As the principal pianist for the ballet, Martha Koeneman has watched generations of dancers come and go from the seat of her piano bench. While the average length of a dancer's career in the United States is around 15 years, Koeneman, 67, has worked in the field three times as long.
"I'm just enormously fortunate. When you're working with young people, you think you're the same age as they are," she said. "I'm probably old enough to be their mothers, at least, or probably their grandmothers at this point, but I feel the same as I ever did."
Koeneman auditioned for the ballet the summer after she obtained her degree in piano performance from Temple University.
Like many piano players, Koeneman had trained to accompany instrumentalists or vocalists. She knew little about the ballet or how to play for its dancers.
"It's a really strange sensation to accompany something you can't hear. In the beginning, you watch their feet … but that's actually not the best place to look. You have to read their body language and learn to read that peripherally," she said. "You almost have to feel that you're dancing with them."
At a recent rehearsal for the ballet's performance of Jewels, which opens Thursday, Koeneman's feet bounced rhythmically on the piano's pedals as she played for a male dancer dressed in a Spider-Man T-shirt and teal leggings. She balanced his needs with the laws of gravity to determine the correct tempo to play for his leaps and movements.
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Koeneman began playing the piano at age 4. Her family always had a piano in their St. Louis home, and Koeneman started playing after her family went to dinner one night and she heard "The Yellow Rose of Texas" being played at the restaurant.
"I guess I liked it a lot, because my mother said when I got home, I played it on the piano with two hands," she said. "So they hauled me off to lessons."
"I was mesmerized by the ballet," Koeneman said. "I remember thinking it would be wonderful to play for the ballet someday."
After 45 years, Koenman has lost count of how many ballets she's played, but she knows she's done "thousands" of Nutcracker performances alone. Her favorites to play are Stravinsky ballets. The second movement of Jewels, which is called "Rubies," is set to Stravinsky.
"I love the intricacy of his creative imagination, and his harmonic language is like no other," she said. "I love music because it is the truest expression of life that I can imagine."
Koeneman said she still gets butterflies on every opening night, though over time she has learned to keep her mind on the music and off the audience to keep her centered.
"This sounds kind of reclusive, but it works. I say to myself: 'Well, it's nice they all came, but I'm busy,'" she said.