In 1978, a group of artistic visionaries in Annapolis including Ellen Moyer, Joseph Sachs, Joanne Scott, Senator Roy Staten, Beth Whaley, and Martha Wright began hosting fundraisers for a cultural arts center and formed “Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts Inc.” They carried their vision to the Anne Arundel County Board of Education. What happened next surprised even these bold thinkers — the school system granted them the use of the vacated Annapolis Senior High School! The group saw the potential of the beautiful school building and got to work, saving the building and creating a space for community arts, arts education and performing arts. When Maryland Hall opened its doors in late 1979, they rented studios out to artists and had several performing arts groups join as resident companies. That included The Ballet Theatre of Annapolis.

Ballet Theatre of Annapolis archival photo. Photo courtesy of the author.

In the four decades since, the Ballet achieved professional status in 1996 and, in 2000, changed their name to Ballet Theatre of Maryland to fulfill a new mission of serving the State of Maryland. Today, they remain a resident company of Maryland Hall offering both ballet classes and the opportunity to see the state’s premier professional ballet company perform in our backyard. Through the Ballet’s long history, only two people have served as Artistic Director: Edward Stewart and Dianna Cuatto. This Spring, Cuatto announced that after 17 years of service, she is retiring and passing the ballet slippers to School Principal and Principal Dancer Nicole Kelsh.

Cuatto joined the Ballet Theatre of Maryland in 2003. Previously, she spent four seasons as the Ballet Mistress with the Richmond Ballet. Throughout her long ballet career, she has served in many roles including Artistic Director, Choreographer, Ballet Mistress, adjunct faculty, teacher, and Principal Dancer in companies and universities throughout the country. Reflecting on a life of dance Cuatto says, “Dance is straight soul-to-soul communication. Dance and music are the oldest forms of communication. The body doesn’t lie when it’s communicating, and it can be very powerful in the lives of others. That’s what I love about dance.”

Cuatto coaching Kelsch. Photo by Hayley-Ann Vasco

She adds, “roles are fleeting — it’s the impact a performance has on people’s lives that matters. I help my dancers to become more inspired on their journey to find the next step. Technique is important but it is meant to serve the art. By putting soul and humanity into their performances, the dancers allow the audience to feel the characters’ emotions without having to go through all of these things in their personal lives. That’s why live theatre and dance is so important. It can transform and change our lives if we let it, and it can take us on the most important journey of all — the journey to become our most authentic selves.”

Cuatto in rehearsal with Kelsch. Photo by Hayley-Ann Vasco

As Cuatto planned for retirement, she put the Ballet’s best interests at the forefront and started preparing a successor. She found one in Nicole Kelsch. “Nicole is one of three dancers who showed a lot of promise and has been training for this – the role of artistic director – for 12 of the 14 years she’s been with us,” says Cuatto. “She is an astute artist...she is skilled technically and superb artistically. She’s a very good teacher. She knows this community and has lived here for many years now. In Maryland, this is very important. On a personal level, I just love her! She’s like a daughter to me. I have a lot of faith in her ability to keep the most important part of the vision moving forward, and she will make her own wonderful contributions with her own ideas to take it to the next level.”

BTM Snow. Photo courtesy of the author.

The final choreographic works of Cuatto’s tenure as Artistic Director with the Ballet Theatre of Maryland will be presented at Innovations 2020 on April 17 and 18 at Maryland Hall. Immediately following the performance on the 18th, you can attend the Season Grande Finale Retirement Party for Cuatto and honor her many contributions to the community.

Kelsh will officially assume the role of Artistic Director this Summer presenting her own works when the 2020-2021 Ballet season begins this Fall.