Fifty people crowd onto a grand stairway sprawled over the Bishop Center stage at Grays Harbor College, masquerade masks adorning many of their faces. Their movements are jerky, like robots with rusty joints. However, every centimeter they move expresses messages from the song “Masquerade” in “Phantom of the Opera.”
Lori Oestreich, the soft-spoken choreographer for the college’s fall and spring productions, approached this with the goal of making every actor look their best, regardless of their dance experience. Her inspiration for this particular scene came from “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” when Dick Van Dyke and Sally Ann Howes disguise themselves as life-like robots.
“I kept having images of him as the mechanical doll and after about three days of that it was like,” she said before giving a theatrical gasp. “That’s it! So all that mechanical movement I had them do during ‘Masquerade’ came from Dick Van Dyke.”
Original choreography for familiar shows is what Oestreich has been doing at the Bishop Center for the past 12 years.
Dance has been part of her life from a young age. She started dancing at the age of six by attending summer community classes in her Pennsylvania hometown. Two summers of this led her to regular classes at a dance studio with jazz, ballet, tap and other movement classes. At 15, Oestreich was accepted into the Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet Company, where she began a formal education.
“I didn’t get much of the foundation from the small community classes, so I had a lot of work to do while at the academy,” she said.
During her senior year of high school, Oestreich even quit the Harrisburg Youth Symphony, a group for promising musicians, to pursue her time at the ballet company.
She studied here until a few months before meeting her husband, Art, after moving with her family to Florida. Their younger brothers were friends and Art was encouraged to teach her how to water ski. They were married just before she turned 21.
A wedding and four kids later, Oestreich returned to dancing. They were living in Georgia when members of their church approached her about a performance for a special service. With only two weeks to prepare a dance piece, Oestreich began taking lessons.
That’s when she decided that teaching dance was what she eventually wanted to do and started a children’s ministry at their church.
In 1996, Ballet South in Savannah, Ga., held auditions. Oestreich was accepted after accompanying a friend who didn’t want to go alone. Their choreographer, who had been friends with renowned ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, a dance coach and director, were all from New York City. Oestreich danced in “The Nutcracker” at the Savannah Civic Center-Johnny Mercer Theatre in shows that sold out the theaters 5,000 seats.
“She was spectacular up there,” Art said. “It was a really amazing experience for us all, but especially for Lori.”
In 1997, she attended a dance teacher training at Ballet Magnificat!, a Christian ballet school, in Jackson, Miss. Co-founder, Kathy Thibodeaux, inspired Oestreich immensely, and when they moved the following year into the Hoquiam home built by Art’s great-grandfather in 1903, Oestreich opened Prayz Dance intent on mixing the foundational training of ballet with a moral and ethical guide from her religion.
“I was teaching classical ballet, which is very rigorous, but for the purpose of teaching young women that they were beautiful, they were valuable and that the gift of dance is to give glory to God,” she said.
She was also able to use her sewing talent to help keep the costume costs down for her students. Her focus on providing a solid dance training and moral foundation helped when the Eugene Ballet Company came to town. Her students were so well behaved in the rehearsals leading up to a one-night “Nutcracker” performance they were trusted to quietly stand in the wings. This was the first area on the troupe’s tour that gave such a privilege to students.
“I still don’t know how I got them to behave so well, they were just a great group,” she said.
Her background in the performing arts also led her to start creating choreography for the Bishop Center shows. It quickly became a whole family affair. With one son playing trumpet in the pit, both daughters on stage and Oestreich doing choreography, Art decided to help out with stagecraft. He began helping Erik Sandgren build sets and eventually took over. He is proud to be a part of these productions.
“It’s pretty cool to see it all come together and the community seems to really enjoy it,” he said. “And going to see shows elsewhere really shows how much talent is on the Harbor and how well we do.”
Oestreich’s dance studio was closed in 2006 because it became too much for her to run while also working at the Bishop Center.
She can also sing and plays the violin weekly at the Montesano Presbyterian Church.
For now, Oestreich is focused on planning the choreography for “Les Miserables,” the next Bishop Center musical set for March.
“I’ve done a little bit of everything in performing arts,” she said. “Dance just happened to be the one that rose to the top.”