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Ballet Theatre of Maryland offers a sampler of dance delights

The Baltimore Sun

A last-minute glitch in gaining rights for a planned West Side Story piece forced Ballet Theatre of Maryland artistic director Dianna Cuatto to sub in one of her own pieces at a sampler of new works last weekend -- and the results were delectable.

Cuatto featured her recently completed Collage, danced to music by 3 Doors Down, and premiered her dance to Leonard Bernstein's Chichester Psalms, which featured the Annapolis Chorale and Chamber Orchestra under the direction of J. Ernest Green.

Two recently completed works by ballet master Bryan Skates provided variety and a new vision. The program began with his dance to Old American Songs, by Aaron Copland, and ended with Sentimental Saunter, Skates' seven-part tribute to movie musical legends, danced to the music of George Gershwin.

In Old American Songs, a collection of 10 hymns and minstrel songs from the early 19thcentury, Skates told the story of life in an old American river town. The lighting design by Tom Light and costumes by Bryan's wife, Jamie, contributed mightily to Skates' telling of the story.

Skates took spectators back to when people harmoniously gathered together to work and worship. Tomboy Jamie Skates tried the patience of her preacher father (Brian Walker) and mother (Alexis Decker), until boatman Bryan Skates arrived to awaken new feelings in her. Bryan and Jamie's consummate devotion and mutual trust show in their dancing.

Before the program, Cuatto announced that Collage, which had been previewed last week at Towson State University, would be substituted for West Side Story.

Collage proved a fortunate choice, where the lighting design and modern costumes -- created by Cuatto, Natasha Brown and Debra Clark -- added to the overall effect. This piece was edgy and riveting, with exciting music and geometrically precise movements.

Featuring rapidly shifting kaleidoscopic patterns, this piece sometimes seemed almost beyond human limitations. It was filled with intense athleticism. Spins and leaps executed with such speed that collision seemed inevitable between dancers, who were saved only by their agility and precision. One final breathtaking aspect of the piece was the number of spectacular leaps, catches and lifts, testaments to the dancers' mutual implicit trust.

Next came Cuatto's work featuring Bernstein's Chichester Psalms. The audience was treated to a collaboration between Ballet Theater of Maryland and the Annapolis Chorale and Chamber Orchestra.

In Bernstein's magnificent sacred contemporary work, the chorus sings in Hebrew of conflict and discord, topics contrasted with the serene affirmation of the 23rd Psalm.

With chorus and musicians veiled behind a scrim, Cuatto's visually arresting ballet added another human dimension to this sacred work, which prays for harmony and rails against warring nations.

Cuatto's interpretation focused on the light and dark elements of the work, juxtaposing sharp conflicts with the theme of unity: In this work, light and dark, faith and conflict meet and blend. The dancers raised their arms in sharp defiance against war and praised God with profound expressiveness.

Another pinnacle was reached in Skates' Sentimental Saunter. "Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Bob Fosse, Cyd Charisse and Ann Miller all have strong technique," Skates said. "Their movement is uninhibited, and Sentimental Saunter is my way of honoring their legacy."

In a post-program conversation, Cuatto said Saunter was Skates' finest work to date and expressed her delight at the audience, which rewarded it Saturday night with a prolonged standing ovation.

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