For Pittsburgh Theatre
Emma Cook: How Family and Dance Have Shaped Her
March 31, 2019
When Emma Cook talks, two things are evident: she loves what she does, and what she does is dance. All of her stories are told passionately with a lot of details, and she moves while she talks, her hands fluidly punctuating her sentences. She’s a reporter’s dream with her attention to dates and details and good nature. She’s pretty, with a bouncy smile, long brown hair tied back in a ponytail, and blue eyes framed by black-rimmed glasses, three sparkling earrings in each ear. She’s friendly and easy to talk to with a quick wit.
We meet in Rock‘n’ Joe Coffee Bar in downtown Pittsburgh right after her work at the Pittsburgh CLO ends. Despite having a full day of classes at Point Park University and then work, she’s upbeat and energetic. She’s spending her spring semester as one of the CLO’s Gene Kelly Award interns. (Kelly was a Pittsburgh native.) The Gene Kelly Awards are a high school musical theater awards program that feeds into the National High School Musical Theater Awards, also known as the Jimmy Awards. Cook’s job with the CLO and the Gene Kellys is to organize, confirm, and inform. She’s in and out of meetings and running to check on the schools participating in the awards.
“We coordinate all of the schools’ and judges’ schedules. This year we have the most of both that we’ve ever had. We have 33 participating schools and 42 judges. Each school has to be seen four times by judges in their budget category. We just finished finalizing budget categories, and we’re working to make sure that the schools are social media networking, to make sure that someone within the school is promoting the shows. We also have the Kellys Critic Award and we have meetings with that, so we basically do a lot of emails and school visits. I’m still wrapping my head around it. We’re in our fifth week right now, and I have to admit that it’s a lot.”
Cook’s internship with the CLO serves two purposes: to give her practical experience that she desires and to fulfill her required internship for graduation. She is a Dance and Sports, Arts, and Entertainment Management double major graduating with the dual degree in just three years from Point Park this April. The plan after graduation is to move to New York City and audition, audition, audition. With a determined expression, she repeats, “I want to dance. I want to perform.” Ever pragmatic, she adds that she knows that it’s difficult to make a living as a performer and she’d love to have a job related to the arts industry while she auditions.
Cook was born in North Carolina and moved to northern Virginia when she was three. She grew up in Lorton, Virginia, one of four kids. “It’s funny,” she says. “The story we tell is that my parents went from having no kids one Christmas to having three. My sister Kate is eleven months older than I am; her birthday is December 27th. Then Ben and I are December 11th. Our older half-brother Nick was born December 9th. All four of us are December birthdays. So, the story that I like to tell people is that, because Kate was born December 27th, one Christmas my parents didn’t have any kids and then the next Christmas they had three.”
She began dancing at four, mainly because, as she says, her parents needed somewhere to put her and her siblings, though Ben began dancing two years after she and Kate. Dancing wasn’t a very serious commitment for her, she says, just something that she did for fun. When she was eight years old, her brother Ben got an agent at their dance teacher’s urging and then, at eleven, joined the company of Ahrens and Flaherty’s Ragtime on Broadway as the understudy for Younger Brother. “I’ll be talking a lot about Ben. I don’t want you to think that I’m avoiding talking about myself by talking about Ben,” she says suddenly. She leans across the table to look me in the eyes earnestly. “It’s not that. It’s just that the circumstances of our family revolve a lot around him. It’s just that a lot of what impacted me was him.”
After Ben moved to New York to join Ragtime, dance became Cook’s “thing.” Her sister Kate had stopped dancing by then and Ben was in New York, so she was able to figure out dance for herself. While Ben was in New York City for about a year and a half, two months with Ragtime and then with Billy Elliot, her parents alternated their time between New York and Virginia. One of them would spend a week in the NYC apartment with Ben while the other stayed at home with Kate and Emma. On Sunday, they would both take a bus and swap places overnight for the next week.
“My parents both have full time jobs, and they did the best they could, dear God,” she laughs. “At the time a lot of close family friends were helping me get around, taking me to and from dance, and I was starting to figure out life, too, for myself.”
She gets serious. “My sister has Bipolar and ADHD, so all while my parents and Ben were gone, I was the one there. Puberty and mental illness don’t go well together. It was really only Kate and me. It got really bad and I didn’t know how to deal with it. It created a big divide between us, and we really didn’t have a relationship. I really didn’t understand it, and that’s another thing that pushed me to find solace in dance. Kate danced until I was in seventh grade, so two years after Ben left, Kate stopped dancing, and I had something to myself. It was nice to have a breath and have a space all to myself. It was a rough two years, but then it kind of flipped.” She takes a second to say, “I talked with her last night which is why she’s on my mind.
“She’s working with two-year-olds at a preschool, and she loves it. Honestly, now she’s my biggest supporter. It’s hard for me to accept compliments from her when she tries to give them to me. Because we had such a poor relationship growing up, it’s hard for me to adjust to it now. I’m just so happy for her.”
When Cook was in seventh grade, Ben booked the national tour of Billy Elliot as Michael initially and then taking over the title role of Billy, after having performed in it on Broadway the summer after sixth grade as Tall Boy and understudying Michael. With Ben on tour, both of the Cook parents were at home. “He was doing that,” Cook jokes, “while I was just trying to survive middle school and freshman year of high school.” At 15 when Ben grew out of the Billy Elliot tour, he joined the rest of the family back in Virginia.
“He was home for a year and it was so fun, because he actually got to come to high school with me. He was tutored while he was on tour, but now he actually got to go to high school for a year. It was nice for me because that was really the only time during our adolescence that we were together.”
She’s articulate and careful in her word choice, always pausing before giving dates and ages to make sure she’s right. As she talks more about Ben and her family, it’s clear that she loves them dearly. She is always talking about the ways that they have influenced, shaped, and supported her. Hardly a sentence passes without a mention of them.
The summer after their sophomore year of high school, Ben booked the national tour of Disney’s Newsies. He went back on tour while Cook continued to train intensely and attended Camp FLY, a dance intensive, and submitted a piece of her own choreography to “Farewell” by Rhianna. It was the first time that she’d choreographed anything and says that it was the first time that she was given a solo dance. She credits her teachers for the opportunity, saying that they were acknowledging that she was creating her own identity as a dancer outside of Ben. She says that it’s something that she’s always struggled with. Still, she dedicated the performance to Ben because she was sad to see him leave after having had him home for a year.
“So it was after my junior year that I decided that this is what I want to do. Really, after seeing Ben when he was home and how hardworking he was and how dedicated to dance, it really made me realize that I loved dance. Not just the physical act of being there, but it was such a part of who I was. I realized that, ‘Oh, I can do this. I can make a career of this. I can go to college for this.’ I wanted this to be my life and be a part of the arts and performance community. That’s when we started looking at colleges and considering this as an option.”
She ended up at Point Park University here in Pittsburgh where her friends already were. She tells the story of her audition for PPU, how she came out of that audition feeling the best of all the school auditions and how her best friend from home, also at PPU, Kyra, took her to The Yard in Market Square for dinner afterwards. She feels like she was meant to be here and, after three years, is ready to graduate and expand her horizons.
After graduation, she’s open to everything. Dance, she says, is expanding and so are the career options. She’d love to be involved in musical theater, whether it’s regional, tour, or, and she admits, Broadway is a dream. She says that getting a job on a cruise ship right after graduation would be ideal. She loves to travel and would like to dance, while traveling, while getting paid. Her love for travel, she thinks, stems from a Europe trip that she and her brother took.
The summer after her freshman year of college, Cook and her brother took a seventeen-day trip alone to Germany and Iceland. Cook had taken German in high school for four years and wanted to travel somewhere that she could use her language skills. They spent the majority of their time in Germany and ended with about two and a half days in Iceland. “My brother and I didn’t really grow up together. We had different upbringings because he was on tour a lot, so it was the most time that we had spent alone together ever. It was so weird to realize. We fought quite a bit, but we came out of it so close. I really think that the experiences that we had together are what make me want to travel again. I want to do that again; it was so much fun. We funded it ourselves, too, so it was completely independent.”
Seeing Cook dance, it’s obvious how much of herself she gives to dance. She always looks like she’s having the time of her life and puts everything into her pieces. Even though she can dance all sorts of styles, jazz is her favorite and is her concentration at Point Park.
Thinking about Kate and how her sister’s mental illness impacted their family, Cook is choreographing a piece for Point Park’s student showcase. She submitted her concept and was chosen out of a large pool of applicants. She wants to shed light on mental health and is clear in the piece’s purpose. “It’s not to raise awareness; it’s not to pity someone with a mental disorder. It’s to show what happens in the mind of someone who’s having a manic-depressive episode. Because I think I didn’t understand it for so long – I don’t think I will fully understand it – but I sat down with Kate for coffee and she was very open with me about what it feels like in your head and what it feels like emotionally and in your body. She gave me a lot of ideas of what I could put into dance and told me to run with it. I’m really excited about it.”
Though she says that she doesn't want to be a choreographer, Cook's piece that she choreographed, Perpetual Mental Battle, is beautiful. The dancer taking Kate's role in the piece dances between four girls, two in red and two in blue. The two in red, representing a manic episode, are frantic with fast-paced choreography. The music is heavily rhythmic, and the dancers' movements align perfectly. In the middle of the piece, the four girls in red and blue surround the other as she crouches on the ground before she slowly rolls up and the two girls in blue dance with her. The representation of a depressive episode, the choreography and the music slows, long languid movements before speeding up a little. Cook's attention to detail and the palpable shifts in tone her choreography creates are impressive and beautiful. The piece conveys exactly what she intends it to: the mental battle for someone with Bipolar disorder.
As Cook graduates this spring, she is a force to be reckoned with and a performer to be watched. She'll surely be making her mark on the dance and entertainment world.
Follow Emma on Instagram