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|
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.
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"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."
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