MONMOUTH -- Oregon, let alone Monmouth, wasn't on the radar of Rainbow Dance Theatre's co-artistic directors Darryl Thomas and Valerie Bergman when they began their collaboration in Hawaii in the early 1990s.
However, 20 years later, the acclaimed company that has performed on international stages with its creative blending of modern dance styles is thriving in this small university town.
The husband and wife team of Thomas and Bergman -- both awarding-winning dancers and choreographers -- said it took time to adjust when Thomas began as a professor of dance at Western Oregon University in 1997. Thomas started teaching here at a time when WOU didn't have a dance major. In fact, his dance classes shared space with the university's ROTC program.
Soon, though, WOU's dance program grew and an accredited dance major was added a few years later.
Thomas also launched a men's dancing class and the couple discovered through the connection to WOU that they could train dancers for a professional company.
Rainbow Dance Theatre was reborn in Monmouth in 2000.
A modern dance company, RDT pulls influences from West African dance, Hawaiian dance, American modern dance and hip-hop.
An outgrowth of RDT's connection to WOU, the company truly lives up to the "theater" in its name. Performances add visual elements -- projections, elaborate sets and costumes, aerial stunts and fluorescent light technology. Theatrical elements make for a feast for the eyes and imagination.
"Dance is really about the body," Thomas said. "You see the body and see the movement and that is really the primary element. But to me, being at the university has given me the option to explore how the visual element can be part of the picture, too."
As might be expected, there is nothing traditional about RDT's dance style. Earlier in his career, Thomas danced and won awards for his work with the world-renowned Pilobolus Dance Theatre, a cutting-edge experimental and improvisational dance company. Classically trained in ballet, Bergman moved from traditional to more modern forms of dance in her career.
The combination produces an impressive and entertaining mix of classical dance skill and athleticism.
RDT will put its unique style on display during a performance entitled "Mystery & Magic" at Rice Auditorium Friday, part of WOU's Smith Fine Arts Series.
Photo by Pete Strong
In "Light Flight," a piece from this Friday's performance of "Mystery & Magic" at Rice Auditorium at Western Oregon University, dancers in lighted suits disappear into a blur of color and movement.
Two paths converge
Bergman and Thomas discovered dancing through different paths. But for both, it seems to be their first love.
Bergman, 59, grew up in Hawaii, where her introduction to dance was through hula.
She began imitating hula dancers at a young age, but dancing would become more than just a young girl's fleeting fantasy. Always athletic, but growing up in a time when women's sports were uncommon, dance was an acceptably feminine and fulfilling physical outlet for her.
Excelling at the art, Bergman attended the University of Iowa as a dance major. She immediately went to New York City after graduation.
As her career developed she would dance for postmodern choreographer Merce Cunningham and the Nina Weiner Dance Company, were she was a principal dancer and ballet mistress. She toured internationally and danced with The National Ballet of the Netherlands.
Fifteen years after arriving in New York, however, she was eager for a change.
"I didn't think I would ever leave New York, but I wanted to see what else was out there," she said.
She began contacting past collaborators at universities across the country, letting them know she was available to teach.
Her mission would take her to the opposite side of the country.
Photo by Pete Strong
Rainbow Dance Theatre's modern dance repertory combines aerial choreography, interactive set and backdrop design and Bergman and Thomas' distinctive modern and classical influences.
Meanwhile, Thomas' journey to dance was taking a decidedly different course.
Thomas grew up in Detroit in a deeply religious family that did not condone dancing.
His first exposure to dance came by coincidence. In his late teens, he had a girlfriend who was a dancer. He drove her to rehearsal one day and was asked, by chance, if he could lift her.
An excellent athlete, Thomas demonstrated he was more than up to the task. He was asked to join the company's upcoming performance.
A premed major in college, Thomas decided to enroll in a dance class, thinking it would be a great way to meet women.
He found something else in it.
"I fell in love with dancing," he said. "I changed my major from premed to dance."
Thomas would meet a special someone through dance, but it wasn't until he was working on a master's degree in fine arts and choreography at the University of Hawaii, where Bergman had been invited to teach as an artist in residence.
They began dating and collaborating on what would become Rainbow Dance Theatre, which would fuse their backgrounds and talents into the innovative company they lead today.
"It took us some time to become good collaborators," Bergman said. "We do come from really different backgrounds (in dance). I think ultimately it was the best creative mix we could have because we kept running up against each other. Each time we would do that, one of us would learn something new.
"It makes our choreography very different because it does have a classical, traditional base, but it also has an experimental base," she added.
If You Go ...
"Mystery & Magic".
Through pieces "Fantasy for Strings," Mixed Bag" and "Light Flight," among others, Rainbow Dance Theatre's ensemble of dancers transforms the concert stage into a world of mystery, pathos and humor. RDT's modern dance repertory combines innovative aerial choreography, visually stunning interactive sets and full-stage 3-D backdrops, and the distinctive choreography of artistic directors Darryl Thomas and Valerie Bergman.
Rice Auditorium, Western Oregon University, 345 N. Monmouth Ave., Monmouth.
Friday, 7:30 p.m.
$25 in advance; $28 at the door; $11 for students. For tickets call 503-838-8333 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information about RDT: