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Behind the Music: Ballet Pianists

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Currently, Kansas City Ballet employs 15 pianists to play for ballet classes for professional dancers in our Company and Second Company rehearsals, as well as, ballet classes for our Academy and Studio students. The ballet also employs the Kansas City Symphony to play for performances at the Kauffman Center, and recently UMKC Conservatory musicians played for one of the pieces on the New Moves programs. As a result of these relationships, Kansas City Ballet is the second largest employer of musicians in the city behind the Kansas City Symphony.

It makes sense when you reason that music is half of the art form of dance. So, it sounds relatively simple to schedule pianists to play for all ballet classes.

It’s not.

Music Director Ramona Pansegrau begins working on her Summer Schedule of pianists in mid-February but their final deadline to give her their availability for scheduling is Mid-March. It’s a beast of a project that literally papers the walls of her office. Last year she had to redo the schedule three times. She has 9 studios to fill at two locations during Kansas City Ballet School’s (KCBS) Summer Intensive and Junior Summer Intensives this summer. Over the summer there is an average of 200 hours a week of live piano music played in the studios.

Pianists range in their level of skill and their area of specialty. Some are better at rhythms and improvisation, some are more skilled with playing for small children or for older classes using more complex musical variations. For example, Jeffrey Ruckman is specializing in Adaptive Dance classes that are geared to children with developmental delays.

The pianists must be ready for guest artists who are hired to teach at the KCBS’s summer intensives. “On occasion they must site read like mad on short notice. But typically I prepare a repertory book for each pianist by the end of May for the coming year because they have to know what to do before the dancers do with tempos, cues, etc.… before the instructor says it,” Pansegrau says. “They have to be ready and able to play any and all of it before the class meets, so that they don’t have to site read.”

They are introducing students to wonderful music and scores. And Pansegrau believes this experience with beautiful music can develop this one-on-one exposure that allows students to feel something new.

All of the pianists have degrees in music. Pansegrau says, “The rule is they can’t play anything for class that can be sung in English. The more live music, the better for dancers. It’s more spontaneous and inspiring. I’m pleased to say the proficiency of our pianists is going way up. For example, Evangelos Spanos tours internationally performing on piano and will be leaving for Greece soon. I’m thrilled to have them all. They are all lovely people who each have a story. It’s a joy watching them discover and explore the music that you only hear in ballet music. I’m on the hunt for more pianists all the time.”

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