100 Creatives 2013: Katherine Burkwall-Ciscon, Pianist for the Houston Ballet

Connor Walsh performing Mark Morris's Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes, Katherine Burkwall-Ciscon on piano.
Connor Walsh performing Mark Morris's Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes, Katherine Burkwall-Ciscon on piano.
Photo by Amitava Sarkar

Houston Ballet pianist Katherine Burkwall-Ciscon plays well with others. So well, in fact, that one of her master's degrees (yes, she has more than one) is in collaborative arts. (Burkwall-Ciscon has a bachelor's degree in piano performance from Rice University's Shepherd School of Music and a master's degree in piano performance from the University of Houston Moores School of Music.)

The Chicago native was named Principal Pianist for the Houston Ballet in 1995 and as such rehearses and performs with the troupe, balancing the needs and wants of the composer, the conductor, the choreographer and the dancers.

"It's a juggling act," she tells us. "The overriding concern for me as a collaborative artist is making sure I give the dancers what they need, to adapt. As a musician, I have a very wide variety of tempi that I can play. The dancers, because they're affected by gravity pulling them down, have a much more limited choice.

"That's the challenge to me as a musician; I should be able to make every tempo work musically. It's not about being perfect; it's about doing more and more with the music. Right now I'm working on making the music so seamless that you can't tell that I'm adapting to the dancers. It gets to be a more and more subtle process the more I do that."

Members of the Houston Ballet performing Mark Morris's Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes, Katherine Burkwall-Ciscon on piano

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What She Does: "I work with dancers in rehearsal; I learn the music and their choreography so that I can play the tempi that they need accurately. I'm also the soloist for the ballet so that if there is a solo or a major piece of work that needs to be done, I'm the one that gets to do it. And sometimes I work as a bridge between the choreographer and the conductor."

Why She Likes It: "It's a thrill to get to opening night, but the part that I really like is when I get to where I feel like I've got a good sense of what I want to do with the music and a good sense of what the dancers want to do with the dance, and how I'm going to fit that together.

"When I start to feel more comfortable, and less terrified, that's what I like the most. Oddly enough, that's usually around the second weekend when everything has really gelled. I know it can be done; the dancers know it can be done. That's when we enjoy it most. The best performances are usually not on opening night because everyone is nervous and still working things out. By the second weekend, we're a little more relaxed and we start to have a little more fun. We get more creative the second weekend."

What Inspires Her: "With a new ballet, the choreographer is often still working on it when we get into rehearsals. I get the music to where it's good enough to take into rehearsals, but then once I get there, I watch the choreographer and see how he's shaping the movement, and that in turn inspires me to shape the music."

If Not This, Then What: "I refuse to believe that music wouldn't be part of life somehow, even if I lost my hands. There are so many things I could do -- teach, coach, conduct.

"I always thought I would go into law, but I probably would have gotten bored with that very quickly. I probably would go into jewelry. I do that now as a hobby. I've taken a few classes. I don't do any of the soldering or anything like that, but I like the composition."

If Not Here, Then Where: "London. I've been to New York, I've been to Boston. The places where there's a ballet company and an opera and where there are a lot of students, are very limited. I don't particularly want to go to California, so I think London would suit me."

What's Next: "I'm in the orchestra for each [performance left in the season.] "The only thing I'm not in the orchestra for is Swan Lake, and for that I'll be the diplomatic bridge between Stanton and Ermanno [Florio, the Houston Ballet Music Director, who worked with Houston Ballet Artistic Director Stanton Welch] to organize Tchaikovsky's original score. It's going to be a pretty full season."

More Creatives for 2013 (In order of most recently published; click here for the full page). Kristina Koutsoudas, Middle Eastern, Persian and North African folk dance artist Bruce Small, artist Greg Dean, actor Bruce Foster, paper engineer Valentina Kisseleva, painter Michael Wooten, painter Shawn Hamilton, actor Matt Adams, digital artist and independent curator Gilbert Ruiz, artist Dionne Sparkman Noble, choreographer and professor Lee Wright, artist Vic Shuttee, comedy writer and performer Robin Davidson, poet and translator Jessica Wilbanks, essayist and Pushcart Prize winner David DeHoyos, astronaut photographer Sophie Jordan, bestselling book author Jessi Jordan, comic artist, beekeeper and yeti enthusiast Patrick Peters, architect and professor Jamie Kinosian, visual artist Paris F. Jomadiao, mixed-media artist and stop motion animator Shanon Adams, dancer James Glassman, Houstorian historian and artist Lou Vest, photographer Sara Gaston, stage and screen star Rachael Pavlik, a writer mom Ana Villaronga-Roman, Katy Contemporary Arts Museum director Erin Wasmund, actor, singer and dancer Karim Al-Zand, composer Jan Burandt, paper conservator for The Menil Collection Deke Anderson, actor Craig Cohen, hockey fan and host of Houston Matters Mauro Luna, Poe-Inspired photographer Trond Saeverud, Galveston Symphony Orchestra music director and conductor Khrystyna Balushka, paper flower child Christina Carfora, visual artist and world traveler Sara Kumar, artistic director for Shunya Theatre Kiki Maroon, burlesque clown Gin Martini, fashion designer Lacey Crawford, painter and sculptor Homer Starkey, novelist Jenn Fox, mixed media Shohei Iwahama, dancer Erica DelGardo, metalsmith Bob Clark, executive director Houston Family Arts Center Kerrelyn Sparks, bestselling romance author Lindsay Halpin, punk rock mad hatter Drake Simpson, actor Shelby Carter, Playboy model turned photographer David Matranga, actor Crystal Belcher, pole dancer Daniel Kramer, photographer Blue 130, pin-up explosion art Nina Godiwalla, author and TED speaker David Wilhem, light painter Tom Abrahams, author and newscaster Browncoat, pin-up pop artist Kris Becker, Nu-Classical composer and pianist Vincent Fink, science fashion Stephanie Saint Sanchez, Senorita Cinema founder Ned Gayle, thrift store painting defacer Sameera Faridi, fashion designer Greg Ruhe, The Human Puppet Sophia L. Torres, founder and co-artistic director of Psophonia Dance Company Maggie Lasher, dance professor and artistic director Jordan Jaffe, founder of Black Lab Theatre Outspoken Bean, performance poet Barry Moore, architect Josh Montoute, mobile gaming specialist Ty Doran, young actor Gwen Zepeda, Houston's first Poet Laureate Joseph Walsh, principal dancer at Houston Ballet Justin Garcia, artist Buck Ross, dilettante and director of Moores Opera Center Patrick Renner, sculptor of the abstract and the esoteric Tomas Glass, abstract artist and True Blood musician Ashley Stoker, painter, photographer and Tumblr muse Amy Llanes, artistic airector of Rednerrus Feil Dance Company Bevin Bering Dubrowski, executive director at the Houston Center for Photography Lydia Hance, founder and director of Frame Dance Productions Piyali Sen Dasgupta, mixed media artist and nature lover Dean James, New York Times bestselling mystery novelist Nicola Parente, abstract painter and photographer Cheryl Schulke, handmade leather pursemaker Anthony Rathbun, Alternative Lifestyle Photographer David Salinas, computer-less analog photographer Danielle Burns, art curator Alicia DiRago, Whimseybox founder Katia Zavistovski, contemporary art curator Ashley Horn, choreographer, filmmaker Amanda Stevens, scary book author Peter Lucas, film and video curator, music lover and self-described culture-slinger Ana María Otamendi, collaborative pianist and vocal coach Billy D. Washington, comedian Michele Brangwen, choreographer and dancer Kristin Warren, actress and choreographer Kelly Sears, animator and film maker Colton Berry, Bayou City Theatrics' artistic director jhon r. stronks,dance-maker Joe Grisaffi, actor, director, writer, cinematographer


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