Ballet Theatre of Maryland's 20th Anniversary Gala at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts proved that this company has come of age with its dancing feet planted squarely in the future.
As well as spotlighting the creativity and choreography skills of Artistic Director Edward Stewart, who has led Ballet Theatre since 1980, the program revealed the strength and depth of the company, and the skills of its principal dancers, soloists and guest artists.
For "Soirees Musicales," the entire company assembled on stage for a lively "March" opening. "Bolero" was fun as danced by Anmarie Touloumis and Jeffrey Watson. A playful Touloumis proved how alluring a toe can be as she beckoned Watson, whose natural grace and high energy made every lift look easy. "Canzonetta" introduced BTM's new soloist Nickolai Balatsenko, formerly of Ukraine National Ballet, who danced with Ninel Cherevko and Natasha Kiryanova.
Two principal dancers from New York City Ballet - Wendy Whelan and Charles Askegard - danced two ballets choreographed by perhaps the greatest choreographer of the past century - George Balanchine. A founder of New York City Ballet, Russian native Balanchine is credited with establishing the American dance style as an outgrowth of its popular culture and the American dancer's body type.
Whelan danced with strength and an assuredness that springs from superb technique and a well-disciplined body well suited to Balanchine's choreography. Askegard, who joined New York City Ballet at Whelan's suggestion, brought his own elegance, artistry and electricity to their partnership.
Principal Zhirui Zou and guest artist Dmitry Tuboltsev performed in the "Black Swan Pas De Deux" from Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake." Tuboltsev's elevation and strength were displayed in spectacular leaps and turns. Zou's bravura performance included a flawless execution of the famous sequence of 32 fouettes. Together the two worked their magic.
Askegard and Whelan returned in "Agon" with Balanchine choreography and music by Igor Stravinsky. "Agon" translates to "contest," which this ballet became displaying Whelan's awesome strength. Whelan's legs seemed to slice the air, executing impossibly wide splits. Askegard delivered magnificently, at one point lying on his back, holding only Whelan's hand as they executed a series of demanding moves. Making the nearly impossible look easy, these superb dancers generated a breathtaking excitement.
A change of pace followed with Stewart's delectable "Gershwin Suite" featuring live accompaniment by pianist Doug Yetter. The number opened with the entire company onstage against a backdrop evoking Broadway, dancing to "Strike Up the Band" and "I Got Rhythm." High moments included Touloumis and Watson in a touching "Somebody Loves Me" and a memorable "The Man I Love," which Stewart seemed to become for his partner of 20 years, Janice Barringer. Zou delivered a show-stopping "Liza" with a quartet of male partners - Balatsenko, Dmitri Malikov, Robert Michalski and Watson. Two couples - Cherevko and Balantsenko with Natasha Kiryanova and Robert Michalski danced a warm and sexy "Do It Again." All the dancers seemed propelled by the infectious Gershwin rhythms eloquently provided on-stage by pianist Yetter.
The second half of the program featured Stewart's searingly dramatic "The Eleventh Commandment" choreographed to Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana." Here, dance explored the conflict between man's spiritual and carnal natures. Beginning with three robed monks - Balatsenko, Malikov and Watson - standing before a cross, the ballet heated up as red-clad temptresses Leslie Bradley, Jennifer Dancesia Waldon and Touloumis gyrated before them. Zou played the Celestial Figure with an ethereal beauty and purity of form.
The entire company danced in "On the Lawn" and in the Hades segment, where Michalski played Satan.
At the conclusion of Friday's program, Carole Treiber, executive director of the Cultural Arts Foundation, presented a $37,000 check to the troupe and Jim Backas of the Maryland State Arts Council presented another for $30,000.