|In Annapolis, Ballet Theatre of Maryland Turns 20
By Norbert M. DuBois
photo ©copyright Norbert M. DuBois
Artistic director Eddie Stewart rehearses for La Esmerelda.
Camaraderie. How familiar we are with the revelry among robust players on the football gridirons, basketball courts or the enclave of locker rooms - made larger than life by ESPN. Ballet, an art considered as aloof as opera, has its own brand of camaraderie. When members of the original Ballet Theatre of Annapolis - renamed this year Ballet Theatre of Maryland - gathered to reminisce as the dance company began its 20th season, a politely raucous gathering ensued.
Some had traveled for hours to make what was for many their first reunion in years.
"Oh my God, Joann, you look the same! How do you do it?" exclaims a now bald comrade as they embrace. It had been almost a decade for them.
Joann Webb Martin - svelte, trim, and bubbly as ever - cackles, "Oh, I don't know "
" I know, it must be the 'bubble butt!'"
They howl at their inside joke.
photo ©copyright Norbert M. DuBois
Choreographer Anton Wilson, above, warms up with ballerina Zou Zhirui. Wilson is one of the few original members still with the company.
From Severna Park to Company Choreographer
Another of their number had traveled only across town, from Ballet Theatre of Maryland's new studio. Anton Wilson, a native of Severna Park, is one of the few original members still active with the company, now as a choreographer. Since graduating from the North Carolina School of the Arts in 1984, he has followed his career to Germany, the Netherlands, Japan and New York City, where he most recently danced with Jennifer Muller - The Works Company.
Wilson, 40, directs 18 of the company's dancers as he puts the finishing touches on his new work, The MarbleSlide, which premieres at the 20th Anniversary concert March 9 and 10. Wilson's choreographic concept emphasizes the quality of movement that needs to be, he says "internally motivated so that it has an urban industrial sense to it."
This is contemporary dance, which in some cases, he calls an "artistic stretch" for traditionally trained ballet dancers. But he is patient and articulate in his rehearsal commands.
A case in point is ballerina Zou Zhirui, classically trained in ballet in the Peoples Republic of China. Regina, as she is now called, had never danced modern before coming to the U.S. She seems to love the challenge of it, as well as working with Wilson. During their first rehearsal of MarbleSlide, she queried him about, among other things, a certain symbolic gesture, trying to decipher its origin, its motivation: "You want eyes look at hand, follow hand?"
She learned that an arm can be flung instead of carried, supported by the lifted torso/ribcage. A lunging movement can originate from 'pushing through' the pelvis, and shoulders can even be hunched. Ballet dancers, antithetically, are trained to 'place' every movement, whether a terre - on the ground - or a l'air - off the ground through space - with precision and symmetry.
Of Zou Zhirui, Wilson says, "She's quite intelligent, communicating as dancers do, [with movement when bereft of words]. At first she stared at me eager to learn, to absorb movement that is so different for her."
With modern dance, the choreographer can take the dancers anywhere, so to speak. Wilson's choreography is at once urban, yet highly symbolic, rooted in his experiences of life in various cities and continents.
photo ©copyright Norbert M. DuBois
Ballerinas Jennifer D. Waldon, left, and Zou Zhirui of China.
Aged in Wisdom, Grace
To believe age brings wisdom and efficient grace, you need only see the sole member of the original company to still actively perform on stage. In another rehearsal, in the midst of this now multi-national ensemble of dancers some of whom are half her age, stands principal dancer Leslie Bradley. Her statuesque, coolly radiant figure of grace - on stage and off - has inspired the younger ones as well as Maryland Hall audiences for a score of years.
She and artistic director Eddie Stewart have seen not merely changes but evolution within their ballet company. During her first years there, Bradley was partnered by male dancers most probably from her alma mater, Towson State University. More recently, her eurhythmic support has been from danseurs of Russian or Latin American extraction, as well as well-seasoned Americans. The company's elevated status is due in large to the professional vision of Stewart, whose efforts are paying off as his company has now attracted dancers far beyond the borders of Maryland.
In early 1981, who would have imagined this company would boast such talent as ballerina Zou Zhirui, a former soloist with China's top ballet company, The Central Ballet, Beijing, or Ukraine's danseur Nicholai Balatsenko of National Ballet, Kiev?
"We've grown from a civic ballet to a professional company," says Stewart. "In 1981, none of the dancers were paid. Later, a few were given a stipend. Now, we have professionals on salary."
Stewart was recruited just over 20 years ago by a group of Annapolis art patrons seeking to establish a ballet company for the state's capital. His credentials were impressive enough, for he'd been a soloist with the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre when it started in 1969. He then moved to the Chicago Ballet before coming to the old Maryland Ballet of Danny Diamond and touring with the chamber ballet ensemble, Pointe on Strings, directed by the wife of world-renowned conductor/musician Sergio Commisione, Robinne. It was there that he met and partnered with ballerina Janice Barringer, thus beginning a lifelong friendship and professional association.
"The minute we began to work together, magic happened," says Barringer of Stewart. "We heard music the same way, our timing clicked, everything worked with ease."
They worked together for seven years before the Annapolis company started, and many considered their pas de deux renditions of classic and contemporary ballets masterful.
"Eddie had a desire to choreograph and I did not, which worked out well," she says. "It was amazing to watch him work."
During the early years of Ballet Theatre, she was not only his dance partner on stage, who commuted on weekends from New York, but also the one who could be counted on to buy fabric for costumes, props and accessories, usually from New York - especially if the price was right.
Largo and Prestissimo
Kerry Wormwood is a gentle giant of a man, of temperament defined in music terminology as largo. His girlfriend, Charlotte, is definitely more prestissimo. She, after all, was the fiery Temptress in Stewart's signature ballet, Eleventh Commandment, whose theme of temptation tearing asunder monastic virtue has excited audiences since its premiere in 1981. Her virtuoso solos in that ballet - torso alternately writhing, then slinking, hair flying, eyes focused - struck ballet audiences by the unusually dramatic intensity. It was a perfect match of choreography and casting. With Kerry - who worked as a techie for the company for 18 years - calmly operating sound and lighting switches backstage, Charlotte passionately danced. Their match began during a concert, when the ballerina propped her feet against a backstage wall, pointe shoes astrewn. As she laid on the floor for a much-needed breather between acts, he strode over and gave her an impromptu foot massage.
"It was heaven. My pointe shoes hadn't fit, and my feet were killing me," she remembers.
They now share a house, with three dogs and two cats, where everything's very cozy, "except," chuckles Kerry, "for when she teaches dance steps in her sleep."
Tonight all these and more have gathered, sharing food, wine and confessions.
"Who all went on that Thanksgiving tour in Pennsylvania? Remember, Eddie's hometown? It was like ice skating, the stage was so slick."
"Yeah, Dori wrote and said we were all just dropping left and right! Of course, she would remember that I was the one who dropped her during that kneeling lift the concert prior to that. Uh-huh. She had me practice that lift over and over again, or she threatened not to dance."
" so in the middle of [ballet] class doing petite allegro, Eddie's telling me to keep my butt under me. 'Joann, keep your derriere Joann, you need to Joann ' So, I stopped - right in the middle of the combination - looked right at him, and said, 'Eddie, I can't help it if I was born with a bubble butt!'"
Another alumnus looks at her behind to see if it's true. Throwing his head back, beer still in hand, Stewart laughs, "hah, I remember that. I couldn't believe you did that."
" during "Arabian" [Nutcracker] when I had Annie in that overhead lift, I stuck my tongue out at - what was that girl's name - when she was Clara sitting on the throne? What else could I do, you know, to keep that child from looking so-o-o bored?"
" well, did you hear about that night he and Dave got lost driving to a cast party at John's house. They accidentally drove into the Naval Academy, got surrounded by MPs, and guess what? They were still wearing full stage make-up!"
"Charlotte, do you two usually keep this much wine on hand? I think I'll have to come over more often."
"Oh yeah, you didn't know? Annie and I used to come into ballet class on Saturday morning hung over from Friday night. The only thing that kept us going was knowing we'd get to look at that derriere of his!"
Photographer Norbert DuBois, who travels the world photographing cultural arts, is also a playwright and member of A.F.T.R.A. His article "China's Palace of Dance," was published in the December 2000 issue of Dance Magazine. He asks readers to mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Artistic Director Edward Stewart
photo ©copyright Norbert M. DuBois
Anton Wilson, Zou Zhirui and Eddie Stewart.
Eddie, as he is called by his dancers, was a chain smoker - years ago you could smoke in the old ballet studio - which probably helped him relax while maintaining such intense concentration on rehearsal. He almost never raised his voice. Patiently he'd point, punctuate and place. It would be tropically humid in the studio as young ballerinas prepared to rehearse their variation, maybe from Nutcracker or Cinderella or Carmen.
Just after pressing the play button on the cassette player - which emitted such a scratchy echoed sound
But wait! One of the girls had to adjust the ribbon on her pointe shoe.
Proceed. Start. Stop. Correct phrasing, correct tilt of the head or phrasing of a supported penche en pointe. Rewind, start again.
Saturdays were and still are an all-day affair with class, rehearsals, sometimes costume fittings, occasional guest choreographers, even press people. That's the way it has been for 20 years. The facilities are better, the budget is bigger, and now the company is known. Students have gone on to professional dance and theatre careers. The stakes are higher. And the dancing is even better.
"He has sacrificed so much. Yes, he is totally focused on the company," relates Barringer. To get the nascent company ready, "he would come to the Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts in New York and watch films and video tapes for hours."
Barringer remains in contact with Stewart and some of the alumni, though she no longer graces Ballet Theatre of Maryland's stage. Through all these years, the dancers, the dance lovers and the board of directors, she claims, are most fortunate to have Eddie Stewart.
The Ballet Theatre of Maryland's March 9 and 10 program includes a neo-classical ballet, Oriental, two classical ballets, La Esmeralda and Don Quixote Variations, plus The MarbleSlide: 8pm @ Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, Annapolis. $24; $12/kids: 410/263-2909 · www.btmballet.org.