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Volume 14, Issue 13 ~ March 30 - April 5, 2006

Coming Attraction

Lord of the Rings Meets Dance in Excalibur

Ballet and Celtic music combine for a medieval world premier

by Carrie Steele

In Annapolis, ballet takes its cue from Americ

Bryan Skates plays Arthur and Anmarie Touloumis is Morgan Le Fey as Ballet Theatre of Maryland’s dances of Excalibur.

an literature and legendary lore to lure new and younger audiences.

In a world premier, Ballet Theatre of Maryland has King Arthur of Camelot donning ballet shoes and ballerinas casting spells. Excalibur — named for Arthur’s magical sword — is the newest of a series of ballets from the troupe to venture away from traditional dance fare.

Choreographed by artistic director Dianna Cuatto, Excalibur tells the legendary tale through the darker eyes of Arthur’s estranged half sister, the sorceress Morgan Le Fey. Dancers become sword-fighting knights and princesses in a magical blend enhanced by Celtic music.

“I’ve always liked the history of that time. The myths and legends are universal,” says Cuatto, who combines a degree in literature with a lifetime in ballet.

“It’s a good versus evil story that also shows the evolution of the characters, especially in how Morgan becomes evil. So it’s powerful in terms of dance,” Cuatto says.

The artistic director’s taste for literature has been one of the defining qualities of her two and a half years with the Ballet Theatre of Maryland. She’s choreographed two American classics, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, for Annapolis audiences.

“It’s a nice step for ballet to have stories that are American,” said Bryan Skates. Skates followed Cuatto from Richmond Ballet, in Virginia, to the Ballet Theatre of Maryland.

Cuatto’s habit of turning literature into dance sets her apart in the ballet world, where Swan Lake and other European dances are the gold standard.

Moving beyond the traditional repertoire is a move to draw new audiences. “Stories that people know are an easier draw, making ballet accessible to new generation of young people,” Cuatto says.

Explaining her choice of Arthurian legend, she points to the popular success of contemporary stories featuring warrior knights and princesses. “Lord of the Rings and Star Wars really hit a nerve that resonates with people,” says Cuatto. “This is a similar kind of thing.”

New stories can strengthen the company as well.

“We all love the standards; that’s what drew us to dance,” says Skates, who dances the role of Arthur this weekend. “But no company can survive on classical alone. Even New York City ballet has contemporary works in their repertoire.

“If we do the same thing, we’re not developing ourselves as dancers,” he says. “Our bodies are art that we’re always developing.”

Cuatto’s innovations are gaining national attention. “Dance Magazine says I’m doing more American literary works than anyone else,” she reports.

But her changes may not be so welcome at home. Four board members of the company resigned this month at a meeting over Cuatto’s contract.

“I think we do have some traditionalists,” speculated Cuatto, who was not present at the meeting.

New traditions will be made by the Ballet Theatre with Excalibur.

First, Cuatto has set the dance to Celtic music. Maggie Sansone, a Celtic music innovator in her own right, leads the quintet on hammered dulcimer.

Second, she’s made room on the program to showcase the talents of two members of the company. The company dances young choreographer Jennifer Yackel’s setting of Beneath The Surface; and principal Bryan Skates dances Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings.

Third, a whole Medieval Festival follows Sunday’s performance. Cuatto has brought audiences, especially the younger generation, into the ballet before. At Christmas, for example, one performance of the Nutcracker ended in a Sugar Plum Party, where children mingled with star-studded dancers. Now, kids cheer on knight’s in Sunday’s performance before the festival, where Arthurian characters mingle with guests to teach theatrical combat and Celtic dancing. Medieval food will be served.

Visit King Arthur’s court April 1 at 8pm & April 2 at 2pm, Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, 801 Chase St., Annapolis. $40/performance; $8/medieval festival for ballet-goers; $12/festival only: rsvp; 410-263-5544;

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