New ballet celebrates Annapolis dance figure

The Baltimore Sun

Dianna Cuatto, director of the Ballet Theatre of Maryland, is contributing to the 300th anniversary celebration of Annapolis' royal charter with a new ballet. She didn't have to reach far back into the city's history for inspiration.

Annapolis Anthologies, which will have its world premiere April 19 and April 20 in Annapolis, is a tribute to the founder of the Grace Clark School of Dance and the Annapolis Civic Ballet Company, a woman who gave women, African-Americans and students from all cultural backgrounds the power of dance to help them break down barriers to individual freedoms.

"I'll include her earlier study with Ted Shawn and Ruth St. Denis and incorporate Denishawn's statement, 'We were free of time and space,'" Cuatto said. "Because of Grace Clark's skills with the piano, I plan to have the dance performed to Robert Schumann's Etudes. I'll use excerpts from Maya Angelou's [I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings] to illustrate Clark's breaking barriers. Grace believed that dance is for everyone.

"Annapolis Anthologies will not be exactly historical but more abstract. Grace Clark did things in dance that nobody had done here."

Cuatto has enjoyed discovering Grace Gelinas Clark, whose existence she became aware of in December 2006 when she met Victoria Waidner, who spoke of her mother's influence on the Annapolis dance community.

The second of five children born to French immigrants settling in Nova Scotia, Grace Gelinas always wanted to study dance. Her mother, however, insisted that she complete 12 years of piano study before taking up dancing. So as a young girl, she practiced dancing behind the living room draperies. She did not seriously study dance until age 14, eventually studying with St. Denis and Shawn - then famous for the Denishawn system.

Grace Gelinas met her future husband, Ellery Harding Clark Jr., on a blind date. They were married in 1935 and later settled in Annapolis. He taught English history and coached track and field at the Naval Academy, with time out during World War II to serve in the South Pacific at Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima.

She began teaching ballet while her husband was away during the war.

Waidner said her father supported her mother "totally in everything she did. Both believed in physical activities that use all muscles."

Although Clark had a number of students, school segregation prevented African-American children from learning to dance at her school. In 1954, Clark convinced authorities that these children should be able to study dance and began to teach them at segregated Parole Elementary School. She moved the classes to her home at Southgate and Franklin streets in 1962, when a ballet annex was built.

Clark was the first woman to act with the Naval Academy Masqueraders, the acting troupe that celebrated its 100th anniversary last fall and was the first to teach the Cecchetti method of dance in the area. The Cecchetti method is a rigorous system that stresses qualities essential to dance - balance, strength, and elevation - in a training regime.

"I've met students who studied with her," Cuatto said. "When you thought of classical dance, you thought of Grace Clark."

Clark died in 1997, 10 days shy of her 85th birthday.

Waidner said she wants her mother "remembered as a beautiful person with ethnic sensibilities - a talented lady who never knew a stranger."

Other works on the program will include the vibrant neoclassical work Italian Symphonette and a new work by choreographer Meagan Helman called Meetings Along the Edge. The program also will include Tango Dramatico, a work chosen by the company's four departing principal dancers: Bryan and Jamie Skates, Alexis Decker and Christie Bleakly.

Performances will be at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, 801 Chase St. in Annapolis at 7 p.m. April 19 and 2 p.m. April 20. Tickets can be ordered through the Maryland Hall box office at 410-280-5640.

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