In the heart of a small town, a luminescent beat has taken root. Tucked away among fertile farmland, Monmouth is an unassuming town in Oregon.
Husband-and-wife team Darryl Thomas and Valerie Bergman have planted their passion and creativity into this community, bringing innovative art that captivates audiences locally and internationally.
At the heart of Monmouth is Western Oregon University. The school drew Valerie and Darryl to the remote destination to teach dance after a career as internationally renowned dancer-choreographers.
The couple brought with them Rainbow Dance Theatre, a modern dance company that incorporates lighting and projection effects into one-of-a-kind performances.
Established in 2000, Rainbow Dance Theatre is composed of eight dancers from Oregon, Alaska, India and China. Though small, this powerhouse team books more than 70 public and school performances each year throughout the United States and Canada. They have toured in Mexico, China and Japan.
What makes this small dance company shine is its use of technology to create an immersive experience that stretches beyond the limitations of the human body.
Performances combine innovative choreography, interactive sets, and the latest innovations in projection and lighting technology.
The dancers arrive with a background in ballet. Valerie and Darryl teach them new dance styles, including African, hip-hop, Hawaiian, and martial arts.
Combining these dance styles with technology has helped the dance troupe reach new heights.
“Because we integrate cutting-edge technology and cool effects, we’ve been able to expand the modern dance audience,” Valerie says. “Dance concerts tend to have an older audience. Our venues have found that because of the technology we use, they get a lot of new concertgoers.”
One of Rainbow Dance Theatre’s series is called iLUMiDance, which uses electro-luminescent wire for costumes and puppets. On a dark stage, this artful collaboration between dancer and light effects helps tell a story and bring a new dimension to the performance.
Another series that incorporates technology is called Selfie. Darryl worked with a programmer in Hungary to develop projection software that allows him to move elements projected onto a lightweight fabric hanging across the stage in real time with the dancers.
Before the show, the audience is invited to submit selfies that are added to the projection during the performance.
“Because we focus on technology so much, we are a bit more unique than some small modern dance groups,” Valerie says. “We are taking it to a new level.”
Rainbow Dance Theatre’s 2020 tour was in full swing when the pandemic abruptly hit the pause button. Dancers headed home while Valerie and Darryl navigated the challenges of teaching dance virtually.
For one dancer, the unexpected change of course forced her to make a difficult decision. With a major in public health and a minor in dance from Western Oregon University, Mikaela Mendoza felt she had to choose a beat to follow.
“This pandemic is all public health, but the thing I love to do is dance,” Mikaela says. “I was so torn with which direction I was going to go, but knew it was a choice I needed to make.”
Mikaela joined the dance company her junior year after auditioning for a spot in Rainbow Dance Theatre’s performance at the university’s spring dance concert. She has toured with the troupe the past three years.
“It really just felt like family,” Mikaela says. “It was so fun to be with this group.”
When the 2020 tour was cut short, she moved back home to Anchorage and started pursuing public health. She now works for the State of Alaska’s Division of Public Health.
Her role has gone from collecting data on positive cases of COVID-19 to joining the vaccine task force. She is also attending graduate school to become an epidemiologist.
While Mikaela feels fortunate circumstances led her in a new direction, performing is still what she loves most.
“They tell you only 1% of dancers makes it professionally,” she says. “I did it on a certain level with this great group of people that I love. I feel so lucky and grateful.”
Before taking her final bow, Mikaela will join Rainbow Dance Theatre’s virtual performance for Western Oregon University’s 2021 spring dance concert.
Even though the dance troupe embraces technology, creating a virtual performance is no easy feat.
“Putting together a dance work remotely is a whole new territory for us,” Valerie says.
Darryl and Valerie are using this opportunity to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Rainbow Dance Theatre a year late. They have invited past dancers to join current dancers and submit their own dances.
The couple will piece together the submissions to create “Apart But Not Alone.” They are incorporating illumination and projection techniques to create an immersive experience for the virtual audience.
“We are looking to illustrate how separate we feel, but how we have used technology to get in touch with each other and still feel community,” Valerie says. n
The dance company will return to venues across the country in 2022. To view the upcoming touring schedule and watch the spring dance concert on or after May 7, visit rainbowdancetheatre.org.
ABOUT THE SERIES: Pioneer Utility Resources, publisher of Ruralite magazine, is shining a light on rural arts in the Northwest and West through early 2022, revealing how the arts enrich communities and sharing comeback stories in these challenging times. The series, The Heart of Community, receives support from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust—a private nonprofit foundation serving nonprofits across the Pacific Northwest.