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Taking the Stage with Artistic Director Dianna Cuatto

Nov 17, 2016 04:00PM ● By Nicole Gould

photo courtesy of Nick Eckert

When you know what you want, you can’t be afraid to go after it. That’s exactly what Dianna Cuatto, the Ballet Theatre of Maryland (BTOM) Artistic Director, did when she was just three years old. She always knew being a dancer was her calling and over the years she developed countless experiences and knowledge that she would later bring to the BTOM in 2003.

Over the last 14 years, Cuatto has taken the ballet to all new heights. Having very little staff at the ballet, Cuatto’s responsibilities extend from choreography and scheduling to fundraising and marketing. Balancing more responsibilities than most directors, Cuatto admits that in the end, it’s always rewarding.

“In Anne Arundel County, we’ve been able to fulfill the mission that was originally set by the board of trustees. They wanted a place for quality dance, and also to create an environment that’s nurturing which isn’t always the case in the ballet world, but I think we do both of those things pretty well. Seeing the pride that people have to come to the ballet or people for the first time. That’s very satisfying.”
– Dianna Cuatto

The Nutcracker will be performed at three different locations this holiday season: at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts , December 10th and December 17th (7 p.m.) and December 11th and December 18th (1 p.m. & 4:30 p.m.); at Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric, December 3rd and December 4th (1 p.m. & 5 p.m.); and at the Bowie Center for the Performing Arts, November 26th (7 p.m.) and November 27th (2 p.m.). Get Tickets online Here.

photo courtesy of Nick Eckert


How did you get started with ballet and what made you realize this is what you wanted to do as a career?

photo courtesy of Nick Eckert

Oh, gosh when I was three years old I just knew I wanted to be a dancer. I asked my mom if I could take ballet classes and then when I was 10 I realized I wasn’t in a serious enough school. I asked if I could train at Ballet West in Salt Lake City. She took me there and by the time I was 12, I was taken into the company and then I danced there for 10 years and became a principal dancer. Then I decided to take a hiatus out of ballet for a while and had a career in Hollywood in the ’70s. That turned out to be very good for my job now because I got trained in jazz and modern and I danced a lot of different styles there as well as singing and acting.

Then I end up in a ballet career after that, went back to Utah to start the first jazz ballet company there, and a couple years after, I got a job with Sacramento Ballet. Another 10-year ballet career there. Then I went to Oklahoma Ballet and traveled to South America. Went back to get my Master’s Degree and I did some choreography before that, musical theatre. I wanted to pursue choreography. I had taught forever, so I was more into focusing on that. That led me to Vermont, Colorado, Richmond, and ultimately here. I’ve had a really amazing career. In Vermont, I was an interim director for a children’s company. The only thing to do was skiing and dancing. The kids ranged from three to 14-year-old’s. In Colorado, I founded a pre-professional student company. Then I served as a ballet mistress (Coach) at Richmond ballet before coming here.

How has the ballet/theatre industry changed from when you were performing up until now?

In this country, it’s a lot harder. The last golden years of ballet were the ’80s and early ’90s. It’s a lot more challenging now for ballet to survive. People in our country have misconceptions about what it is about and what it does. It reminds me a little of Ballet West in the early ’60s because you really have to re-educate and reintroduce people. While there is still a ballet audience, it’s not a growing audience. It’s challenge for all ballet companies to really have the art form for people to be exposed to it and determine if they like it. It’s always been evolving, but not many people realize that it was meant to preserve the traditions and history too, which I think is a neat thing.

How have your early experiences in the field contributed to your success now?

I think I learned a lot from all the different experiences. My first mentor was Lillian Christiana. I learned a lot from them and William Christensen. I applied everything I learned from him and then some to get this ballet company to move forward. Both in terms of art and the business side. I was really young when I was in the ballet company. I was eight years younger than everyone else. I would do my homework in his office when we weren’t rehearsing. All of us in the company were pioneers building ballet in that area. I think that really helped me a lot. I learned all sides of the business there too. When I was out with an injury, I worked in the box office, marketing, back stage. I learned some of the craft besides what I’ve been doing as a dancer.

What does it take to be the Artistic Director of a Ballet Company?

It takes a lot of dedication, a lot of hard work, it’s 24/7. We don’t have much staff. We’re doing the same thing competing with companies that are larger than us. It requires a lot of teamwork. My dancers do a lot more than a lot of dancers do in bigger companies to make things work. I’m in the studio from 9–4 Monday–Wednesday, until 10 or 11 rehearsing Thursday and Friday, and Saturday 11–7:30. In additional to those hours I have to run the business, fundraise, market, and pay bills. I do have a keeper who helps and my husband does a lot of work on the finances too. I have to run the business and I have to choreograph at some point, which means research, concepts, writing stories, it keeps me pretty busy. You serve as a counselor when you have 46 dancers from all over the world here in addition to the 300 students in the school. It takes a lot of time. Time well spent though.

What’s your favorite work that you have directed and why?

Probably my favorite we’re doing this season is Excalibur. It’s a very powerful piece. Music is from a local musician, Maggie Sansone. Crafted here in this state. I love the legends. It won an award and last year it got voted one of the top 10 to see in the Baltimore Metro Guide. I like a lot of literary and Excalibur is both literary and historical work. I enjoy the classics too; we’ve done a lot of those. I like contemporary stuff too. We do an innovative show every year which isn’t a very popular show in Maryland, but it’s essential for the art form to evolve and the dancers to be challenged in a different way. That kind of speaks to my background where I studied all of the forms.

How do you separate the BTOM performance of The Nutcracker from the many other holiday performances of The Nutcracker, making it your own? How often does the company rehearse?

What’s most different is we have a lot more dance content, even in the party scene they dance a lot more and harder. It’s very much inspired by William Christianson; very first original Nutcracker here, it was modeled after the traditional one. I grew up dancing that one. Both of those have a lot more dance content in it. I was very much inspired and influenced by those. It’s a traditional nutcracker but it has a few tweaks that have made it relevant to our current time period so people can see the connection. This year we’re getting some new steps, but eventually we can fly in Maryland Hall. I tweak and refresh choreography to keep it fresh for the audience.

You know its Maryland’s only professional ballet company. A lot are student-based with a guest artist, but this has all professional dancers. There is actually about 18 paid full-time company members and 14 apprentices. They all live here; they either moved or they’re from here. I think that makes the quality of it really great and really exciting as well.

What is one of the most memorable moments while being the Artistic Director for BTOM?

Wow that’s the hardest question. I think for me my most memorable moments are watching different dancers grow through this program. Starting as a student in the school and ultimately becoming a principle dancer.

We got awarded from the House Legislature about three years ago. It was a special award that meant a lot because that was one of my personal goals, to elevate the quality of art. One of the hallmarks of that, having that acknowledgement and hopefully there will be more hallmarks of that whether it be how excited people get about the company or something else.

We’re coming up on our 40th anniversary and that will be exciting. I’ve been here for 14 years, 15 next year, our anniversary is 2018, and I think that will be an exciting thing to look forward to and to look back at everything that got us to the point that we’re at. In Anne Arundel County, we’ve been able to fulfill the mission that was originally set by the board of trustees. They wanted a place for quality dance, and also to create an environment that’s nurturing, which isn’t always the case in the ballet world, but I think we do both of those things pretty well. Seeing the pride that people have to come to the ballet or people for the first time. That’s very satisfying.

What advice can you give regarding creating and maintaining relationships in the business?

Networking is really key. I do as much as I can, but networking is really important. We give back a lot, we do more community service projects than any arts organization. We have so many education things we do in the state, businesses, hospitals, etc. I think it’s important to give back to the community and not just take. We have an education arena, we have assembly workshops, etc. We have a program with Anne Arundel County schools where I send a teacher to do arts integration and we perform it at North County High School. They have 10 weeks to learn a dance with one of the dancers mentoring them. I have some plans to do similar programs in Baltimore and Bowie.

We’re really big on education and we perform all over. My dancers are very willing to do that, but bigger professional companies are not. We take full length ballets to the schools so they get the opportunity to see a ballet for the first time. We’re pretty active in the community. The company is only on for 30 weeks August through April and a few dancers volunteer for the summer. It really keeps us busy.

Outside of the ballet, what types of activities do you like to do in your spare time?

It’s very important to find it! I read a lot, I love Sci-Fi and fantasy. I play an online computer game, Neverwinter, which is similar to Dungeons and Dragons. It can be a couple minutes or a couple hours, but I get on pretty much every night and do something. I like museums and I love movies. Film is probably my other favorite art form. I love nature so I’m outside a lot. I’m really active in environmental groups. I really like hiking, camping, and nature photography. I’m a writer so I like to write and I started a book a few years go and it’ll take some time to finish it. Every now and then I’ll take some time to write in it. I stay pretty active. I like to explore the state. Maryland is so diverse and beautiful.