Ramona Pansegrau is a musician whose life has been shaped by dance. This marks Pansegrau's seventh season as both the music director and the conductor for the Kansas City Ballet. And, after three decades of working with dancers, she says creating wonderful moments on stage still gives her a thrill.
Preparations are crucial
Sitting at a grand piano in a practice room at the Todd Bolender Center for Dance and Creativity, Pansegrau plays Leonard Bernstein's complex, mixed-meter rhythm at the piano as two dancers work step by step through a pas de deux for Jerome Robbins' Fancy Free. Her gaze is intent and her auburn hair precisely pinned as she concentrates on the choreography.
"When I am a rehearsal I am thinking on many different levels," Pansegrau says. "I am thinking as a pianist-accompanist sitting there, playing the score. But I am also thinking about the orchestra and conducting it and and preparations are crucial.
"If somebody needs to jump immediately into a movement and I have to catch them in the air. Is there something before that so that I can give the orchestra preparation? I don't like to give orchestras whiplash. There's always something before the step that I can signal the orchestra so that they'll know what the tempo needs to be and that we're all together."
Ramona is there "from the very beginning"
Dancer Rachel Coats is in her twelfth season with the Kansas City Ballet. Coats has been working with Pansegrau most of her career.
"It really is a special arrangement that we have here. I think it's fairly unusual that the music director is also the conductor," Coats says. "And so luckily we get to work with Ramona every day, day in and day out.
"She plays class for us, she plays rehearsal, and then when it is time to go into the theater, she's there, (she's) in front of us, down in the pit, smiling up at us, and keeping tempos. And so it really is a kind of a pretty sensitive and intimate relationship that we have with her. She really sees us from the very beginning all the way to the final bows of a piece."
Timing is "life or death for the dancer"
Pansegrau was already an accomplished pianist when she says she discovered ballet one weekend in Iowa. She stepped in for an injured pianist touring with the Joffrey Ballet. That set the course for a career that would take her to Boston Ballet, and Tulsa Ballet, all before arriving in Kansas City.
Seconds can be critical for the dancers onstage, so, in an instant, Pansegrau can speed up the tempos or slow them down.
"In a dancer world when you are dealing with the body and gravity faster and slower is a much faster increment in time," Pansegrau says. "And every increment then in that smaller unit becomes crucial. So the orchestra has to learn that as well. If I suddenly pull back the tempo it's not a major retard. It can be this much, but it's life or death for the dancer."
Knowing the dancers
"With Ramona it's great because she knows us all very well. She knows who can turn, who jumps high," says Ryan Jolicoeur-Nye, who's in his second season with the company. He says he appreciates Pansegrau's sensitivity to the needs of each, individual performer.
"So she knows on stage if I'm dancing she can look up and say, 'Well, Ryan looks kind of tired today let me speed through this part a little bit and give him a little bit of a break,' or, 'He fell out of that pirouette so let me cut to the end right now so it will look like he finished exactly how he wanted to finish,'" Jolicoeur-Nye says. "Having her know us makes also our experience on stage a lot more comfortable."
Pansegrau says it is a balance to make dancers feel comfortable with the tempo and maintain the musical integrity of a score. The challenge is to bring it all off seamlessly before an audience.
Trust and flexibility
"I always try to let the dancers know that I am right there for them and that it will all be fine," says Pansegrau. "That rapport that we have obviously takes a little while to develop and it's the same way with the orchestra. They have to trust me that when I am giving them a big downbeat and maybe it is just a hair earlier than they expected, that I do mean it and that also took a little while. But at this point now they turn on a dime which is wonderful.
"And so we are able to make just fantastic, wonderful moments on stage happen because of that. If one of us was a recording, would you want to go? Probably not. So it's that collaboration between the two art forms that makes what I do so special and so rewarding."
This flexibility opens the door to creativity for the dancers.
"Sometimes I'll feel inspired and really energetic and if I feel that the audience is really into the performance, then I might change a step and do a more fancy trick then what I did the night before," Jolicoeur-Nye says. "And I might give Ramona a glance to say kind of 'Be ready cause this is a little bit different.'"
An icon in the world of ballet
Devon Carney is the new Artistic Director for the Kansas City Ballet, but his working relationship with Pansegrau began some 30 years ago at the Boston Ballet when he was a dancer and she was a musician. Carney describes having a chance to work with Pansegrau again as a "full circle event."
"Ramona is a gem and a true icon in the music field, especially in the ballet world," Carney says. "It's a calling that's unique, to be a ballet conductor.
"And I think that Kansas City, truly, as well as Kansas City Ballet, of course, we are so fortunate t have someone like Ramona here dedicating her life and talents to our dancers to our company and to our city."
Creating moments that an audience will remember
For a musician who has danced only with her fingers on the keyboard, Pansegrau says the rewards of working with ballet dancers are simple.
"There's nothing like that moment of anticipation when somebody jumps and hangs in the air or when a dancer is on perfect balance and can hold it for an extra beat," says Pansegrau. "Those are the things I love to help happen and the audience wants that 'ah' moment. And that's when they get them is when we have live music.
"So here at Kansas City Ballet, the commitment has been difficult at times. It's expensive. But the commitment is there. We are very lucky and very fortunate and I am very proud to be a part of it."
According to Pansegrau, "music is a breathing art form and so is dance" and she expects the two will remain intermingled in her life for years to come.
Ramona Pansegrau conducts the Kansas City Symphony for the Kansas City Ballet's fall production, running through October 20 at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, 1601 Broadway, Kansas City, Mo. 816-931-2232.