Arts & Culture

Meet KC Ballet’s music director Ramona Pansegrau, who fell in love with piano at age 4

Ramona Pansegrau is the music director for Kansas City Ballet.
Ramona Pansegrau is the music director for Kansas City Ballet. Kansas City Ballet

Ramona Pansegrau is a true romantic. Her love of beauty is manifest in all aspects of her life, from her work as music director for the Kansas City Ballet to her “secret garden,” a special refuge for her and swarms of butterflies.

Pansegrau will lead the Kansas City Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in “Carmina Burana” when the ballet presents Adam Hoagland’s ballet version of the powerful Carl Orff classic for six performances beginning Oct. 11 at the Muriel Kauffman Theatre.

Also on the program is “Tulips and Lobster,” baroque music choreographed by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, and “Petal,” Helen Pickett’s ballet set to music by Philip Glass and Thomas Montgomery Newman.

Pansegrau’s path to the Kansas City Ballet has been a journey of highs and lows, but no matter the challenges, her fate as a musician was sealed from the time she was 4 years old.

She grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where her parents had a large company. Every day they would take their little girl with them to work and, to keep her occupied, they also brought along her portable record player.

“It went to work with me every day,” Pansegrau said. “Mom and dad bought me records, and one of them was called ‘The Story of Chopin,’ and I was absolutely infatuated. I fell in love with it and listened to it over and over. At the end, Chopin dies and his heart is put in a box with earth from Poland, and I sobbed. At that point I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a pianist.”

Wanting to move up from records and make music herself, Pansegrau convinced her parents to buy her a piano. A white, 1890s upright.

“I thought it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen,” Pansegrau said. “It lived in my bedroom and I would fall asleep with my arms on the keys and my legs curled up on the piano bench, and my parents would put me back in bed. I fell in love with piano when I was four, and I never changed.“

Pansegrau’s parents continued to encourage her musical interests. While in graduate school at the University of Iowa, she had her fateful encounter with the world of ballet.

“I saw Ballet West on tour perform the full-length ‘Romeo and Juliet,’” she said. “I was stunned by it. I had no idea that music could be seen, that the music actually moves. Then, serendipity, about a week later, a note went around the piano seminar that the dance department needed a pianist for ballet classes. I was like ‘What!’ I didn’t go to sleep for three days and took a mad course in ballet class music, and went and auditioned and was given the position.”

Pansegrau was soon doing work with a summer ballet festival in Aspen, Colorado. It was there she met Bruce Marx, the director of Ballet West.

“He literally made the comment you hear in bad bar scenes, ‘Who are you and where have you been all my life?’” Pansegrau said. “He invited me to be the first company pianist for Boston Ballet, where he became the new director.”

It was at the same time that Pansegrau came to the attention of the renowned choreographer Robert Joffrey. After hearing Pansegrau play, he asked her to play for his company, the Joffrey Ballet.

“They had done a new work to Chopin’s B minor scherzo and I ended up being soloist for it,” Pansegrau said. “And I cried. Robert Joffrey called me from Minnesota and said ‘I’m sending a plane for you. We can’t do this tour without you.’ It felt like a fairy tale. That was my introduction to the wonderful world of ballet with these two very powerful men.”

Pansegrau eventually became music director for Boston Ballet, where she remained for 15 years. Then a traumatic incident changed her life forever.

“I was in an elevator that fell five stories,” she said. “It damaged me a lot. Broken neck, lower vertebrae, back, knees, ankles, everything was compacted. I was very much out of commission for nearly two years. I know why I am on this Earth, and that’s to make music. When I couldn’t do that, it was more devastating than the accident.”

After her lengthy recuperation, Pansegrau was contacted by Tulsa Ballet, which offered her a series of short term contracts. It was an ideal way for Pansegrau to re-enter her musical profession.

“Then I was invited to come to Kansas City,” Pansegrau said. “Jeff Bentley (Kansas City Ballet’s executive director) was in Tulsa touring our building and we ran into each other in the hallway. He remembered meeting me in Aspen and asked me to come here. It was at the point that the Kauffman Center was having its groundbreaking. He told me they were going into this beautiful new facility and they were going to grow and they wanted me to help them do that.”

And so she has. As Pansegrau puts it, “it’s been like a rocket ship.”

Since she’s been here, she has helped take the company to new levels of achievement. “Carmina Burana” is a case in point. It’s a huge work that, when combined with dance, requires a conductor with expertise in both fields.

“There’s nothing else like it in the repertoire,” she said. “I think it’s very accessible to the audience because it has those driving, pulsating rhythms. A lot of people see ‘Carmina’ as very dark. I’ve seen it done in deep burgundies, but this new production is a kinder treatment of fate. The lighting and colors are much more on the lighter spectrum of the color wheel. There are no roasted swans on stage.”

Pansegrau said she’s grateful to live a life devoted to ballet and music. And when she needs to recharge, there’s always nature.

“I love nurturing my lilies,” she said. “I have beautiful lily plants from all over the world — Romanian lilies, Czech lilies and Japanese lilies. Every year my garden is full of beautiful black and yellow swallowtail butterflies. You hear music in nature. I go outside and look at my garden and hear music.”

7:30 p.m. Oct. 11, 12, 18 and 19 and 2 p.m. Oct. 13 and 20. Muriel Kauffman Theatre, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. $34 to $124. 816-931-8993 or www.kcballet.org.

Kansas City Jazz Orchestra

If you have yet to discover the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, “Cotton Club Revisited” might be the concert to see. The brassy ensemble will present its celebration of the storied Harlem nightclub on Oct. 11 at Helzberg Hall.

Featuring music by luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway, the program promises to have you tapping your feet. Wear what you want, but feel free to break out the tux and tails.

8 p.m. Oct. 11. Helzberg Hall, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. $32-$67. tickets.kauffmancenter.org. To learn more about the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, visit www.kcjo.org.

Spire celebrates 10 years

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Spire Chamber Ensemble Andrew Schwartz

The Spire Chamber Ensemble will be celebrating its 10th anniversary with a special concert on Oct. 6 at Trinity Lutheran Church. “This is Spire: Celebrating 10 Years” will feature the sort of musical mix that has made the ensemble a welcome addition to Kansas City’s classical music scene.

Artistic director and founder Ben Spalding will lead Spire in music by Bach, Brahms, Britten, Simon and Garfunkel, The Beatles, Gospel and African-American Spirituals.

3 p.m. Oct. 6. Trinity Lutheran Church, 5601 W. 62nd St., Mission. $25. www.artful.ly/store/events/18494

NAVO — Czech Mates

The NAVO Chamber Orchestra led by Shah Sadikov is made up some fantastic musicians from far-flung areas of the world who have made their homes in the Kansas City area. Its programs are always an intriguing mix of the tried and true and the new.

“Czech Mates” will feature music by the ever-popular Antonin Dvorak, as well as lesser heard music by Dvorak’s son-in-law Josef Suk and the brilliant 20th century composer Bohuslav Martinu.

7:30 p.m. Oct. 12. Atonement Lutheran Church, 9948 Metcalf, Overland Park. Free. Reserve free seats at www.navoarts.com.

You can reach Patrick Neas at patrickneas@kcartsbeat.com and follow his Facebook page, KC Arts Beat, at www.facebook.com/kcartsbeat.

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