Ballet Theatre of Maryland opened its 31st season with two successful performances last month of "Beauty and the Beast" choreographed by artistic director Dianna Cuatto, who is in her seventh season with BTM.
Cuatto brought symbolism, metaphor and humor to the show, while combining romantic elements reminiscent of Jean Cocteau's 1946 film sprinkled with hints of Disney's 1991 animated version. The ballet was set to the surprisingly compatible music of Edvard Grieg to complete the magic.
In addition to the insights that mark Cuatto's choreography are her set design capabilities, well-executed by a team of BTM dancers doing double duty.
Meagan Helman, who danced the lead role of Belle, also served as set artist. Principal dancers Brian Walker (Jacques) and Calder Taylor (the Beast) built the portable sets to create rooms, forests and a castle. These three dancers and others in the troupe, including costume designer Alyssa Johnson, made this ballet a visual treat. The sets were enhanced by the lighting design of Stacie Johnson-Leske.
With its fearsome forest scenes shrouded in mist, "Beauty" proved an appropriate choice for the weekend before Halloween. Many costumed children in the audience enjoyed parties before or after the performances.
The familiar fairy tale of Belle, whose father wanders into the Beast's castle and is allowed to leave only if his daughter takes his place, was well told in dance.
Belle is a beauty who has strong family loyalties and worthy goals. The fearsome beast is a former prince who was transformed by sorceress Luna, forcing him to remain a beast until he can win the love of one who sees beyond his appearance.
Young audience members seemed engrossed in the story and instantly recognized the main characters, including Belle's self-absorbed suitor, the vain Jacques (Gaston in the Disney version).
Cuatto showcased the talents of favorite and new BTM dancers. Helman danced the title role with a joyous lightness and elegance, her emotional involvement expressed in gentle teasing of brother Noelle, amused disdain for Jacques, and above all Belle's empathy and growing affection for the Beast.
Taylor was spectacular as the Beast, expressing power and ferocity in his battles with wolves and human enemies. Taylor fearlessly leaped off 6-foot-high ledges, and he humorously practiced dance steps and deportment with Terra and Fauna before dancing his first magical waltz with Belle.
Two strong new additions to BTM are Christopher Pennix, who played Belle's father, Marcel; and Justin Allen, who impressed as Noelle. Both young men are vigorous, versatile dancers who move with authority and easy grace.
Now in his fourth season with BTM, Walker grows more impressive each year and reached new heights as fearless, flamboyant, macho Jacques, who amused with his arrogant conceit, provoked laughter when he couldn't grasp Belle's rejection of him and amazed by leaping from high walls and fiercely attacking the Beast.
To showcase as many dancers as possible, Cuatto double-cast many roles, and I enjoyed the exquisite performance of Nicole Seitz as Auriele, a role danced by Kathryn Carlson the previous evening. The role of Luna was danced by Margaret Hannah on Saturday and by Kelly Braga, whose performance was captivating in its seductive intensity, on Sunday. Also worthy of mention is Lauren Boemer, who recently moved up from apprentice dancer and who as Melinda portrayed Marcel's love interest with verve and regal grace.
Ensemble dances, including the opening in the village square, were beautifully executed, as were the celebratory dances by the villagers in the town square and at the castle - all lively, colorful and spirited.
Although the entire company deserves praise, special mention is due the group of children who held their own among this cast of professionals.
Five "Nutcracker" performances are scheduled for Dec. 12, 13 and 20. Four performances include Sugar Plum parties, and times and prices vary with performances. A "Mystery Nutcracker" with the Chesapeake Symphony Youth Orchestra will be Dec. 19. For more information, call the BTM office at 410-263-8289.