`Excalibur' a sensual tale of Arthurian myth

Ballet company closes its season with strong dancing and a unique story



Ballet Theatre of Maryland ended the season with the premiere of artistic director Dianna Cuatto's Excalibur - the choreographer's best and most ambitious work to date, in which she told the Arthurian legend sensitively through two hours of dance.

All of Cuatto's hallmarks were apparent - lyrical partnering, strong athleticism, vigorous male dancers in stage combat, precise interweaving between lines, and the sheer beauty and power of their ensemble dancing. The dancers' individual growth was apparent, particularly from Joshua Lenihan's Lancelot and Christopher Pennix's King Lot.

Celtic music provided by Maggie Sansone greatly enhanced the performance. The stage at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts was embellished by backdrops created by members of the dance company and Stacie Johnson's lighting. The costumes created by Natasha Brown and a staff of volunteers added to the overall success of the production.

Most surprising was Cuatto's ability to thoroughly tell Excalibur through dance, and uniquely through the perspective of King Arthur's half-sister, Morgan le Fay.

Cuatto confided after the performance that she had designed the role of Morgan le Fay with dancer Jennifer Fry in mind. Fry commanded the stage with a darkly nuanced, multidimensional performance that was a joy to watch. Her dancing and acting conveyed strength, fury, sensuality and a poignancy that mitigated her darker side.

Bryan Skates, playing King Arthur, also commanded the stage. His combat scenes illustrated the courage and might of Arthur, and his tender pas de deux with Christi Bleakly's Guinevere was a sublimely lyrical expression of love. Skates took this lyricism to another level with Lenihan's Lancelot and Bleakly's Guinevere when the latter two finally parted.

Bleakly created a portrait of Guinevere that conveyed her strength, devotion, sensuality and final resignation.

Jennifer Yackel as the Lady of the Lake, Pennix as King Lot and Calder Taylor as Mordred danced fine performances, as did Kellan Paddy as young Arthur, Lina Olea as young Guinevere, and Lindsay Patterson and Angela Olea.

Credit also goes to Cuatto's husband, Albert Kessler, in the role of Merlin. This full-time financial consultant has expanded his repertoire beyond those "one or two steps" his wife first asked him to do, building impressive partnering skills and strong rapport with the troupe.

The length of the ballet led to instances of redundancy, and this work will require some tightening. The inability to hold a dress rehearsal in Maryland Hall might explain the lighting problems and long blackouts between at least two scenes.

Two other works choreographed by company members preceded Excalibur. Yackel, 19, choreographed an original work called Beneath the Surface, showing promise as she interwove the dancers and showcased their strengths.

Ballet master Skates choreographed an expressive ballet called Struggle that was well-danced by Yackel, Lenihan, Alexis Decker and Anmarie Touloumis to the music of Samuel Barber.

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