Who knew that there was so much behind accompanying ballet dancers? It’s clearly something that Cameron Grant at the New York City Ballet has carefully honed over three decades. All with a great sense of humor…
“There are only two tempos, too fast or too slow,” Cameron Grant, the principal pianist with New York City Ballet, said with a melancholy laugh after rehearsal a few weeks ago. It was the middle of “Nutcracker” season, and that evening he was scheduled to play the celesta, the bell-like keyboard instrument that accompanies Sugarplum’s solo, in the orchestra pit. With his neat appearance and calm demeanor, Mr. Grant is a constant, quiet presence in the theater, someone relied on by dancers, ballet masters and the orchestra. And yet few outside the circle of his colleagues realize how central he and the other company pianists are to the life of the theater.
In his three decades with City Ballet, Mr. Grant, an accomplished pianist with a chamber music career behind him, has learned that an ideal tempo – one that suits the music, the choreography and the skills of any given dancer – is an elusive thing. Too fast, and the choreography goes off the rails. Too slow, and it loses momentum, or worse, deflates like a droopy soufflé. “My job,” he explained, “is to make the middle sound like that’s the way the piece should go.”
This winter, among other things, he’ll be accompanying “Sonatine,” a pas de deux by George Balanchine set to a dreamy piano sonata by Ravel, the musical equivalent of a watercolor by Pissarro. (Balanchine made it in 1975 for Violette Verdy, one of his most musical dancers.) He’s also playing “Kammermusik No. 2,” a prickly, difficult-to-count score by Paul Hindemith, and the lushly romantic Tchaikovsky Second Piano Concerto. “Meat and potatoes,” as he recently put it.
At a rehearsal of “Sonatine” in December, Mr. Grant calmly played through the score as two dancers practiced the steps. Every few bars, he was stopped by the ballet mistress so that she could correct a transition or adjust a shape. Each time, as if reading her mind, he knew exactly where to pick up the next phrase. He seemed to have as firm a grasp of the choreography as the dancers. Here and there, his score was marked with notes in pencil: “Man hops to side,” “Woman enters,” “Man turns.” The final bars of each section were copied and taped to the previous page, to avoid awkward pauses for page turns.