At this point in his career, Rohene Ward is best known as a choreographer. Creating a program like “Reel Around the Sun” — which brought “Riverdance” to the ice and made Jason Brown both a sensation and an Olympian — will cement that kind of impression.
The people who work with Ward every day know there is much more to the Minneapolis native. He also helps coach a stable of established and rising skaters in Monument, Colo., and remains a performer at heart — be it on a world tour with Holiday on Ice, or on the practice rink.
“The other day, I was sitting on the boards in jeans, a hoodie and a parka, and [student] Mariah Bell said, ‘Do a triple loop,’ ” he said. “So I did. Someone’s got to keep these kids on their toes.”
This week, Ward will combine all three roles as he returns to his home state for the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. He and coaching partner Kori Ade will guide three of their students — Bell, Christina Cleveland and Ben Jalovick — in the senior men’s and women’s competitions. Ward choreographed programs for them and for two other skaters, Courtney Hicks and Jimmy Ma.
Thursday, Ward will perform in the event’s opening ceremonies at Xcel Energy Center, which he also helped choreograph. Though he was named the 2015 Choreographer of the Year by the Professional Skaters Association, Ade said the abundant talents nurtured in north Minneapolis make Ward impossible to pigeonhole.
“Rohene has a gift,” said Ade, who has worked with Ward since 2007. “Choreography is not something he learned to do well. It comes so naturally to him; it comes out of his soul.
“He’s a true artist, but he’s also a great technical coach, a hard worker, a strong trainer, a collaborator. He’s grown into a really well-rounded, really brilliant coach and choreographer.”
The nationals mark Ward’s return to the site of his final major competition. He finished 18th at the 2008 U.S. championships at Xcel before an adoring home crowd, demonstrating the showmanship and artistry that continues to land him roles as a principal performer at ice shows in Minnesota and around the world.
Even as a young skater at Parade Ice Garden, Ward was building skills on the other side of the boards. Page Lipe, who coached Ward for 15 years, said he would create his own routines to Disney music when he was 10 years old. By the time he was 16, he was choreographing programs for several skaters and helping Lipe coach; at the 2008 nationals, he coached junior-level skater Kirsten Olson of Savage while competing himself.
Ward also studied with Minnesota Dance Theatre and Zenon Dance Company as a teen, learning everything from ballet to hip-hop to jazz and modern dance. That enhanced his inherent feel for the intersection of music and movement, laying the groundwork for programs such as “Riverdance.”
Bursting with intricate footwork, the skate was the ideal vehicle for Brown’s charisma. It drew standing ovations and 3.5 million views on YouTube, propelling Brown to the 2014 Sochi Olympics and Ward to a new level of fame. Though much of the attention focused on its artistry, Brown said in 2014 that “Riverdance” also showcased Ward’s ability to create complex, technically demanding programs.
“Every single detail is so important to him,” said Brown, who will not defend his U.S. title this week because of a back injury. “You could miss a hand flick, and he’ll know. We could work on a piece of choreography that’s five seconds long for an entire hour. I’m so lucky to be able to work with him.”
Just as his programs connect with audiences, Ward connects with his skaters. He spends five hours per day on the ice, demonstrating moves to his students and instilling the idea that art and sweat are not mutually exclusive. Tireless in his own training, he is known as an excellent teacher, one who nudges skaters to be adventurous in exploring their own development as artists.
Ward will be back among family, friends and fans this week, in an area where he still performs at least once a year. Before the women’s short program Thursday, he will participate with 80 other skaters in an opening ceremony that showcases the sport’s history, then move to the other side of the boards to coach Bell.
Filling all three of his roles at one event will keep Ward hopping, but he’s not complaining.
“I love doing choreography, and I love working with the kids,” he said. “And I also still love to train and skate. Being able to do all those things, I feel very fortunate and very blessed.”