Ballet pianist. Those are two words that I thought I would never say again! Between 1987 and 1994, I had two separate jobs as a ballet pianist. The first was at Rockland (NY) Community College during a gap year after my bachelor’s degree. Then, after I got my master’s degree from The Juilliard School, I worked for several years at the Connecticut Conservatory of Dance and Music in New Milford, Connecticut. This school anchored an old industrial building, built with solid brick that was perfectly re-purposed as a performing arts school and apartments.
I was living at home in Orange County, New York, at the time, and the daily drive was pretty long. I was taking classes at New Paltz College (SUNY) towards an elementary school teaching certificate, which I earned, but it didn’t end up generating a job when I needed one. For about a year, I took a pretty full load of classes in the morning, drove to the school in the afternoon, and then returned home fairly late at night. It was about three hours driving total. I really don’t know how I got my homework done, but somehow I made it work!
As for my skill at the craft as a ballet pianist, it wasn’t great. I was successful at figuring out, most of the time, what type of music was appropriate for a particular exercise. I was not a good improviser, and am not much better at that today. Unfortunately, that’s an important skill to have if you want to be highly successful in this work. I also lost some joy in playing the piano when I had to adapt pieces written by great composers into regular eight measure phrases played at an inflexible tempo. The tasteful flexibility of tempo might be the hallmark of a great musician, but it’s a disaster for dancers!
More than 20 years after I last played for a dance class, I saw a group email asking my local organization of piano teachers if anyone would be interested in playing occasionally for auditions and exams at the NWA Conservatory of Classical Ballet. It seemed promising since the pay was good, and the school is just over one mile from my house. Fast forward: I just completed my second year of playing at the school this past week, though these last two days I was battling a nasty fever. Playing for the exams has been a lot of fun and rewarding. The auditions are sometimes a little challenging, but the visiting teachers are always very nice.
The school itself is tucked away in a nondescript area on J Street in SE Bentonville. It is one of the few ballet schools in the U.S. that teaches the Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) curriculum, which is widely known in English speaking countries outside of the U.S. It was founded by Margie Bordovsky and her daughter Mariah to continue the legacy of RAD teaching in Northwest Arkansas established by Peggy Wallis. They present performances throughout the year, but the highlight is The Nutcracker, presented annually at the Arends Arts Center.