Review: 'Star Spangled Sketches' a great dance drama

Ballet Theatre of Maryland closed its 33rd season with a major work, "Star Spangled Sketches — Frontier: 1812," which may have been artistic director Dianna Cuatto's greatest choreographic challenge yet.

"Star Spangled Sketches" depicts major events of the War of 1812 and is set to David Arkenstone's Emmy Award-winning score for the History Channel. Inspired by the letters and memoirs of Dolley Madison and President James Madison, Cuatto's historical ballet depicts the causes and declaration of the war and events including the burning of Washington, the battle of Fort McHenry and the writing of "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Best described as a multimedia work of art, this ballet combines quotations read by Cuatto and her husband, Al Kessler, to introduce dance segments that bring the quotes to life.

In the show, dancers convincingly portrayed sailing ships, and other scenes simulated a burning city or a forest filled with smoke where soldiers moved with glowing lanterns.

The detailed sets were created by the dancers themselves, and other features of the show included borrowed historical projected slides, costumes created by dancers Alyssa Johnson and Susan Johnson, and the brilliant original lighting design of Stacie Johnson-Leske.

After the opening scene of the Battle of the Thames, where Indian leader Tecumseh was killed, the scene shifts to the White House of Dolley and James Madison to link events to a couple who grew stronger in adversity, as they later walked among the people to view together the destruction of Washington.

Kathryn Carlson in her portrayal of Dolley Madison conveyed grace, warmth and elegant charm — qualities defining this first lady. Carlson's Dolley also expressed through dance her total trust in and complete devotion to her husband.

Brian Walker as James Madison conveyed a leader whose intellectualism was humanized by the challenges he overcame. The character expressed a tender love and protectiveness toward Dolley.

The high drama, nobility and cruelty of war are strongly depicted in scenes of the Battle of Bladensburg — where British Admiral George Cockburn (Stirling Matheson), British Maj. Gen. Robert Ross (Calder Taylor) and U.S. Brig. Gen. William Winder (Alden Taylor) engage in vigorous swordplay — and in the Battle of North Point. There, Ross is killed as his wife, Elizabeth (Valerie Walker), comforts him in a scene where she appears at her home and then dreamlike on the battlefield beside her dying husband. Elizabeth's sad words are heard in a letter she wrote to Dolley Madison.

Other noteworthy scenes include Mary Pickersgill (Alyssa Johnson) and her daughter Caroline (Nicole Seitz) creating the huge flag commissioned by Maj. George Armistead (Joshua Burnham) to fly over Fort McHenry. Cuatto aligned dancers costumed in red, white and navy blue with stars to form various configurations as the women envisioned the flag.

The scene depicting the Battle of Fort McHenry was thrilling, with the bombardment simulated as Francis Scott Key's poem was read and the unfurled banner of 15 stars and 15 stripes was projected.

Last weekend's program at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts began with Cuatto's earlier work, "Italian Symphonette," danced to music by Felix Mendelssohn. Having enjoyed this ballet in 2008, I found it more enchanting now with more polished performances offered by more skilled dancers. Principal dancers Nicole Seitz and Joshua Burnham were a striking duo, as were partners Kathryn Carlson and Calder Taylor and Erica Wong and Brian Walker.

Although this monumental dance drama should be seen by capacity audiences, at least two-thirds of the seats were empty at Saturday evening's performance. This must have been disheartening for the dancers, who all delivered excellent performances to end the season on the highest possible note.

My hope is "Star Spangled Sketches" will be presented at several theaters in Maryland many times during the coming years.

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