Tri-City Herald Article

Sunday, Mar. 18, 2007
(Front Page)

Couple's studio turns 20 this year

Joel and Debra Rogo shivered with apprehension when they first saw the Tri-Cities two decades ago.

They moved here in 1987 from California to become directors of the nonprofit Mid-Columbia Ballet company and open their private dance studio, Tri-Cities Academy of Ballet, which celebrates 20 years in the Tri-Cities this month.

The Rogos were nervous about living so close to anything nuclear after the horrific Chernobyl accident in Russia a year earlier.

"We were quite concerned about living so close to all the nuclear facilities," he said. "We were also not sure about living in a place that was so isolated."

Common sense overrode their concerns because they figured scientists and engineers wouldn't put their own families in harm's way. But there were other factors that didn't inspire them to envision the Tri-Cities as a permanent home.

"The first thing we saw when we drove into Richland was that sewage plant that used to be next to the old golf course," Debra said. "The smell was horrendous."

The city's sewage plant at Columbia Point -- ironically dubbed the "Rose Bowl" back then -- exists no longer. In its place is a bustling shopping center linked to miles of walking paths and parks, complexes of condominiums, a new golf course, restaurants, hotels and a refurbished boat dock.

They're surprised by how their perception of the Tri-Cities' isolation has changed.

"Sometimes it's shocking we are still here," Debra joked. "We really planned on staying only five years. Then we were going to move on. But you couldn't drag us out of here today."

As part of plans to celebrate the ballet company's 20th anniversary, they will award five dance scholarships, totaling $7,000. The scholarships are open to boys and girls ages 3 to 18. Dance experience is not required. Anyone interested in applying can go to the company's Web site for details,

The ballet company also will present a special performance of Twyla Tharp's Torelli on March 31 and April 1 in the auditorium of Richland High School. The dance movement features a tugboat barge theme set in Manhattan and stars professional ballerina Patricia Barker.

Barker, who'll retire this year after 26 years with the Pacific Northwest Ballet, has been a frequent guest dancer with the Mid-Columbia Ballet.

Until the Rogos asked, she hadn't danced in the Tri-Cities since leaving to pursue a professional dance career, she said in a recent telephone interview. That changed when the Rogos took over the ballet company and brought it to pre-professional status, she added.

"I was thrilled they asked, because it enabled me to bring my art and talent back home," Barker said. "(Humanity) is judged by what we leave behind in art. And dance was one of the first forms of artistic expression. Debra and Joel have helped enrich the cultural attractiveness of the community with their ballet company."

Though the Rogos' studio emphasizes ballet, it also offers classes in jazz, tap, ballroom, hip-hop and musical theater. It includes specialty dance exhibitions like Tharp's Torelli.

This is the first time Tharp, a professional New York City choreographer, has allowed one of her dance numbers to be performed by a nonprofessional company, Joel Rogo said.

"Naturally, we are very honored and excited about doing a Twyla Tharp dance for Tri-City audiences," he said. "Twyla's work is renowned worldwide. And we can thank Whitney Simler for helping make this opportunity happen."

Simler, also a former Tri-Citian, is a professional dancer in Tharp's New York City-based company and danced a key role in the national tour of Movin' Out last year.

She is one of many Rogo students who have gone on to dance careers, whether in ballet companies, cruise ships, Vegas acts, arts administrators or teachers.

"I do keep tabs on my kids, and it's hard to believe they're all grown up now," Debra said. "Joel and I might be just a couple old dancers these days, but I think we've been caught in a time warp because I don't feel any older than I was 20 years ago. The kids keep us young."

The Rogos, who have danced professionally in Australia and the United States, struck a balance with their dance company by keeping their repertoire of performances traditional and contemporary.

When the Rogos took over the ballet company, they also inherited the responsibility of continuing the annual Christmas production of The Nutcracker Suite, which was started by Lois Rathvon 30 years ago.

During their tenure, the Nutcracker has grown into a well-respected production that packs the Richland auditorium with wide-eyed children and their parents each year. Some of their improvements over the years include hiring a professional stage designer from Seattle to create a state-of-the-art set for Nutcracker.

Dick and Diane Hoch, longtime supporters of the arts in the Tri-Cities and former board members of the now defunct Tri-Cities Corporate Council for the Arts, say the Rogos have sustained an important community institution.

"The Mid-Columbia Ballet has been an enormous asset to this area, not only because of the professional background and integrity of Joel and Debra, but also because they are not just out for themselves," he said. "They volunteer on boards to enhance the arts here, and they don't just teach their students the art of dance, they instruct them in the professionalism, responsibility and appreciation for the arts. This community is extremely fortunate to have them here."

The ballet studio offers semesters of dance, 19-week courses that include one hour of dance instruction one day a week. The cost starts at $168 for beginners and goes up accordingly.

The years have been good, say the two former dancers who at first cringed at the thought of staying in the Tri-Cities. Their apprehension dissipated into a love for the community that resulted in a new studio five years ago on Aaron Drive in Richland, across the street from the old Rose Bowl site. They plan to add another dance studio to the building this year.

"It's ironic that we would move our studio so close to where that eyesore used to be," Debra said with a laugh. "How things have changed. How we have changed."

Joel sees their success and continuity in the community philosophically.

"We meet people all the time who tell us how much they feel we've done for the Tri-Cities," Joel said. "But you know? It's really more the Tri-Cities that's been good to us."

Serving Richland, Kennewick, and Pasco
Tri-Cities Academy of Ballet & Music
21 Aaron Dr., Richland, WA 99352  946-1531

Office Hours: 10am-8pm M-F
Saturday 10am-3pm