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Ballet Theatre of Maryland residency gives Baltimore first professional ballet troupe in 23 years

Ballet Theatre of Maryland's production of "The Nutcracker." The troupe announced a residency with the Modell Lyric in Baltimore this week.
Ballet Theatre of Maryland's production of "The Nutcracker." The troupe announced a residency with the Modell Lyric in Baltimore this week. (Handout photo)

Thanks to a new residency program, Baltimore will have the permanent presence of a professional ballet company for the first time in 23 years.

The Ballet Theatre of Maryland, which will continue to be based in Annapolis, announced this week that it is making a multiyear commitment to Baltimore that will include establishing a part-time performing home at the Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric.

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In addition, Maryland's only fully professional ballet company hopes to create outreach programs that would include performances in Baltimore neighborhoods and sending dancers to teach in city schools.

The announcement signals the end of a two-decade drought in which a city that aspires to be a world-class arts center lacked a professional ballet troupe that put on a regular roster of performances. Instead, Baltimore was merely a stop on a tour.

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"We're excited about this partnership," said Dianna Cuatto, the company's artistic director.
"We've been talking about this with the Lyric for the past seven years. Our mission is to serve the community in addition to putting on high-quality ballet, and Baltimore is key to that mission."

The Ballet Theatre of Maryland, which was founded in 1978, has a budget of $1.5 million and employs 20 full-time dancers. Cuatto said that an additional 20 to 30 apprentices and students typically join company members onstage for performances. The company also tours the state, and Cuatto estimated that about 33,000 people attend its performances each year.

"With this partnership, we hope to foster the cultural development and diversity of the arts in the community," Cleaveland Miller, chairman of the Lyric's board of directors, said in a news release.

Cuatto acknowledged that the company's inaugural year in Baltimore will be relatively low-key. Just five performances of two productions are scheduled — and four of those are of "The Nutcracker," a holiday classic so beloved that there are already many opportunities to see it locally.

In addition, the Ballet Theatre will stage one performance on April 1, 2017, of "Excalibur: The Sword in the Stone," a dance about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table that was choreographed by Cuatto.

"We're starting small this year," Cuatto said, "but I hope that we can eventually expand into four productions a season. We'd like to establish a dual residency system where we put on the same number of shows in Baltimore each year as we do in Annapolis."

The Ballet Theatre of Maryland also operates a residency in Bowie, where the company stages two productions a year.

If there was a golden age of ballet in Baltimore, it was the 1970s, when the Maryland State Ballet was at its peak. Although never a top-ranked company on the order of the American Ballet Theatre or the New York City Ballet, its members won medals in prestigious European competitions and the troupe landed high-profile world premieres.

But in August 1979, a fire destroyed the company's offices on St. Paul Street, including its sets, costumes and subscription lists. The troupe never fully recovered, although a downsized and renamed version limped along until 1985.

The next year, Harbor City Ballet was created by local choreographer Philip Carman. Despite a name change to the more geographically appealing Maryland Ballet Theater, it couldn't attract the corporate support it needed and folded in 1993.

Since then, there has been an untapped market for ballet in Baltimore, and Wednesday's announcement isn't the first time that a dance company has flirted with establishing a regular presence in the city.

In 2006, the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre announced it would bring its lavish "Nutcracker" to Baltimore three times in the next five years. A few years later, there were discussions about bringing in the Pennsylvania Ballet for an annual residency at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center.

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But neither plan worked out as hoped. Given that history, it's not surprising that The Ballet Theatre of Maryland proceeded cautiously before making a long-term commitment to Charm City.

The company tested the local appetite for dance for the past three years by performing an annual production at the Lyric of such classic ballets as "Swan Lake," "Cinderella" and most recently, "The Sleeping Beauty."

These shows have drawn audiences ranging between 1,600 and 1,850 — or more than two-thirds of the hall's 2,500-seat capacity.

Cuatto hopes to match or surpass those attendance numbers in its first season.

"Whether or not we'll get there, I don't know," she said, "but we have a fighting chance."

Cuatto said she's applied for funding to create a Baltimore branch of an existing program that puts dancers into third and fourth grade classrooms and guides students in creating their own ballet. In addition, the Ballet Theatre operates a movement program in Annapolis for low-income preschool-age children that is combined with a free lunch.

There's even been talk of launching a summer dance camp at the Lyric.

"I expect my dancers to also be mentors," Cuatto said.

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

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