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Ballet Theatre in tribute, in fine form

The Baltimore Sun

The Ballet Theatre of Maryland closed its 2007-2008 season last weekend with memorable performances from the entire company in a new major work honoring an Annapolis ballet teacher.

Dancers were also at the top of their form in preceding selections that included Italian Symphonette, a work choreographed earlier by Dianna Cuatto, and her Tango Dramatico, requested by four principal dancers: Bryan Skates, his wife, Jamie Skates, and principal dancers Alexis Decker and Christi Bleakly.

Wherever these dancers appeared, they set higher standards than before, giving cause to celebrate along with the bittersweet realization that we will no longer be able to see their magic.

Italian Symphonette featured Bryan and Jamie Skates, who again showed off all the hallmarks we've come to associate with them: seamless lifts, tender partnering and spectacular solo dancing. This piece also featured Kathryn Carlson, Calder Taylor, Alexis Decker, Brian Walker, Nicole Seitz, Margaret Hannah and Kelly Braga, who each contributed to the polished whole along with a dozen corps dancers.

The performance at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts also included a new work choreographed by BTM dancer Meagan Helman. Meetings Along the Edge, danced to music by Ravi Shankar and Philip Glass, showcased the strength and athleticism of both male and female dancers in sharply angular movements that expressed a strong sense of freedom. Aptly titled, this dance was indeed edgy with a series of sharp cut-ins between lines of dancers that appeared to be dangerous. The dance also included some spectacular innovative lifts that incorporated some gravity defying fish dives that somehow seemed new.

Tango Dramatico, an Argentine favorite, gave the principal partners an opportunity to reveal their own seductive sensuality. Where spectacular was the rule, three dancers were outstanding: partners Jessica Fry and David McAlister and solo dancer Alexis Decker, who imparted a haughty independence that became torrid when she danced with Brian Walker, Calder Taylor and David McAlister.

The major work of the evening, Annapolis Anthologies, was Cuatto's tribute to the late Grace Clark, who founded her own School of Dance and later the Annapolis Civic Ballet Company. Over a 40-year career as a teacher and choreographer, Clark taught thousands of students the Cecchetti Method. She previously studied with Ted Shawn and Ruth St. Denis and later at the Royal Academy of Ballet in London.

Serving as narrator, Cuatto spoke of historical high points that began with Clark's study of the Denishawn system, reciting St. Denis' creed, "We are free of time and space," including the line, "We use our translucent bodies in a new language to express the glory of our love."

That freedom became a thread that ran through the piece. Dressed in a lovely soft pink costume, Grace (Kathryn Carlson) often danced with her mirrored reflection (Alexis Decker) to create a compelling portrait of the sensitive young dance teacher.

Captured in dance was Grace's meeting on a blind date her future husband Ellery Harding Clark, who brought her to Annapolis when he accepted a teaching post at the Naval Academy. The couple renewed their wedding vows on their 50th wedding anniversary. Both events were romantically captured in dance, with Bryan Skates vigorously dancing the Ellery role.

Ballet classes were remembered along with the Stanton Community Center, where Clark gave lessons to black children during segregation before welcoming them into her own Annapolis Civic Ballet studio.

After a touching Dance of Death that used yards of what appeared to be parachute silk, the ballet ended with Reflections from Beyond, which provided an uplifting message of an unencumbered spirit dancing freely.

At intermission I met one of Grace Clark's former students, who'd been invited to attend the performance. A choked-up Susan Hedges later said that she'd studied with Clark in the early 1980s and completed two grades with her, an experience that inspired her to later teach some dance classes. Although she no longer dances, she continues to value the experience of studying with Clark.

Hedges is part of the Clark legacy, now enhanced through this appropriate dance tribute.

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