Even as financial problems have beleaguered the Ballet Theatre of Maryland, artistic director Dianna Cuatto is preparing to begin her fifth year at the helm of the organization, which is larger and stronger.
During Cuatto's tenure, the Annapolis-based professional company has grown from six dancers to 13. Their caliber has also increased. The dancers are full-time paid performers, many of whom teach at the ballet school.
There is also camaraderie and a willingness to work wherever needed, from building sets to helping with costumes and, last spring, even offering their own fund raiser.
The apprentice program has grown from two dancers to 20 - all emerging professionals who are in a full-time training program and receive some financial support. Cuatto views this as an investment in the future of dance.
The school is also growing financially, judging from the amount of tuition it is taking in. Tuition income has increased from about $140,000 to $234,000 a year, helping to pay the professional dance teachers' salaries.
Under Cuatto, BTM has advanced artistically with her choreographing a prolific number of major new works each season. During her first season Cuatto choreographed An American Southwest Carmen set in Colorado during the Mexican-American War, which incorporated flamenco and Native American elements to Bizet's classic story.
It was accompanied by a Latino Cultural Festival that reached out to local high school students who were trained to dance in the Carmen ballet performances.
The retelling in dance of literary classics like The Scarlet Letter in 2004 and Little Women in 2005 brought Cuatto and the company critical praise. Other innovative works included Excalibur, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Romeo and Juliet, The Firebird, Chichester Psalms and The Forgotten Path.
On tap for this 27th season are The Case of the Missing Nutcracker, Coppelia and Annapolis Anthologies in honor of the 300th anniversary of the city's charter. The choreography is under way for the premiere of Celtic Christmas Suites, as part of the Performing Arts Association of Linthicum series at Chesapeake Arts Center.
Cuatto is encouraged by the choreography being created by ballet master and principal dancer Bryan Skates, who this season will offer the world premiere of Glazunov's Four Seasons.
Cuatto had a distinguished career as principal dancer with several national companies. She choreographed for Sacramento, Utah, Colorado and Richmond dance companies and taught dance styles from ballet and modern to jazz and tap.
In July 2003, she arrived in Annapolis to take over a company that had been without a leader for a year since the 2002 death of Edward Stewart. The first director of the company founded in 1978, Stewart built it into the largest full-time ballet company in Maryland.
Cuatto has the support of her husband Al Kessler, a full-time financial consultant at Comcast, who devotes much of his free time to BTM. He has occasionally danced, having been conscripted to play Juliet's father and other character roles, and dancing the role of Drosselmeier in The Nutcracker for the last three seasons. Kessler serves as the company's videographer and assists with financial and office work. He willingly stands in for his wife of 11 1/2 years at meetings.
Kessler takes pride in the job he describes as: "A No. 1 top dog commander-in-chief of Manley floor-laying" - rolling up the floor and transporting it in his pick-up, laying it down at the theater before the performance, then pulling it back up and reloading it onto the truck. That job is not for a slouch - Cuatto has taken the company from North County and Eastern Shore theaters to Rotary clubs to retirement communities.
Despite all these strides, BTM continues to struggle with financial issues that once included inherited debt upon Cuatto's arrival and involves the serious threat of shrinking funds from the county and other government sources.
Cuatto is determined to maintain the size and status of BTM, which will require finding new sources of financial support to join sponsor Merrill Lynch.
"If Ballet Theatre of Maryland folds," she said, "this state will be the only one without a professional dance company."
Small audience sizes at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts have also plagued the company, with only Nutcracker performances reaching capacity.
Reminding us that "movement created the Big Bang," she said, "Dance is part of our makeup, the principal expression of life is movement. It is by the dance art within us that all things are made."