Thursday night, final round of the 11th USA International Ballet Competition and the air is electric with onstage rivalry and dance fans’ fervor. The daunting task ahead for Ramona Pansegrau only adds to that.

It’s her final night in the audience. The rest of the performances, she’ll be in the pit — the orchestra pit — leading the Mississippi Symphony Orchestra as they perform live at the Awards Gala Friday night and the Encore Gala Saturday night. That’ll be her spotlight. And, this is the calm before the scramble.

Pansegrau, IBC music director and guest conductor, is at her eighth IBC in Jackson. She’s been the Kansas City Ballet music director for 12 years and conductor for the Orlando Ballet for the last two. She’s been called one of the best ballet pianists in the world.

At what point would she know the program they’ll perform? “Hoping, about 2 a.m. in the morning,” she says with a trill of laughter. “And then, my first rehearsal with dancers and orchestra is at 11 o’clock. So, it’s a very tight schedule.” And that first rehearsal? “A little hairy,” she predicts.

The Awards Gala, climax of the IBC, comes together in a matter of hours, wrapping up two weeks of classical and contemporary ballet competition by junior and senior dancers vying for medals, cash awards, company contracts and scholarships in Jackson.

“The orchestra has learned over 42 pieces. We had to learn everything for the entire competition, because we don’t know who wins.” She’ll know that when the audience does tonight at the Awards Gala. Like the competition itself, the music’s gone through elimination over three rounds.

“We get a ginormous stack and then we just practice everything. It looks kind of terrifying,” trombonist Adam Almeter says. Pieces are whittled down as the competitive field is trimmed. The musicians also get recordings. “It was really actually remarkably organized,” even a little bit easy, minus the amount.

Throughout that process, Pansegrau had to make a few judgment calls, “just playing the odds a bit,” she says. “I had six hours of music, and I had five and a half hours of rehearsal. For example, I did not rehearse ‘Grand Pas Classique,’” she says, just moments after finalist Katherine Barkman and her noncompeting partner Joseph Phillips performed a stellar turn that earned crowd roars and gasps for her pinpoint balance, “That was spectacular. So, I’m thinking, we are probably going to have to do it cold tomorrow.”

Sure enough, it winds up on the program and first thing they tackle at 11 a.m. Friday.

Conducting music for ballet is a distinct specialty. “You don’t put just anybody up there,” says Michael Beattie, MSO president and executive director. “People could get hurt. The tempo is everything to the success of the dancer, especially the tempo agreed upon in rehearsal.”

Pansegrau says, “You have to understand the movement that the dancers are making in order to interpret it musically. And, then, you always try to make the dancers look as beautiful as you can without stretching the music all out of shape. So, there’s a middle ground you try to meet.”

She keeps both eyes on the dancer onstage. ‘I’ve rehearsed with the orchestra. They know me. They’re following my hands. I don’t need to look at them. I’m watching the dancers.”

IBC music director directing MSO orchestra
Ramona Pansegrau, USA IBC music director and guest conductor, will lead the Mississippi Symphony Orchestra at the Awards Gala Friday night. Credit: Photo by Richard Finkelstein

Sometimes, it’s a matter of matching the beat to the feet. “In some cases, you are watching certain body parts,” Pansegrau says. “For example, with the ladies, when they do fouettés, which are fast turns on one leg, I’m watching the heel come down, because when the heel hits the floor, that should be the downbeat of the music.

“There are many things that I know to look for, to watch in order to judge what the dancer needs.” The fact that she’s “absolutely” a big ballet fan is a bonus. “My inner ballet fan is very happy here at the competition.”

Throughout the IBC, dancers perform to recorded music as they compete in classical and contemporary ballet. For the Awards and Encore galas, medal winners will dance classical variations and pas de deux to the MSO’s live music. Contemporary selections still use recorded music.

Brooke Wyatt, MSO development director, first met Pansegrau in 2005, when Wyatt was the IBC artistic administrator. “I was blown away by her knowledge and passion for classical ballet,” Wyatt says. “I’ve seen her take nervous junior medalists who had never danced with an orchestra and coach them through the rehearsal in such an uplifting way.” Plus, MSO musicians enjoy working with her. The result can be a much more collaborative effort, accenting the dancers’ efforts and energizing them and the fans.

“This is last-minute. Everyone does their part to make art out of the final stages of this competition,” Beattie says.

Ramona Pansegrau rehearsing with MSO
USA IBC dancers practice while music director and guest conductor Ramona Pansegrau rehearses with the Mississippi Symphony Orchestra Friday morning. Credit: Photo by Richard Finkelstein

Following up on Wednesday and Thursday rehearsals, Almeter settles in for Friday’s big two-rehearsal day, plus the night’s performance in what’s a marathon day for all involved. “It’s always, ‘Get as much in as you can.’ It always ends up turning out OK. This is my first time doing it, but everyone says that it’s going to be OK.”

“I would describe it as, packing a whole year of music into one weekend,” piccolo player Cheri Waite says. Some, she’s played before, but it’s been eight years since she’s played at an IBC. And, this time, some of the difficult ones, for her part, made the final cut — pieces that need “tons of time” to rehearse by herself. “I prayed a lot. And, I texted a lot of people, ‘Please pray for me.’”

Having the MSO as part of the gala performances wraps players into the excitement of the dance, she says, and this event and “makes the audience just come alive to have a live orchestra there, especially one that’s from their own hometown.”

“Ramona was saying, this is the only live orchestra that plays with any (international ballet) competition in the whole world. I thought that was incredible — here in Jackson, Mississippi!”

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Sherry Lucas is a veteran feature writer in Jackson whose stories spread the word on Mississippi's food, arts, culture and communities. A lifelong Mississippian and University of Mississippi graduate, Lucas has decades of daily newspaper experience. She is now a freelance writer and contributes regularly to Mississippi Today.