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Sunday, August 3, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Behind the Scenes

Ballet company pianist Dianne Chilgren

Seattle Times staff reporter

Who she is: Dianne Chilgren has been Pacific Northwest Ballet's company pianist and piano soloist since 1985. She accompanies the dancers during rehearsals and on stage for performances. Her passion for piano playing has taken her from her hometown of Spokane to the great opera halls of Europe, Carnegie Hall and the studios of New York City Ballet, where she worked with legendary choreographer George Balanchine.

How it all started: Chilgren's mother got her daughter into playing the piano when she was 4 years old. "It was pretty clear from an early age that that was what I was going to do," Chilgren said.

Armed with degrees in music from Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester in New York and from Indiana University, she made her New York recital debut at Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center. Then in the mid-'70s she received a very important phone call.

"I was asked to come audition for the New York City Ballet," Chilgren said. "The director of the ballet, George Balanchine, the 20th-century genius, liked me a lot and we got along very well. That was my introduction to playing for ballet. I was with him for about seven years."

Under Balanchine's artistic direction, Chilgren worked in Geneva for a year and then Zurich for six years. (For a time, Balanchine split his time between New York and Switzerland.) When he died, she moved to London to start an antiques shop with some friends. But ballet companies wouldn't stop calling her.

The Balanchine connection: Chilgren received offers of work from dance companies all over Europe and the U.S., but she settled on PNB. It was a chance to be close to her family in Spokane, and to work with artistic directors Kent Stowell and Francia Russell, both of whom had danced with Balanchine at NYCB. (In the '60s, Russell had served as one of Balanchine's trusted ballet mistresses — responsible for running rehearsals, coaching dancers and maintaining performance standards.)

At PNB, Chilgren rehearses with various choreographers and instructors, but she is the only pianist who works for Russell, who has staged many Balanchine works for the company. "I know the repertoire of Balanchine's ballets and so does she. I always play for her. This kind of collaboration is unusual, that there are two people who are so closely acquainted with everything. So we work together really well and it's fun," Chilgren said.

The pianist has great respect for Russell and Stowell. "PNB is one of the major companies in this country," she said. "They have built this company to be a major player in the world. Where many people have failed, they did not."

A team effort: PNB principal dancer Paul Gibson says having a pianist in the room is essential to the dancing process.

"It gives us that live music that we need to dance. That's our lifeblood, that's what makes us dance," Gibson said. "It's a really good working environment when you're working with Dianne. You're in good hands."

He adds, "We're both collaborators. Dance is really about tempo and a dancer feeling comfortable with the tempo. It's definitely a back-and-forth relationship."

Chilgren says accompanying the dancers during rehearsals takes a lot of experience and skill.

"There's a lot of stopping and starting because you have to watch the floor and the directors. I know the (dance) vocabulary really well and I know what goes with the music. When I watch them, I know if they're not doing it right or if they're not with the music," Chilgren said.

Piano lessons: Chilgren gives lessons at her home on Capitol Hill every Saturday, usually from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

"I love to teach children because they haven't learned any bad habits. I like teaching adults, too, but when you're an adult, it's harder to be corrected. Children just do it, they don't ask you why. But all of it requires a lot of patience," Chilgren said. Chilgren believes everyone should be educated in the arts because it enriches people's lives, she says.

"One of my students told me that when he practices piano in the morning, he learns better at school and feels more organized," she said.

"All of the students I have do extremely well in school. There's so many things to learn and a lot of things that your mind has to process (in playing piano)."

She adds, "I love watching kids learn and seeing people improve. It's that effort. They really push themselves. I always want them to feel like they've accomplished something and they do. When people are studying it, they realize what they can do and they surpass their own expectations."

Regine Labossiere: 206-464-2216 or rlabossiere@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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