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Marnie Cooke: “How do you turn off your ears?”

Thumbnail Sketches… by Connie Munson

Marnie Cooke - Fantasia
Marnie Cooke – Fantasia

“It’s like a passion!  I love music and I want to interpret it.”  And so Marnie Cooke continues to do this having moved from the stage as a ballet dancer and choreographer to the canvas.  With her rich palette of colours, expressive and fluid brushstrokes, she creates highly dramatic pieces in an abstract impressionistic vein.

As a former ballet dancer and choreographer who first trained at the National Ballet School in Toronto, Marnie says, “I may not be able to jump as high now, but I can still dance up a storm on canvas!”   She went on to perform and teach at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet after graduating from Ryerson’s rigorous theatre program in their new dance department.

That comprehensive curriculum included theatre, history, lighting, costuming, anatomy, French, and instrumental lessons.  While Marnie chose the performance route they were all mixed in with students following the acting route.  She comments and laughs that “dancers are timid compared to actors who are experimenting on whoever walks by.”

Marnie Cooke - Skylark
Marnie Cooke – Skylark

Their teachers were guests, highly skilled professionals with a history of performance, and ranged from inspired to less than at teaching.  You needed drive and passion to complete this program and in general to train in the field of ballet.  Criticism was personal and cruel.

“I was too big, too tall, and though my feet were not aesthetically arched, they were strong and I could jump and spin! It was my determination and passion, which were hopefully part of your success, that helped me work through it.”

Marnie wanted to produce and perform her own work and she did, having her own studio in Winnipeg.  “Deep in my career in my 30’s, single and focused, (I) didn’t want to give up the career.  (I had) trained to a level where I could interpret, create, and choregraph.”

Marnie Cooke - Spectrum
Marnie Cooke – Spectrum

She notes that the lines are more blurred now amongst ballet, flamenco, jazz, and modern dance, even though they have different skills bases. The study of ballet was more purist in her training days, although today it still retains the teaching for pirouettes.

Today with the prevalence of cross-over with types of dance, the physical training is not as aggressive.  It is more about movement, fun, the spirit while a child grows, with a switch to a more disciplined focus coming later.  Still today there tends to be an exodus from dance at puberty as adolescents focus on school, first jobs, and their social lives.

Reflecting on trends with the dance studio scene today, Marnie observes and feels a different vibe; younger and raw with the money at the forefront.  When asked if she could connect with this generation she shook her head.

Marnie Cooke - Spirit Dance
Marnie Cooke – Spirit Dance

“It’s totally different… all about the hype and trophies.  Dance has become an industry with poorly made and very expensive costumes.” She remembers her recitals where they wore their fathers’ old shirts for garments under the costumes and leggings would have sequins sewn on by the moms.  They adapted to what was at hand as people didn’t throw their money around then.

Again she comments that if you see a window full of trophies in a dance studio you walk away.  “(You need a) connection with the studio you work with and honesty about a child’s abilities and chances.”

Our conversation turned to the cultural ambience of Toronto, Winnipeg, and Edmonton.  “In Toronto when I was training I couldn’t afford my own ticket, well maybe one ticket”, she laughs.  Whereas when in Winnipeg, known as the Chicago North, with its rich traditions steeped in Ukrainian culture, Mennonites, and the largest French  community outside of Quebec, even artists could afford to attend the theatre and musical performances.”

Marnie Cooke - Nature's Allegro
Marnie Cooke – Nature’s Allegro

Winnipeg had the Manitoba Opera Company, multiple theatres, and even Chaplin performed there.  Not only was it a hub for trains, but also to some extent bootleggers.  “All you had to do was survive the flooding, the deep freeze of winter, and she adds, the mosquitos which could kill you off.”

Then there is Edmonton’s strong arts scene.  It also was very European with its Russian community and the Ukrainian dance company, it had a big university, and its historic Fringe Festival, the oldest and largest of the 23 Fringes in North America.  Overall it too, had a Chicago North feel to it with their rich arts and cultural community base.

Looking even briefly at the cultural arts scene in Canada as Marnie has experienced it, the impact on her life is phenomenal.  From her early years living on the Toronto Islands to the family’s move to Port Credit, she has and continues to live a life large and richly coloured by creative expression.  Following her husband’s moves through western Canada while he was in agribusiness to their move back east to Toronto when he went into the gold mining field with a New Zealand company, Marnie’s artistic journey has continued to evolve and develop.

Marnie Cooke - Out of This World
Marnie Cooke – Out of This World

She reflects that, “There was a time when you were allowed to be eccentric… could be who you were in the theatre.  Nowadays this isn’t just limited to artists.  Far more highs and lows in everyone are allowed.  Back then if you were talented, you could have these foibles, and if you were gifted you could be rude and cruel because you had talent.” Marnie sees that today there is more openness with the public to connect and relate with creative expression.

She was five or six when her mother took her to a local ballet recital, a classical ballet recital held at the Royal Alex in Toronto. “I was a nutbar; I couldn’t think straight because I wanted to dance.  It was beyond a choice, but it had happen.”  Her training and dedication to dance were powerful influences in how she grew up so fast.

“You had to be crazy to keep going and work so hard.   When you are thinking seriously you become a bit of an old soul.  And you don’t lose it, it’s like memory.  I’m very lucky, I worked hard for it, and I have the results.”

Marnie Cooke - Lusingando
Marnie Cooke – Lusingando

And how fortunate for us that we can enjoy those results of this disciplined dancer who has turned her creative focus now to the visual arts as she translates her passion for music and reimagines it on canvas.

Residing now in Orangeville and a member of Headwaters Arts, Marnie was part of the summer’s three-member show, EAST Greets WEST, which recently hung through September 13 at the Headwaters Arts Gallery in the Alton Mill Arts Centre, Alton (Caledon).  Her work was very well received with several pieces now in private homes and collections. You may contact her at

Thumbnail Sketches© is a column Connie Munson, local photographer, artist, and writer, has developed for various arts organizations to profile their artist-members.  She is a director on the board of Headwaters Arts, which has their gallery in the Alton Mill Arts Centre in Caledon, a member of several other arts organizations, and may be reached at

References – Marnie Cooke: “How do you turn off your ears?”

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