Nikiski High School's Phil Morin gives dancers direction last week following a rehearsal for an upcoming production at the Renee C. Henderson Auditorium at Kenai Central High School. Morin and his wife have been fixtures of the local dance scene for many years.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Phil Morin was in the theater before he was a teenager. A heart attack and his 50th birthday are now within the last three months of his rearview mirror, and he’s about to do his last big show.
He may be leaving the theater, but the theater will never leave him.
“I just don’t have the energy,” Morin said. “I had a heart attack Dec. 30, kind of slowed me down a little bit. My wife wants me to take better care of myself. And reducing stress is part of the deal.”
Morin has been at Nikiski High since the doors opened almost two decades ago. He’s a science teacher, but he’s also among the most recognizable when it comes to the Kenai Peninsula dance scene.
Reflected in mirrors that make up part of a set, Chris Bernard, facing camera, gestures as she gives dancers direction last week.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Scores of stage talent (and off-stage talent, for that matter) has been touched by Morin through the years. But come the middle of April, the Nikiski High School Dance Concert will come to an end, and with it Morin’s long tenure of successful productions.
“This will be the last dance concert I produce,” Morin said. “It’s the last major show I produce, where I’m there to direct, set everything up and coordinate, and make the schedules and get everybody together and choreograph, and make the sets and design the sets, and help with figuring out the costumes and blah blah blah. Yes, this is my last one.”
Phil Morin is bathed in the glow of stage lighting as he takes notes during a dance rehearsal at Renee C. Henderson Auditorium.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
He still might have a hand in something down the road, and if some things with the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District change, he might even replicate his role of the past two decades. Morin assures he doesn’t want to burn bridges and he’s not quick to say “never.”
But the talent will certainly miss his talent.
A knack for it
Morin, the youngest among three boys and two girls in his family, arrived in Alaska at less than 2 years of age when his mother and father came to Alaska in 1959. He graduated from Kenai Central in 1975.
“I went to the University of Montana Missoula for a couple of years, and then I went to California State University at Fresno and got my degree in Environmental Biology,” Morin said. “Then I came back up and worked for (Alaska Department of Fish and Game), and still work for them permanent seasonal.”
His mother, Phyllis, had a direct hand in him finding his place on stage. But there were others, as well.
“He was trained by some of the best,” said his sister, Chris Cook.
Cook said the group of Jean McMaster (“an outstanding choreographer”), Lance Peterson (“an outstanding director”), Jean Brockel (“exceptional vocals”) and their mother Phyllis (producer) were instrumental in getting the theater scene together in the 1960s.
“This discipline came from some of the most remarkable people of the community,” Cook said. “He developed a love for it and had a knack for it. He can sing and dance and perform, too. He saw teaching as a platform to launch this into the next level. It hasn’t surprised me.”
Morin still remembers when the theater bug first bit.
“My mom directed the first high school play in this building,” Morin said of Kenai Central High School. “She drug me to one of the rehearsals. I saw a U of A (University of Alaska Anchorage) dance instructor, and I was 10, and I said ‘I can do that.’ There were some high school kids, and I thought, ‘I could do that.’
“So I did that. I started jumping around when I was 11.”
When he returned from college, the Peninsula Dancers were mostly a group of young adults. Morin fit right in, and eventually met his wife, Chris. They’ll have been married 22 years come this June, and she’s been ably by his side during these many productions.
“I met Chris through Peninsula Dancers, we started dating, did the whole fall in love, get married and have kids thing,” Morin said. “And I decided at that time I needed a career that was less volatile than construction. My father was a teacher, and I liked kids, and I thought that was a good thing to do. I went back to school and got a second degree from the University of Alaska Anchorage. A few years ago I got my masters through online.”
Construction’s loss was peninsula students’ gain.
Kids are capable
If there’s one thing you can stake a claim to in Morin’s life, it’s his belief in the children who perform in his productions.
“Growing up, you were just expected to do it,” Morin said of his demands. “And so I think I just expect people to do the same thing. The kids can do a lot more than we ever demand, and one of the things is I just demand it. And they’re capable of doing it.
“When they have success, it’s harder than they’ve ever been expected to work because most people have lower expectations than they should of our kids. Our kids are not stupid and they’re not lazy, they’re just not trained. So, I just demand what I know they can do.”
The quality of the shows testifies his point.
“The kids that get involved in his program, many of them are 110 percent committed to him,” said Joe Rizzo, a fellow Nikiski High teacher who has worked with Morin in productions for nearly a decade. “They see who he is, they know what a great thing they have going in their life. That is completely told through the things the kids say, and their interaction with him.
“He had a heart attack, I went to visit and check up on him, I was there about an hour. I probably got in about five minutes of conversation because the phone rang off the hook. He’s so beloved.”
Gordon Griffin, theater manager for each of the Nikiski, Kenai and Soldotna high schools, agrees. He proudly and without hesitation refers to him as Mr. Morin, noting the respect is deserved and well-earned.
“Mr. Morin is a person that demands excellence, and he strives for excellence,” Griffin said. “In most cases, he achieves excellence. His students are so fortunate to have a person that not only knows the intricacies of dance, but they’re so fortunate to have a person that knows the intricacies of the technical production. Phil is certainly that person.
“He’s a very demanding individual. If you engage him in a conversation, you better know what you’re talking about because he definitely knows what he’s talking about. His students are fortunate to have him as a dance instructor. He works well with all the technicians and myself, and he just does an outstanding job.”
Griffin said Morin has the unique ability to maximize students’ potential on a regular basis.
“I have seen all the dance troupes in the area, and all of them are good,” Griffin said. “Mr. Morin has that ability to get down to the core of the students, and not only enable them to perform to the best of their ability, but to bring them above what they foresee they’re capabilities to be. ... Not only is he a good teacher, he’s a good dancer in and of himself. From that experience, he’s able to relate to those kids at a performance level that perhaps a lot of other people are not able to do. He knows what it takes to achieve beyond what you think you’re capable of doing. That’s what’s so impressive about Mr. Morin.
“What Mr. Morin does that is so impressive to me, he takes that student, and he moves that student along in a positive way as far as he can take him. He pushes him, but he does it in a way that is professional. Those students gain from him what it takes to make it in the world today. They get that from Mr. Morin.”
While Morin is at the hub of his productions, he laughs when the suggestion is made that he must be organized.
“Not my room or my shop,” Morin said. “It’s cluttered organized, I know what pile is what. As a teacher, you do have to be organized, so I guess that’s true.”
But he knows a production inside and out, how to create it and how to visualize what can’t be seen, then make it happen so everyone else can see it, too.
“It’s like compared to a lot of high school productions across the United States, it’s the difference between watching an MTV video and partaking in literature,” Rizzo said. “A lot of programs, those dance programs that people run are basically about getting the kids moving in the right direction. He’s taking it way beyond that. He has a lot of vision.”
Morin uses a basic analogy to describe how he does it.
“As a rule, when I see the whole dance, then I have to take it apart,” Morin said. “One of the things my math teacher in high school was always frustrated with was that I had the answer, and then I had to work backwards to figure out how I got there.
“So it’s like having the entire story, and working backwards to develop the alphabet. The majority of people who are successful in our public school system work from the alphabet, get the words, get a sentence, construct a paragraph, and eventually we’ll get to the story. And I work the other way.
“But because I have to survive our public education system,” Morin said, “I’ve learned how to work in both directions. And that’s because I’ve been a performer, stage manager, built things, I have enough familiarity with a variety of different trades and crafts to build a tree, and moving parts, and I know the parameter of the theater.”
Morin is ably assisted by many from the community, including several whose kids have already been through and graduated. He also has high praise for the Nikiski administration, led by principal John O’Brien, and is thankful they want to enhance the arts even more.
“John is all about the arts, and we’ll be starting a theater production program where we’re going to have three teachers, myself, Joe and the music teacher in the sixth hour,” Morin said. “The kids will be learning lights, set design, set construction, costume, to performing to whatever, all aspects. It’ll be junior high through high school.
“That’s exciting, and a lot of work on the part of the administration.”
Lights of Agrium shine on
If you take in the show, Rizzo says you’ll see something like a Broadway musical “In the sense it tells a story with dance and music. It has a huge range, everything from dances to classical pieces of music to songs with lyrics from today. It’s pretty amazing.”
Morin’s visions that inspired the production would not readily be seen by most people.
“And most of the time he does start with a vision,” Rizzo said. “The Omega piece we end with, it’s a huge elaborate piece with scaffolding, the kids, black and white outfits, flashing lights on their wrists, a giant, a drummer, sirens -- it’s this whole 20-minute dance piece, and it all stems from Phil coming home one night and seeing the lights at Agrium.”
It’s that kind of vision, that kind of nurturing of a project, and the work with the students that make Morin and his wife unique.
“He’s a gift to the community,” Rizzo said. “He and Chris, his wife, those two could teach and choreograph anywhere in the U.S. if they wanted to. They are tremendously talented. I don’t know if people even realize, because they’ve been around so long and they’ve done so much for so long. It’s pretty amazing. I’ve worked with a lot of folks, and those two are top-notch.”
Yet, Rizzo and Griffin assure that the man you meet around the theater is the same in the classroom and outside on the street.
“He’s complete and genuine,” Rizzo said. “Who he is in the classroom is who he is at home. He demands a lot of people, and that’s his motivation. I can tell you this after 10 years, without any hesitation, he has literally saved children’s lives. Because he’s willing to take on kids other people would completely write off. He’s willing to take his dance program and take a chance with the kids. Sometimes he’s been burned for it, but more times than not, he’s rescued kids out of difficult situations because they made the choice to be involved in a quality consuming program rather than drugs or other things.”
And it’s not always with students who have experience. It is, in fact, often the students who have no stage experience that he makes the most impact.
“That’s one of the things that is most astounding,” Cook said. “As an adult and as a teacher and dance coach, he single-handedly more than not has taken children who have never seen a stage, taken a step, taken them from being a sloppy teenager to being a rather dependable performer, and ultimately a dancer. It takes a lot of discipline on the kid’s part, and it takes Morin discipline. He does it on faith, and with respect for the kids. There’s never a moment where they doubt that.”
Alan Wooten is a freelance writer who lives in Nikiski.
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