Prance behind the scenes of Rockford Dance Company to learn about its diverse lineup of performances for the 2016-17 season, including work from special guest choreographers.
To Martina Berger, dance is more than just a hobby.
“It’s a passion,” the 17-year-old says.
Like many dancers, Martina started taking class when she was just 3 years old. Ballet is her favorite style, though she’s also trained in modern and jazz.
Last year, Martina wanted to challenge herself as both a dancer and an artist. She took a leap of faith when she auditioned for Rockford Dance Company, a nonprofit corporation and pre-professional company for children up to age 18.
The company’s mission is to pursue excellence in the art of dance through performance, education and outreach.
“It’s the best dance school in the area, and I really wanted to challenge myself,” Martina says. “It’s definitely a big time commitment, but it’s worth it.”
Martina and her 17 fellow company members spend about 20 hours per week in classes and rehearsals. Being homeschooled helps Martina to balance dance with her schoolwork.
This year, Martina is looking forward to all five of Rockford Dance Company’s productions, and to performing locally at various local venues. She’s also excited to work with special guest choreographers Monica Isla and Rolando Yanes from Milwaukee Ballet Company.
“I’m not sure if I want to make dancing my career yet, but it’s really special to learn from professionals,” Martina says. “With their guidance, the programming is going to reach new levels this year.”
Martina’s mom, Anita Berger, is nothing but supportive of Martina’s involvement with Rockford Dance Company. It’s been a positive experience to see her daughter improve, and to see her officially and unanimously awarded as the recipient of the prestigious Joan Stonecipher Scholarship. Established in 1995, the scholarship is awarded to students that display a strong desire, passion and discipline for dance.
“It’s just great to see Martina blossom here at Rockford Dance Company, Anita says. “It’s great that the teachers are so committed to helping the dancers excel and be their best. The technique is at a high caliber because this is an environment where teachers are inspiring and encouraging.”
Meet Emily Cooke
Everything fell into place for Emily Cooke when she heard about a job opening at Rockford Dance Company. This will be her second year as executive director, and she intends to provide the dancers with an abundance of opportunities.
“This season is titled ‘The Turning Pointe’ because we see it as a turning point in our organization,” Cooke says. “We’re having guest choreographers come in, which gives the dancers exposure to different people and styles. We’re offering higher-level ballet classes. We’re trying to make the dancers the best they can be.”
Cooke is an alumnae of Rockford Dance Company. She played the lead role of Clara in “The Nutcracker” during her first year with the company at age 12.
Throughout her career, Cooke studied at several companies in the greater metropolitan area, including Ballet Chicago, to which she commuted about four hours every day. While on a dance and choreography scholarship, she obtained her Bachelor of Business in Marketing Management at Weber State University to help propel herself into the business world. She also received an MBA from Western Illinois University, which led her to work in management positions for 15 years at Fortune 100 companies.
Cooke aspired to become a corporate Chief Marketing Officer (CMO), but everything changed as she grew closer to that goal.
“I have two children, ages 5 and 7, so to travel that much was definitely not what I wanted,” Cooke says. “I knew that ascending further wasn’t right for me. So, I changed course a little bit.”
Cooke discovered there was an open position to be the executive director at Rockford Dance Company, which felt like returning home. Her artistic background combined with a business background prepared her for the position.
“It was like fate,” Cooke says. “It feels good to be back.”
The 2016-17 Season
Rockford Dance Company has a diverse lineup of performances this year. The season opens with a young choreographer’s concert on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1 at Kresge Hall in Riverfront Museum Park. Not only do the students get to choreograph all the pieces, but they also get to perform what they learned over the summer.
In preparation for the event, the students compose a piece and lead their own rehearsals.
“They get to have authority with their peers, which is great leadership experience,” Cooke says. “It’s also very humbling because, two hours later, they’ll be in a class where everyone’s on the same level.”
Martina is choreographing for this year’s concert. Her routine is almost complete, though it so far lacks a name.
In her piece, Martina has four girls dancing onto the stage individually. By the end of the dance, all four girls are in-sync.
“It shows how we’re better together,” Martina says. “It’s been a really good experience to understand what a choreographer goes through.”
In November, Rockford Dance Company is bringing back a community favorite: “The Nutcracker.”
“We take cues from the community, and people have been loud and clear that they want a traditional Nutcracker – a magical, traditional performance that you take your family to see on a yearly basis,” Cooke says.
After seeing the high-caliber work of Milwaukee Ballet Company, Cooke approached choreographers Monica Isla and Rolando Yanes about working with Rockford Dance Company on “The Nutcracker” and other productions.
Not only did the professionals agree to it, but they also scheduled an immediate trip to Rockford.
“They were looking at our studios that next weekend,” Cooke says. “It’s so great that they’re willing to work with us. They’ve been unbelievably kind, and their vision matches what our community wants. It’s a perfect fit.”
“The Nutcracker” is unique in that all members of the community are welcome to audition. Though members of Rockford Dance Company receive the main roles, everyone from across the region has an opportunity to play a part in the production.
Milwaukee Ballet Company’s top dancers are going to play the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Cavalier – two small, yet impactful roles.
“That is huge,” Cooke says. “It’s a moment for the audience to think ‘wow, these people are flawless.’ It’s a palpable moment when you can feel the energy of the audience. And it’s also an inspiring moment for the dancers – they realize what’s possible.”
Dancing in last year’s “Nutcracker” is one of Martina’s favorite memories. She’s even more excited this year to be working with professionals.
“Last year was actually the first “Nutcracker’ I was a part of,” Martina says. “That’s pretty uncommon. Most dancers are in it their whole lives. So being able to finally dance it was a dream come true.”
Rockford Dance Company’s “Nutcracker” is coming to the Maddox Theatre at Rockford University on Nov. 26-27.
Every year, Rockford Dance Company puts on a children’s ballet. This year, the production is “Anansi,” an African fable with a theme of empowerment. Unlike other ballets, “Anansi” has a narrator.
“It feels a little more personal that way because there’s story-telling along with a performance,” Cooke says.
The production, scheduled for Jan. 27-28 at Kresge Hall, is also a “thank-you” to Riverfront Museum Park for housing Rockford Dance Company. The dancers practice in the building every single day, so performing within the facility allows the community a glimpse into the dancers’ world.
“We’re very proud of this facility,” Cooke says. “It’s like walking into a home and seeing granite and stainless steel – that’s how high-quality the flooring is. We want to make amazing dancers in a safe manner, so having this facility is huge for us.”
Following the children’s show, Rockford Dance Company begins the intense process of preparing for their mainstage production on March 31 and April 1 at Hononegah Performing Arts Center, “Snow White.”
Monica Isla and Rolando Yanes are returning to choreograph it.
“This is a completely brand new production that they’re creating specifically for Rockford Dance Company,” Cooke says. “We’re trying to build our repertoire with works that are new and exciting – things we’ve never done in the past. Ballet choreography is often re-used and re-set on a dancer, so this is exciting because it’s something never done before.”
Cooke hopes “Snow White” appeals to those who aren’t necessarily fans of dance or the fine arts. She wants a production that’s accessible to those who simply love “Snow White” or fairytales.
“We’re trying to create an appeal for the whole community, and I think ‘Snow White’ has that draw,” Cooke says.
Rockford Dance Company’s season closes with a final recital entitled “The Turning Pointe, An Evening of Variations,” in which the entire school participates. Company members showcase their repertoire from throughout the season, including new works, and each class performs a piece.
The show occurs May 19 and 20 at Kresge Hall in Riverfront Museum Park.
“That’s when the 3-year-olds get to dance on stage, and the grandparents come – the whole family is there,” Cooke says. “It might be the first performance a child ever has, so it’s always special.”
In addition to the regular season, Rockford Dance Company receives many requests to perform throughout the community during the year. It’s important to Cooke that the dancers showcase their diverse dance programming.
Rockford Dance Company works in partnership with many area organizations, including Stepping Stones of Rockford, Rockford Park District, Rockford Area Arts Council and Rockford Public Schools.
“We’ve literally performed in a parking lot with barbeque grills all around,” Cooke says. “We’ll be there to support the community. The kids love it – they just want to dance. It’s a fun way for our audience to see our arsenal of work.”
Making Art Accessible
More than anything, Cooke hopes this year stirs an appreciation for the arts within the Rockford community.
“Sometimes the arts can be a dying breed, and making the arts accessible to everyone is important to us,” Cooke says. “Even today, the fine arts can be viewed as an upper class activity, but we want to show that everyone can enjoy it. Everybody belongs.”
Cooke also hopes to see the dancers improve, not only as dancers, but as human beings. Whether the students choose to dance professionally, go to college, or pursue a different path, her aim is to help instill confidence in the young company members.
During her final year with the company, Martina hopes she can form a connection with her audience, whether it’s a dozen or a hundred people.
“I think dance is a special way to tell a story,” Martina says. “My hope is that when I dance, people see who I am.”