The state's largest professional classical dance company - Ballet Theatre of Maryland - has chosen Dianna Cuatto to serve as its artistic director, succeeding Edward Stewart, the company's founder, who died last July.
Cuatto was selected after a four-month search by a committee appointed by the company's board.
Having arrived late last month, Cuatto is recruiting faculty for the ballet school, interviewing dancers, handling administrative chores, planning the 2003-2004 season and getting acquainted with local ballet supporters.
On Sunday, Cuatto attended a trustees reception at the waterfront home of orthopedic surgeon Garrett Lynch, who donates his services to the company's dancers, and his wife, Margaret, a board member who served on the search committee.
Before her six-year stint as Richmond Ballet mistress, Cuatto danced, directed and choreographed for Ballet West, Sangre de Cristo Ballet Theatre, Capital City Ballet, and the Sacramento and Utah ballets.
As BTM's artistic director, Cuatto said she believes she can "take the company and school to the next level of local and national prominence."
In addition to administrative work in her first week, Cuatto said she "did one audition and taught a three-hour class where we all had a great time."
Cuatto sees her role as "pumping up the level of the school, and watching all the faculty teach. I'm adding some teachers, and I'm trying to add a professional repertoire class for the upper levels that I'll be teaching this year."
"You'll get very eclectic choreography from me," she said. "I had a career in professional jazz as well as ballet. We're adding some jazz programs here because nowadays you have to do it all. In fact, this season we'll be doing one of my jazz-based pieces, Three by Three by Thirdstream, with some swing dancing and tap, and ladies on pointe."
A seasoned professional with more than 30 years of experience, Cuatto joined Ballet West in 1962, dancing with that company for 10 years, and in 1999 ended her performing career with Sangre de Cristo Ballet in Colorado, which she founded, retiring at age 49.
In addition to performing classical ballet and contemporary, jazz and theater dance, Cuatto choreographed eight full-length classical ballets and more than 28 ballet and jazz repertory works.
"In South America, I couldn't speak the language, but the audience understood my feelings through body language," she said. "Dance breaks down barriers and is the ultimate soul-to-soul communication."
At Sunday's reception, Cuatto spoke of carrying on Stewart's legacy and building on it.
"I'm going to be honorary chair of the Edward Stewart memorial performance at Maryland Hall on Aug. 16," she said. "I need to keep things going as Eddie did. It's a little harder than if he would have actually been here to turn the ballet over to the next person."
She feels the company "now needs a strong, cohesive vision. I'd like the company and school to find its own voice with a style and tone of its own so that down the road people can identify this classical training and this kind of dancer with what is unique to Ballet Theatre of Maryland. I want to give it a voice that is uniquely Maryland, meaning I'll need to research state history."
The coming season will offer almost a clean slate in terms of returning dancers.
"Among the male principal dancers only Sergei Vladimirov has signed on so far," Cuatto said. "Female soloists who have now signed contracts include Anmarie Touloumis, Jaime Lawton and Kelly Hoenig.
"I'm bringing in a couple dancers from Virginia who are good in contemporary dance. There are a couple guys from Russia and Cuba I'd like to get over here, but since 9/11 we probably can't afford to get them. I plan to meet with the executive committee and ultimately come up with a three- to five-year marketing plan."
Cuatto also is planning to use Ernie Green and the Annapolis Chamber Orchestra for two performances. "He seems to be one of the more open people in terms of cooperation," she said. "We are such a small voice that the more united we stand, the better for the whole arts community."