Oct. 19-25, 2001
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After Hours -- Cook blends artistic roots with scholarly pursuits

Rebecca Arrington
French professor Robert Cook leads a classical ballet workshop on technique for members of U.Va’s newest student dance group, Rhapsody Dance Ensemble.

Cook blends artistic roots with scholarly pursuits

By Rebecca Arrington

Parlez-vous français?
(Can you speak French?)

Faites-vous de la danse classique?
(Do you know ballet?)

Etes-vous pilote?
(Are you a pilot?)

Students learning French might ask such questions in class to improve their conversational skills. And if the teacher answering these questions happens to be U.Va. professor Robert Cook, the answer to all three would be “Oui.”

Cook, who grew up in Georgia and North Carolina, was exposed to the world of dance and language of France before he could scarcely walk or talk. “My mother was a dance teacher. She took me to her classes as a baby before the days of child care,” he said. “I was le danseur at a very young age because there weren’t many young men in her classes. As a result, I got lots of roles and tremendous amounts of stage performance in parts way over my head but good for me,” he said.

Cook continued to study classical ballet through college, primarily at the urging of his father, a professor at what is today Appalachian State University. The senior Cook drove his son one-and-a-half hours each way to dance lessons while he was in high school. “He graded papers in the cloak room while he waited for me,” Cook recalled.

Cook’s interest in French culture flourished at this time due to good teachers, he said. “My high school teacher was using ‘active’ teaching methods in the 1950s — recordings of real French, French comic books, reel-to-reel film — instead of teaching in a vacuum.”

After high school, Cook chose to attend King College in Bristol, Tenn., for its French program, and because the city was home to one of the country’s best dance companies at the time.

Following in both his parents’ footsteps, Cook became a college professor and community dance instructor upon earning his Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University. He joined U.Va.’s faculty in 1975, at which time he also began teaching classical ballet to area youngsters. Occasionally he’s invited to teach dance on Grounds. He led a ballet workshop for U.Va.’s newest student dance group, Rhapsody Dance Ensemble last month.

“The students in Rhapsody are strong dancers who’ve received good training,” Cook said. “They dance with a great deal of alertness and intelligence, much the way they perform in their academic classes.”

Over the years, “beautiful dancers have come through U.Va. — medical students, law students, undergraduates,” he said. “Rhapsody will be an outlet for some of these dancers now to continue an art they love.”

Cook continues to perform as well as teach dance, most recently in the Fairfax Ballet in June. “There are still important roles for older company members,” he said. His role was as father of the reluctant bride in “Pecos Bill and the Cyclone.”

He noted that the Fairfax company often has U.Va. alumni perform in its productions. His friend and U.Va. alumna Mary Marshall, who received her doctorate in philosophy here in May and now teaches at Virginia State University, choreographed this particular ballet.

Cook has also performed with the dance arm of the Virginia Players, and said of U.Va.’s current arts initiative, which is part of the Virginia 2020 plan: “It’s a source of great satisfaction. Bob Chapel is a great leader.”

Asked what his favorite ballet is, Cook replied, “to watch, it’s ‘Troy Game.’ Performed by men, it combines impressive athleticism with a strong sense of humor,” he said, noting that it’s still in repertory in the Dance Theater of Harlem.

His most memorable performance, however, was seeing England’s Royal Ballet perform “Swan Lake” at the Wolf Trap in Northern Virginia. “In the middle of the third act, the prima ballerina is required to do 32 constant turns, called fouettes, Cook said. “During her execution of this difficult routine, lightning struck the stage and knocked out the power. “But we could see from the emergency generator lights that she just kept on going,” he recalled. “Her male dance partner got into the spirit and started doing triple ‘sauts de basque’ in the dark. It was a feat that defines tour de force.”

Dancer, teacher, scholar, pilot — Cook, himself, could be described as a tour de force. His research specialty is Medieval French literature about the Crusades and the historical setting of that literature. On sabbatical this semester, he is completing two long-term projects that involve editing and translating two poems, the 25,778-line “Baudouin de Sebourc” and the 6,011-line Italian version of “The Song of Roland.” Both poems, by anonymous authors, are considered 14th-century epics and are major Crusade texts. He’s also developing a new U.Va. course on “Croisade et Culture: La France et l’Islam au Moyen Age.”

Cook said his varied interests come from the need for balance in his life. In the humanities, there’s much room for interpretation of the material and ideas aren’t necessarily considered right or wrong, he said.

A pilot since 1991, he said that dance and flying have very specific rules that must be adhered to. They require mastery of fundamentals that you cannot get around, such as gravity. “Training is systematic and the aesthetic is orderly, he said. “It’s refreshing to go back and forth between these two worlds.”

Note: “After Hours” is a feature section exploring the noteworthy non-work pursuits of U.Va. faculty and staff. Please submit nominations for future columns to Matt Kelly at s.


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