Until recently, Whatcom County dancers and musicians seeking a world-class performing arts school would have to commute to Seattle or Vancouver. Tiiu and Martin Kuuskmann of Blaine are looking to change that.
The Kuuskmanns are preparing to open the Opus Performing Arts School in downtown Bellingham on Monday, September 15. The Kuuskmanns, along with their business partner Allan Redstone, have an ambitious vision for their school: providing a combination of recreational and academic artistic learning for kids and adults.
The Kuuskmanns have an impressive artistic pedigree to support the ambitious new academy. Tiiu is a trained ballerina with
years of experience teaching and touring with some of the best dance troupes in the U.S. and Canada. Martin is a Grammy-nominated bassoonist who has soloed at Carnegie Hall and studied at Yale University, The Juilliard School and the Cornish College of the Arts.
The Kuuskmanns have been planning and preparing the school for almost a year. Redstone, who has an extensive business background, came on board to help manage the business side of the school. Construction crews are currently putting the finishing touches on the school, installing two dance studios, an upstairs office space and an expansive basement area that will be used for music programs.
“Our impetus for doing this, to a large extent, is that we all have kids,” Redstone said. “We were not satisfied with the level of arts, dance and music instruction in Bellingham. The Bellingham public schools have excellent music programs, but they’re not conservatory-level music programs. What we’re hoping to do is augment what the public schools are doing and take it to a higher level for kids who are really considering a career in the arts.”
The school is looking for students who are serious about improving their skills, but the founders are hoping to foster a fun and recreational environment. While the school will be able to accommodate private dance lessons, private music lessons will not be possible, due to Martin’s hectic touring schedule with multiple international orchestras. However, the school will be working with a number of private instructors from the outer community, and will work to pair students with the best teachers for individual study.
Martin originally hails from Estonia in eastern Europe, where music education was deeply ingrained with everyday education. He hopes to bring that level of integration to his music program.
“Music is an integral part of education,” Martin said. “Anyone who has come in contact with musical training or dance knows that it trains your brain in ways that nothing else can replicate.”
To that end, the Kuuskmanns have hired Dana Cohenour to help instill a love of music in children from a very early age. Cohenour has performed as a children’s entertainer for nearly 20 years, releasing five albums of kids music and winning awards for her innovative Music Playground program. She now lives in Blaine, and frequently gives story time readings at the Blaine Public Library. Cohenour will be continuing her Music Playground program at Opus, starting with children as young as six months old.
“There’s so much research that has been done that proves musical interactions at a young age, especially when incorporated with movement and rhyme, can really help with their cognition,” Cohenour said. “This children’s program will be a launching pad for kids moving ahead, and bring a joy that will hopefully carry through as they grow.”
Cohenour plans to have three tiers to her children’s program, based on age: from 6 months to 2 years old, from 2 to 3 years old and from 4 to 5 years old.
Tiiu Kuuskmann sees Opus as an opportunity to unite the artistic community of Whatcom County under one roof.
“Many professionals work in the arts throughout the county, but there’s never been a place to unify,” she said. “A large part of our job thus far has been to talk to these people about what we’re doing, and a lot of them have been very keen. They’ve offered to teach classes or supplement existing classes. It’s pulled this amazing group of people together already.”
Opus has already attracted local instructors, like Western Washington University dance professor Susan Haines and Bellingham dance instructor Diane Williams. Tiiu herself will be teaching ballet, as well as offering courses in tap, jazz and modern dance.
Shortly after opening, the school will be adding a choral singing program, taught by international educator Timothy Black. Martin hopes to one day add an orchestral music program to the curriculum, in addition to the wide range of musical genres he already plans to teach, ranging from classical and chamber music to jazz and rock.
Over time, the staff at Opus hopes to turn the school into a destination not just for students, but also for visiting musicians, educators and experts looking for a venue to give master classes. Moreover, they hope to attract promising artistic talent from all around the region, who might otherwise attend schools in Seattle or Vancouver.
“Blaine is where our hearts have come alive,” Cohenour said. “So we really hope we’re going to see some of our friends from Blaine come down and sign up.”
The Opus Performing Arts School is now accepting early registration for its programs in September.
For more information about scheduling, tuition and registration, visit opusbellingham.com