" cast.

Both "Firebird" and "The Scarlet Letter" gained added visual impact from the costumes and set design. In "Scarlet Letter, the construction was completed by a skilled BTM team of Brian Walker, Calder Taylor, Meagan Helman, Valerie Walker and Jeffrey Senior.

After intermission, fairy-tale Russia was replaced by 17th-century Puritan New England in a dance retelling of "The Scarlet Letter," Hawthorne's classic tale of forbidden love, revenge and redemption.

BTM's "Scarlet Letter" gained drama and immediacy as Cuatto combined several compositions by 20th-century American composer Samuel Barber, creating compatible accompaniment for her dance depiction.

Sent to New England ahead of her much older husband, Hester settles in and presumes her husband has been lost at sea. She has an affair that produces a child, causing her to be branded an adulteress.

Forced to wear the letter "A" on her bodice for life, Hester nonetheless refuses to reveal the identity of her lover, the Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale, and earns a living for herself and daughter, Pearl, by sewing.

Hester's husband, Roger Chillingworth, eventually appears in town and befriends Dimmesdale; then, suspecting him to be his wife's lover, be begins persecuting him.

In BTM's "Scarlet Letter," Kathryn Carlson defined Hester Prynne in dance, creating a multidimensional portrayal beginning with her unbowed stance at her sentencing and becoming a defender of her daughter and Dimmesdale. Through dance, Carlson expressed emotions that seemed intensified by the costume constraints of her Puritan garb.

These stiff costumes are another testament to Cuatto's design skills. The costumes moved well with every dancer's move.

As Hester's lover Dimmesdale, Brian Walker expressed a poetic yearning and tenderness in their pas de deux to capture the essence of their forbidden love.

As Hester's husband, Alden Taylor added a strong element of uncompromising vengeance.

Nicole Keisch danced the part of Pearl with youthful exuberance combined with a visible maturing.

As Mistress Hibbins, the Witch Lady, BTM Ballet Mistress Meagan Helman again proved her versatility, meeting every requirement of this demanding role.

This BTM production deserved a much larger audience at Maryland Hall. One more chance to see the Ballet Theatre this season remains on April 13-15, when "Annapolis Anthologies" will celebrate the life of Annapolitan Grace Clark.