Dianna Cuatto, artistic director of the Ballet Theatre of Maryland (BTM), recently announced she would retire in June after leading the company for 17 years. She answered DC Metro Theater Arts’ questions about her time at BTM, her long career and her plans for the future.
DCMTA: BTM’s current season included productions of Snow Queen and Swan Lake, as well as The Nutcracker. How do you choose the ballets for each season?
Diana Cuatto: Every two years, I ask our patrons to vote on the new and returning works they most want to see for upcoming seasons. The Snow Queen won this season, and Swan Lake, the most famous classical ballet, was an excellent choice as a counterpart.
The Nutcracker is probably the most popular ballet in America. My mentor William F. Christensen, who presented the first American version in 1944 at the San Francisco Opera House, began the process that turned it into an American holiday tradition.
Our patrons also chose many of the original ballets I have crafted. They have a diverse range of preferences, and it is important to balance out a season with works that resonate with each other as well as with the patrons’ preferences. Some prefer family-friendly fairytales, like The Snow Queen or The Nutcracker; others prefer classical, literary, and historical works like Swan Lake; and some like the edgy, contemporary work in our final production, Innovation 2020.
What have been some of your favorite productions?
Swan Lake is my personal favorite of the classics, and I added innovative touches while preserving important components of the ballet’s history in America. I am proudest of Sleeping Beauty, as I set out to make a version that would not bore mainstream audiences or disappoint classical enthusiasts, and audiences claim I succeeded. For a three-hour ballet, it flew by quickly, and adding an enormous dragon near the end was highly successful.
My favorite original full-length works are: Excalibur, for the Arthurian Legends and for incorporating Maggie Sansone’s authentic period music into the story; The Scarlet Letter’s powerfully stark, early American themes; An American Southwest Carmen, which tells the true stories of three American women living at Fort Pueblo during the Mexican-American War, merging Flamenco and native Southwest rhythms with classical ballet; and The War of 1812, probably my most creative historical work, as Hollywood composer David Arkenstone allowed me to use his music for the score, depicting the burning of the White House, the battle at Fort McHenry, and the relationship between Dolly and James Madison. The special effects and choreography for both the water battles and the burning of Washington turned out better than I could have hoped for!
My favorite contemporary works are Savoyan Nights, capturing the flavor of the Savoy Hotel in its heyday with swing dancing, ballet, tango, and mambo, which the Army Jazz Ambassadors played live; Primal Dreams, a jazz-based ballet showing a character making meaningful changes on their journey around the Native American Medicine Wheel of Life; Shades of Blue, a stunningly beautiful neoclassical work inspired by the meanings of blue; Tango Dramatico, fusing tango and ballet together to reveal the drama and passion inherent in the relationships between people often simmering below the surface; and Vortex, the driving power of Marc Galiber’s music working with the contemporary, circular nature of my choreography to capture the powerful energy inherent in the five most famous vortexes in Sedona, Arizona. I am heading there in retirement, and exploring the vortex energy while expressing it through dance was an enlightening process.
How do you keep classic ballets fresh?
Some of the dancers change roles or are new to the work, so they bring their uniqueness to bear. I also challenge them, especially if they have done the role before, with new coaching, new motivations, different challenges to “grow the role,” so that they continue to evolve their athleticism and artistry. And I make fresh changes to the choreography. For example, I re-choreographed four of the variations in Act I of Swan Lake, as well as portions of the waltz to make them better, more alive. With Nutcracker, I make many small changes every year.
What do you hope your legacy at BTM will be?
My legacy will live on through the dancers, students, and patrons that my work and tenure has impacted for good. It will live on in their memories, their passion for the arts, their quest for beauty, or in their life’s journey. My successor will preserve the healthy environment we have created for the dancers and students, which includes diverse body types as well as a nurturing environment for dancers and students alike while creating high-level art.
I’m very grateful to have had the honor of being BTM’s artistic director. My dancers have a lot of heart and soul, and my greatest joy is watching audiences responding to them and to my work.
I always wanted to inspire people and create powerful works of art that bring beauty and transformation into the lives of others. I wanted to make dance accessible to all and create a company that does works speaking to the best human values. I have been able to do that for audiences, dancers, and students alike for 17 years, and making an impact in other people’s lives is how I measure my personal success. That’s what I value and have been able to achieve through all these years with my talents and passions. Being artistic director gave me this freedom and opportunity. Life doesn’t get any better than that.
Ballet Theatre of Maryland performs Innovations 2020 Friday, April 17 and Saturday, April 18, 2020, at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts – 801 Chase Street in Annapolis, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 280-5640 or purchase them online.