Baltimore Ballet founder and dancer Cem Catbas rehearses with… (Baltimore Sun photo by Lloyd…)
Nail by nail, roll after roll of duct tape, and after personally stitching countless yards of tulle, Cem and Elysabeth Catbas are building a ballet.
And they're making a go of it in, of all places, Baltimore.
As the troupe celebrates its 10th anniversary Saturday with a gala at the Lyric Opera House, it can claim many accomplishments: Some of the nation's top dancers occasionally make guest appearances with the company. It is starting to receive critical attention. And it has introduced new and recent work by choreographers with national reputations.
"We're hoping that the gala will launch us to the next level," Cem Catbas says. "We want to show people what we're capable of. We're not just a flash in the pan."
Rightly or wrongly, Baltimore has a reputation as being inhospitable to dance. Ballet is one of the most expensive art forms, second only to opera in terms of the number of performers, costumes and sets required on stage. Troupes with national profiles have tried and failed to find a large enough audience here to support them.
So when the young couple arrived in town in the summer of 2000 and announced plans to found a professional dance company, and said that they were going to do it on a budget about as big as a sequin, many observers were skeptical.
The Turkish-born Cem, 37, had danced principal roles with the Pittsburgh Ballet and with companies in Europe. Elysabeth, 44, was a former opera singer and voice teacher who grew up in Arlington, Va. Neither had any experience running an arts company.
"There were times when I asked myself, 'What were we thinking?' " says Elysabeth Catbas, 44. "The first year, we had to make everything from scratch - the stage floor, the costumes, the Christmas tree in 'The Nutcracker' - everything. We were coming in from the outside, no one knew us, and we had to prove ourselves over and over again. It was very stressful."
The husband-and-wife team would be the first to concede that, after just 10 years, the Baltimore Ballet is not yet where they want it to be. The company still is struggling to become fully professional.
Instead of a resident company, the Catbases rely on the services of paid guest artists. Instead of a season, the company performs about half a dozen times a year. Students occasionally perform alongside seasoned veterans, and for now there is a dearth of male dancers other than Cem Catbas himself. To save money, the Catbases usually make their own costumes, sets and special effects.
"In 'The Nutcracker' there's a Christmas tree that has to grow to enormous size," Elysabeth Catbas says. "The first year we did it, the father of one of our students made the tree and stored it in his basement. It wasn't decorated yet, it looked awful, and the ceiling was so low that we couldn't pull it up to see if it worked. We couldn't test it until it was hung in the theater on the day of the performance. When it 'grew' just the way it was supposed to, I knew we'd arrived."
The gala, she says, "will be a celebration of how far we've come. I'm proud we're still here."
The evening will feature dancers from the American Ballet Theatre, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and the Washington Ballet. There will be a world premiere from Tony Powell, a Washington-based composer and choreographer who has created dances for, among other troupes, the Joffrey Ballet. Another highlight will be a reprise of the much-praised "Salome's Daughters" by the up-and-coming choreographer Nejla Yatkin.
"I wanted to do pieces that Baltimore has never seen before," says Cem Catbas. "I want more people to fall in love with ballet, to be as passionate about it as I am."
About a year ago, the fledgling company performed at the Baltimore Museum of Art and attracted the attention of the venerable Washington-based dance critic George Jackson, who described the troupe as "promising." He wrote a review of the group's February concert that carried the headline "Back on the Map" and that started with the sentence: "There is a ballet company in Baltimore again!" "Cem has a good eye for dancers," Jackson says. "The people he invites in are competent, and in some cases, much more than competent. The company needs time to build and grow and become an ensemble, and they need to perform more often. One program that I saw was partly professional and partly a school recital, which are two things that should be kept separate.
"If they can do all that, it'll be worth taking a look at them and seeing where they can go."
From the beginning, the Baltimore Ballet has combined the sociable, do-it-yourself vibe of a community theater that thrives on volunteerism with an almost breathtaking ambition. For instance, the gala will be staged at the Lyric Opera House, Baltimore's largest theater, which means that the couple and their board of directors are going to try, really hard, to sell nearly 2,600 tickets at up to $72 each.