Since 2012, Marina O’Rourke has had a legacy to carry forth from the foundation her late mother began building more than 40 years ago.
It has been no easy task. But if there was ever a person to honor the discipline of dance, the development of young dancers, the evolution of the art form while staying true to tradition and the merging of the three through the Academy of Ballet, the Dubuque City Youth Ballet and the Heartland Ballet, it would be O’Rourke.
“We worked together so closely for so many years,” O’Rourke said of her mother, Tatiana Bechenova. “And, of course, she was my mother, so we were together at home. We didn’t always work the same way, but we always had the same motive and wished for the same outcome. I think that’s what made our relationship and goals for the studio work.”
Long before Bechenova’s passing, O’Rourke, 67, taught with her mother at the Academy of Ballet, which Bechenova founded in 1968.
Throughout the years, the organization has served as a pillar among arts organizations in the tri-states, producing high quality ballets and passing the torch of a time-honored tradition to ther next generation.
A rich heritage
Bechenova began her dance training with the famed Russian ballerina Lyubov Yegorova. By 13, she had joined the Ballet de la Jeunnesse and a year later would become the youngest member of the world-renowned Ballets Russes.
Bechenova toured with the company for seven years before becoming the principle dancer for Agnes de Mille, performing on Broadway in the classic musical, “Carousel.” It was while on tour that she met Tom O’Rourke, a Chicago native, and settled down.
The couple remained in Chicago for several years before moving to New York and having three children, including O’Rourke. But they decided that the city was no place to raise their family. And so, they returned to the Midwest, finding a home in Dubuque.
Bechenova found work teaching dance at Clarke College before countless community members urged her to start a ballet school.
“It wasn’t something she was going to do at first,” O’Rourke said. “But so many people kept asking her to do it. And ballet is what we’ve maintaining our focus in all these years. No matter what style of dance, your foundation will always begin with ballet.”
Finding her footing
Following in her footsteps, O’Rourke recalled a budding interest in ballet as she watched Bechenova teach. Occasionally, it was the most time she would get to spend with her mother.
“Teaching took its toll on her; it was quite difficult,” O’Rourke said. “She would teach, then come home late and exhausted. Ballet hours aren’t normal hours. It requires many evenings and weekends. It was hard for her to do that and raise a family.”
O’Rourke noted that this was during a time when most women were housewives.
“You didn’t see a lot of women working outside the home, let alone starting and running a business,” she said. “It was a very brave thing to do.”
Though dance was something each of her siblings took part in, O’Rourke emerged as the one to stick with it, studying under her mother before continuing her studies in Chicago, Kansas City and Minneapolis.
She went on to earn a scholarship to the Oklahoma School of Ballet where she was recognized for her dancing and choreography.
Upon graduating in 1973, O’Rourke admitted that she was reluctant to return Dubuque to teach right away.
“When you’re in that place in your life, you want to get away from home and experience new things someplace else before you come back,” she said.
Instead, she enrolled at the International School of Ballet in Cannes, France. However, destiny had a plan in store.
Upon taking a stroll one night, Bechenova injured her ankle. With that, O’Rourke knew exactly what course to chart upon her return.
“I went ahead with my studies in Europe,” she said. “But I knew in my heart I couldn’t leave her. Although my plans had been made, I knew then that I’d be back.”
Creating a lasting legacy
O’Rourke officially joined the Academy of Ballet as an instructor in 1974. She and her mother would teach together for 38 years before Bechenova’s death in December 2012.
Those who spent time in the studio often would hear O’Rourke affectionately refer to Bechenova as “Tanya.”
“I didn’t call her ‘mom,’” O’Rourke said. “The relationship I was fortunate to have with her as both a daughter and a professional is something I miss. We had a great deal of respect for one another. She was my best friend, my colleague and my mother all at once. And there was a shared respect for the art form and an expectation for a high level of professionalism.”
That sense of professionalism is something the two worked tirelessly to instill in the dancers at the Academy of Ballet, located within Dubuque’s historic Grand Opera House.
Today, O’Rourke serves as the director, as well as an instructor and choreographer. She also is the artistic director of the Dubuque City Youth Ballet and the Heartland Ballet — both performance arms of the Academy of Ballet.
The training ground, which caters to approximately 140 students each year, has produced several professional dancers and instructors. It also has carried on the tradition of performing classic ballets, as well as debuting new works.
Having never had children, O’Rourke has found a successor in Megan MacLeod, a principle instructor and artist-in-residence at the academy.
“Not having children was a choice,” O’Rourke said. “I saw what a difficult dynamic that was for my mother to balance. It was something my husband Tony was fine with. And the dancers became like my children in many ways.”
MacLeod, who rose in the ballet ranks as a youth through the Academy of Ballet and pursued studies in dance at the University of Iowa, described O’Rourke in one word: “Inspiring.”
“I’ve known Marina almost my entire life; she was my teacher when I was young, and now, I’m grateful to have her as my friend, mentor and colleague,” MacLeod said. “She makes you want to be the best version of yourself. Marina embodies modern ingenuity with an old-world elegance, both of which she inherited from her mother, Tanya.”
As a teacher, MacLeod said that O’Rourke sets a high bar for students, but in a way that shows her respect for them.
“Every student in her school knows that she has high expectations of them and that they are capable of meeting them,” MacLeod said. “When someone believes in you like that, it lights a fire in you.”
Something MacLeod said not every one knows about O’Rourke is how funny she is.
“I love watching her in rehearsal when she shows an actor or dancer how to tell a joke on stage without using words,” MacLeod said. “It reminds you that she is a consummate performer with devastating comedic timing. No one is better.
“Everyone has one or two people in their lives where they say, ‘I don’t know where I’d be without them,’ and Marina is one of mine.”
Even those not associated with ballet have felt O’Rourke’s reach through the community.
Mantea Schmid works with O’Rourke on the Parish Council at St. Elias Greek Orthodox Church. She also calls her a close friend and an inspiration.
“She has inspired me by example to use a certain set of skills in whatever we do,” Schmid said. “First, to think clearly and calmly in any situation. Second, to work together to accomplish our goals. Last, to strive for excellence in all we do. As our parish leader, Marina has encouraged this mindset for us as a group. In her work life at the ballet school, these are a give in.”
Community outreach is something of importance to O’Rourke. In addition to having served as a consultant to the Iowa Arts Council, as an artist-in-residence for school arts programs and organizations such as the Dubuque Arts Council and as a two-term commissioner for the City of Dubuque’s Arts and Cultural Advisory Commission, O’Rourke volunteers with Dubuque County Republican Women.
“You reach a point where it’s time to start paying it back,” she said. “For women, I think they absolutely should step forward to know within themselves that they have the ability. I hope to continue getting involved in many more ways within the community.”