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Ballet Theatre of Maryland’s Double Feature

Scary forces fight for souls, all in elegant bodies

This weekend Ballet Theatre of Maryland performs The Firebird.

A tonic to warm up the blood would do good in these heavy days of Pisces, where we’re stuck till the first day of spring. You’ll find it at Ballet Theatre of Maryland’s double feature, The Firebird and The Scarlet Letter, this weekend only at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts.
    Don’t do ballet? Dianna Cuatto, artistic director since 2003 of Maryland’s only professional ballet company, gives you reason to stretch out of your comfort zone.
    “Ballet is soul-to-soul communication in a language that’s very powerful because in it you don’t need words,” Cuatto says.
    Plus, she adds, there’s the spectacle, the monsters, the heavy-metal music and “the kind of movement you see on television in You Think You Can Dance.”
    She would say that, as ballet is her language. But hear her out.
    “Appearances don’t necessarily show what’s in the human heart. That and redemption are messages I try to delineate in this pairing,” Cuatto says. With degrees in English and dance, she’s a master of the content and power of stories. Story is always one of the reasons behind this creative director’s choice of what her company will dance.
    A Scarlet Letter has been a favorite since high school. Then as a graduate student, Cuatto was the first to choreograph 19th-century American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story of sexual hypocrisy among the Puritans. She also danced the role of Heather, creating the first interpretation of the ostracized single mother who believed in love more than dogma — and paid the price.
    Cuatto has paired that dramatic dance — which takes 45 minutes and does not have a happy ending — with the Russian fairy tale The Firebird. Complete with a prince on a quest to rescue a princess, an evil sorceress, a magic captive bird and monsters, The Firebird allows love to conquer. Fifty-nine minutes long, it begins the double bill, divided by intermission, when the bar opens.
    Endings aside, both stories have a dark and brooding tone just right for the star sign Pisces.
    You’ll hear that in the music, by American composer Samuel Barber in The Scarlet Letter and Russian Igor Stravinsky in The Firebird, now almost a century old.
    “In those brooding scores,” Cuatto says, “I wanted the audience to hear the evolution from the beginning of romantic music with Stravinsky to its continuation in Barber.”

“Ballet is soul-to-soul communication,” says Ballet Theatre of Maryland artistic director Dianna Cuatto. It’s “very powerful because in it you don’t need words.”

    She’s inviting comparison and contrast in color as well as mood. The firebird — danced by Erica Wong on Friday and Sunday and Nicole Kelsch on Saturday — wears the brilliant plumage of a red tutu. The costumes of other dancers flow rather than reveal, with the Puritans in black and white and Heather branded in red. Monsters wear dark fur.
    Thirty-two dancers make up the company, playing many roles.
    Alyssa Johnson sews Cuatto’s costumes, including her own as sorceress in The Firebird.
    Dancer and technical director Brian Walker plays triple-duty as set builder in The Scarlet Letter, where he also dances as The Rev. Dimmesdale.
    Joining the professionals, children from the ballet school play junior monsters in The Firebird.
    Ballet Theatre of Maryland takes its name and mission seriously, dancing and teaching beyond Annapolis and planning to extend its reach statewide. Often the dancers perform in what Cuatto calls “underserved schools where kids have not seen ballet.” Teachers, she reports, say the kids are “really moved.”
    The double bill, however, may not be the shows for kids. Firebird is pretty scary, but kids have seen a lot nowadays, and this certainly won’t be the worst. The Scarlet Letter, Cuatto says, is better for fifth grade and up.
    Adults can handle both and just might get the tonic to wait out the last month of winter.

    Fri. & Sat. Feb. 24 and 25 at 7pm; Sun. Feb. 26 at 2pm. Maryland Hall, 801 Chase St., Annapolis. $45: 410-280-5640; www.balletmaryland.org.