Meet The Woman Who Makes Tchaikovsky Danceable For The Kansas City Ballet

Mar 31, 2017

Peter I. Tchaikovsky wrote three classic ballets, but until now, the Kansas City Ballet has only performed two of them: Swan Lake and The Nutcracker. Besides completing its repertoire of Tchaikovsky ballets, the company's premiere of The Sleeping Beauty is a case study in how setting a ballet to the great composer’s music requires changing it.

"Beauty is a huge ballet," says Ramona Pansegrau, the Kansas City Ballet’s music director and principal conductor. "It has four and a half hours of music if you play all of it, so nobody does these days."

It's been more than a century since Tchaikovsky and original choreographer Marius Petipa completed the ballet in Russia in 1889.

"When it was first put out, the Royal Court had nothing else to do, so they watched the Prologue, then they went and had lunch. Then they watched Act One and Act Two, had supper, and came back for Act Three," she says with a laugh.

Pansegrau has spent 14 months cutting the score down to two hours and 28 minutes for this weekend's premiere in Kansas City.

"Tchaikovsky is notorious for repeating things," she explains. "If he liked something once, he usually wrote it three times. When you decide you’re not going to play (a section) all three times, you have to figure out which one is the best one to lose, and there are different ways to cut so the music is seamless." 

That makes most scores unique, she says.

But her challenge goes beyond getting it to a length manageable for today's audiences. The music must also work with choreography by the Kansas City Ballet’s artistic director, Devon Carney.

In a score from her days as solo pianist for the Boston Ballet, three decades ago, Ramona Pansegrau finds a note about the lead dancer: Devon Carney, now artistic director of the Kansas City Ballet.
Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3

Fortunately, the two go way back to their days together at the Boston Ballet, where Pansegrau was principal pianist and Carney was principal dancer. That was 30 years ago; their temporarily divergent careers took Pansegrau to Oklahoma, where she was music director for the Tulsa Ballet, and Carney to Ohio, where he premiered his version of The Sleeping Beauty when he was associate director of the Cincinnati Ballet.

Pansegrau has now been with the Kansas City Ballet for eleven years; Carney arrived four years ago.

Pansegrau's note about Devon Carney when he was dancing the lead in the Boston Ballet's production of 'The Sleeping Beauty.'
Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3

It's his version of The Sleeping Beauty from Cincinnati that the Kansas City Ballet will be performing — "with a few spiffy changes that I made," Pansegrau says.

"I’ve punched it up a bit."

Conducting musicians for dancers

As Carney leads dancers through rehearsals, Pansegrau plays piano for as long as nine hours a day. She's not just accompanying the rehearsal, though. She's watching how Carney's choreography works with her score, preparing for her ultimate role in the production: conducting the Kansas City Symphony.

"Especially in Tchaikovsky ballets, what is printed on the page is not necessarily how it sounds, so you have to interpret," Pansegrau explains.

For example, a climactic moment in Act One is one of ballet's most difficult pieces, the "Rose Adagio," when the Princess Aurora balances on her toes while four gentlemen suitors approach her, one at a time, each presenting her with a rose.

"Those balances can be any length of time, depending on how long she holds," Pansegrau says. "You have to break down the music into smaller increments and stretch out each beat."

The musicians in the Symphony have three weeks to learn their parts before just a couple of days' rehearsal with Pansegrau. So she sends them a cheat sheet explaining what to watch out for, but she also knows they need to be able to trust her implicitly.

"You need to know what you’re doing if you’re standing in front of them, otherwise it is not fair," she says. "So the fact that I’m in the studio with the dancers, that I’ve gone through the score with a fine-tooth comb and I know what’s on the pages, I feel then that I have the right to stand in in front of them and ask them the things we need to have for ballet and why."

Ramona Pansegrau, the Kansas City Ballet's music director and principal conductor, at a rehearsal of 'Carmina Burana' with the Kansas City Symphony in 2012.
Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3

Testifying to that what and why are dozens of thick brown folders lining the shelves behind Pensegrau's desk at the Bolender Center. She has scored nearly all of the company's performances since her arrival. She guesses that could be as many as sixty.

Next up is Val Caniparoli's The Lottery, based on Shirley Jackson's classic horror short story, one of three pieces the ballet performs in May.

But her favorite piece of music is still that passage from The Sleeping Beauty.

"I love 'Rose Adagio.' I really do," she says. "When you get to that final fourth balance, and if she sticks that balance, it just fills your heart. The music is so huge and then the resolution of that chord is so amazing. That is a moment you just live for."

And it’s only in Act One. There’s so much more Tchaikovsky to go.

The Sleeping Beauty, March 31-April 9 at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, 1601 Broadway, Kansas City, Missouri, 64108.

C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.