Ballet Theatre, Now 10, Dances Its Way To Respectability

April 14, 1991|By Michael R. Driscoll | Michael R. Driscoll,Staff writer

Ten years ago, the Ballet Theatre of Annapolis came into the world with little more than a dozen part-time dancers and a dream that a professional ballet company could live, teach and work in Anne Arundel County.

"That was the original sole purpose of the Ballet Theatre of Annapolis;" said former general manager Barbara Engel, "to allow the dancers in the area a possibility to perform and to educate the public about the beauty of dance and what ballet is really all about."

Today, the 22-member company is an important part of the county'scultural landscape. The company conducts classes for all ages at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts. It also has an outreach program in county schools that acquaints students with such dance forms as jazz and tap as well as ballet.

For the past several years, the BTA's version of Tchaikovsky's classic, "The Nutcracker," with up to 200 performers, has been drawing crowds of all ages.

The troupe attracts former Bolshoi stars to teach special classes, as Vitaly Artiuskin and Alla Khaniashvili-Artiushkina did in October. It premieres originaldance works, such as this weekend's "A Night in Vienna," featuring choreography by Lisa Hess; and "Alice," featuring Kristin Peterson of Annapolis in her first major dance role.

With an annual budget of over $200,000, plus another $50,000 from ticket sales, the BTA has come a long way since its inaugural performance on Nov. 18, 1980, at St. John's College. Its budget that year was around $10,000, and the company earned only about $5,000.

The group's lowest point came about five years ago when financial support from any source had virtually dried up.

Many of the dances in the first performance were both choreographed and performed by artistic director Eddie Stewart. Ten years later, following what he admits were "a lot of ups and downs," Stewart is still at the helm.

"It was a real struggle," he says of the past decade. "I don't think many would have stuck it out the way I did, but I have faith in this company. I guess that's why I'm stillhere."

The Pennsylvania-born Stewart started tap lessons at the age of nine. Since most companies had trouble finding male dancers, heamassed a wealth of dance experience growing up. After a brief stay in New York City, he moved on to perform with ballet companies in Pittsburgh and Chicago.

From there he moved to the Maryland Ballet Company, then to Annapolis. He taught dance at Towson State University until recently.

Stewart attributed the BTA's success to his dancers, many of whom have made "beyond-remarkable improvement" since the group's early years, and to volunteers.

Peterson, 14, is one of thenewest members of the BTA family. In the company since August, she has been dancing since she was 3.

She was chosen for the role of Alice by Stewart, who praised her maturity and talent.

"I was surprised, but also honored that he would pick me for something like that,"said Peterson. "It's been a lot of hard work."

She described Stewart as a demanding teacher, "but he's nice, too, and he's been very helpful."

Engel, a professional nurse, is one of the few BTA original members still with the company, working behind the scenes in various capacities since its beginning. She began by sewing costumes, thensat on the troupe's Board of Trustees and served as its vice president, president and general manager before returning to her needle and thread due to time conflicts.

A native of Illinois and a self-styled "Air Force brat," Engel moved to the area some 30 years ago with her husband, a computer specialist for Westinghouse Corp., and became involved with the BTA through her daughters.

"My youngest daughter(Mary Beth) was the one who had the talent and wanted to pursue a dancing career," she recalled. "So one thing led to another, and eventually her dance teacher, who knew that they were forming this company here, recommended she come down and audition for it."

Engel's daughter was accepted into the BTA, and Engel herself was drafted to sew "a few little things for them."

Within a few years, the dancers became more experienced, and Engel was building costumes for larger andlarger productions.

In 1981, Stewart decided it was time to mountthe BTA's first major effort.

He chose the second act of Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker Suite," which was presented under the title, "Clara's Dream." Engel was called on to make 75 costumes.

But while none of Engel's children have stayed with the BTA, Engel has remaineda part of things for two simple reasons. "I'd gotten to know Eddie, and I'd gotten to know the dancers," she said.

"Everybody is for everybody else; they support each other, and they're thrilled when somebody else gets a part. They're like a family, and Eddie is able to work with all the dancers to bring out the best in each one of them.

"They've always treated me like I was part of that family. It's made me appreciate the arts more and helped me to grow as a person."

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