A former piano student carves out a unique life as a dance accompanist or is it “Freeway Gypsy?”
For Becca Wong, her career path seemed predestined. Having had a firmly rooted music and dance background in her native Hong Kong prior to her arrival in California, she was at least predisposed to a future vocation celebrating the arts.
Her enrollment in the Royal Academy of Dance, allied to the British school system, added to piano studies at the Royal School of Music created a solid foundation. But subsequent private lessons taken here in Fresno from 1989 – 1993 (age 11-15), followed by college level classes, bolstered the ingredients of her life’s work.
Ultimately, Becca received a B.A. in Music with a piano emphasis at the California Baptist University and continued to graduate school at Claremont University. There, she earned her Master’s in Piano Performance with an Interdisciplinary in Dance Music.
I was privileged to have been Becca’s piano teacher during her adolescent years before she wound her way to Southern California for advanced musical studies interspersed with dance classes. The dualism of her artistic pursuits accompanied a journey that brought her to the shining ambiance of the ballet studio.
You might say that her career peaked when she found herself in a universe of renowned dancers at the University of California, Irvine where the National Choreographer’s Initiative rented a yearly space.
Becca provided details:
“NCI handpicks 16 dancers, 8 female, 8 male from companies all over the country and they come together for 3 weeks, coordinating with 4 well-known choreographers. There’s one showing at the end of the 3 weeks.
“We have dancers from Richmond Ballet, Houston Ballet, Hubbard Street, Ballet Met, Boston Ballet…just to name a few, and they’re all exceptional! It’s one of the many events out of the year that I look forward to playing for.”
Becca’s pianistic skills were on display at a NCI rehearsal, though she was not seen in the footage.
She described her creative process:
“Notice the Brahms waltzes where there was some ‘altering’ involved to make it work for ballet. Ex: Brahms Ab Waltz, the B section only has 6 measures in the phrase, I had to magically add 2 measures to make it 8 counts.”
This is where Becca stands out from a crowd of casual dance accompanists who might improvise their way through a class without giving it a second thought.
Her background alone steeped in music and dance led naturally to the limelight of ballet accompanying.
“When I studied piano with you,” she said, “I recall that we played through a few Kuhlau Sonatinas, Clementi Sonatinas, Mozart Sonata C Major; a Burgmuller Book (I use a few for ballet), some Chopin Waltzes, and the Schubert Impromptus. (All 4 of them)
“And yes, I always had a particular sensitivity to Classical music. My mom claimed it was her doing. I would kick her belly in rhythm to the beat when she went to concerts. And when I lived in Hong Kong (up to age 9), I grew up going to recitals, musicals, ballets, etc.”
And what about her specific dance training that followed upon arrival in California?
“In Fresno, most of my dance exposure was through Color Guard. I was very fortunate to have had well-rounded teachers who were knowledgeable in all genres of dance. We had regular training in Ballet, Modern, and Jazz and there was always ‘live’ music since we were dancing to the marching band with its pit percussion and drum line. Hearing a tempo and poly-rhythms while dancing became second nature. In the process we all developed great sensitivity to meter, rhythm, and phrasing.”
Becca eventually took dance classes at Riverside Community College, (RCC) where she bonded with the program and faculty. She described her teachers as a part of a “second family”
I was curious about when she sought a position as a dance musician?
“I didn’t become interested in the profession until I was actually in it,” she insisted. Originally, I wanted to play the piano in musical productions because I loved Broadway. I could sing and dance, but I couldn’t act to save my life. In every audition, I would choke during the reading portion, so I knew the only way I would be able to be a part of any production was to play the piano in the pit.
“At my Senior Recital in college, the dance faculty from Riverside Community College (RCC) came to support me. As they were walking out, one of them said, ‘We want you to be our dance accompanist. Think about it and come talk to us when our winter concert is over.’
“I probably only thought about it for 5 seconds. Sure, why not? It’s a job, in music! That beats working at a bank from 9-5.”
Becca would wind her way to Southern California in pursuit of further job opportunities.
“I realized most of the dance ‘happenings’ were in Los Angeles and Orange County. In some ways I was heading for a life as a ‘Freeway gypsy.’”
Traveling between studios would pose a challenge, with gas prices and all.
“Los Angeles was more commercial dance, where Orange County had more ballet training schools and Universities.
“After RCC, I got a job playing at Pomona College, which was a part of the Claremont Colleges where I was attending grad school. With RCC’s recommendation, I contacted Orange Coast College, and explained that I was pursuing a career in dance accompaniment. As luck would have it, there was one class available. One class turned to two, three, and substitute teachers took down my name, and word got out that I could play for ballet. Within a year of being in Orange County, I went from playing at one school to four schools!”
2012 happened to be very special! It marked Becca Wong’s 10-year anniversary as a Dance Musician!”
When I asked Becca about the the precise title of her dream profession, she curiously replied that there was no official term. “It ranges from simply ‘Accompanist’ to ‘Dance Musician,’ ‘Dance Accompanist,’ or just ‘Musician.’”
Recently, however, she adopted a new label that she loves. It’s “repetiteur” (In opera, répétiteur is the name given to the person responsible for coaching singers and playing the piano for music and production rehearsals. In dance, the responsibilities involve teaching steps and more)
Becca’s freelance travels have taken her to many sterling venues, though budget cuts have taken a toll.
Still her roster of encounters with the cream of the ballet universe continues to grow.
“I’ve had amazing opportunities working with the American Ballet Theater, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Mark Morris Dance Group, Hubbard Street Dance, and have played for master classes of some current big names in the ballet world like Desmond Richardson (Alvin Ailey, Complexions), Sascha Radetsky (ABT, Film: Center Stage), and Amanda McKerrow (ABT) to name a few. Twelve years ago, watching PBS in Fresno, I’d never have guessed I would be HERE right now!”
Currently, she’s working at Chapman University and Orange County High School of the Arts, while also taking assignments at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts.
“I play for a lot of master classes and company classes when these pull into town. And while I have a ‘staff’ position, I look at my scheduling and bookings like a freelancer.” Freeway gypsy again comes to mind as an ample description of Becca’s life that’s often on the road.
I wondered about the ill-maintained pianos that sometimes turn up in the rough and tumble turf of dance venues. About these, Becca waxed philosophical:
“Most of the instruments are hand-me-downs. Because of fluctuations in temperature and moisture (being close to the ocean), and the fact that the piano is on a sprung floor in a dance studio, the pianos NEVER stay tuned. EVER. But you work with what you’re given.”
In the spirit of a true repetiteur she has to make snap accommodations as necessary. That’s the nature of her profession.
Finally, how on earth does a dance musician manage a diverse repertoire of pieces that might need alteration and trimming to conform with a choreographer’s requirements?
Becca rises to the occasion with her remarkable organizing skills:
“I have about 230 pieces of music for ballet technique class on top of the musical theater collection I’ve stored in my iPad.
“A spread sheet lists all the classes I play for with pieces sorted as -Plié-Duple Slow-Duple Moderate-Duple Fast-Frappe-Triple Slow-Triple Mod-Triple Fast-Ronds de Jambe…the list goes on and includes Mazurka/Polonaise pluseven more….
“Every time I play a piece, I mark it for that day so I don’t play it again until all the pieces in the section have been played. Therefore, a specific piece will finally repeat itself in 4-6 weeks. In this way, I don’t bore the dancers and teachers by rehashing the same compositions over and over again.”
Being resourceful, Becca has digitized all her music to keep pace with it.
“I decided early on that it would be best to transcribe my ballet music into the Finale program. In this way I can cut measures and edit them to make them ‘kosher’ for ballet. I also eliminated page turns if possible, since most pieces were 16-32 measures long. If there were page turns, I made sure the last bar in the page had a free hand to turn. I did this to all my ballet music in the course of 3 years, saving every piece of music on Finale, as PDF files. I had hoped that Apple would eventually come up with a way to store all my music, and thankfully, that’s where the miraculous iPad came in.”
With her peak devotion to dance accompanying, brought by fate to be her life’s passion, Becca sings its praises.
“I love what I do and I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
About ballet, she avows a cherished place in her heart.
“It’s a discipline that other genres don’t have. All pettiness and drama are left at the door. In ballet, you’re there to dance, to respect the art, and the people who are in it. Above all, there’s a reverence for the teacher, the pianist, and the dancers.”
Becca Wong is pictured with Vladimir Malakhov
“Vladimir Malakhov (born 1968 in Kryvyi Rih, Ukraine), was a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre. In 2004 he became the artistic director and first soloist of the Staatsballett Berlin (Berlin State Ballet) which was newly formed from the ballets of the three public opera houses.
“He began his dance training at the age of four at a small ballet school in that region and remained there until continuing his training at the school of the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow. From age ten on, he was under the tutelage of Peter Pestov and upon graduation in 1986 joined the Moscow Classical Ballet as that company’s youngest principal dancer.
“In 1992, Malakhov joined the Vienna State Opera Ballet as a principal artist and the National Ballet of Canada in 1994. In the spring of 1995 he had his debut with the American Ballet Theatre at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. Since that time, he has remained a principal dancer with ABT and has continued to dance principal roles in Vienna as well as the renowned Stuttgart Ballet. Malakhov also appeared quite often as a guest in Berlin where he has recently become Artistic director. His repertory encompasses a wide range of styles from classical ballets to the works of today’s contemporary choreographers.
“Critically acclaimed globally for his artistic lyricism, he has won prestigious awards in his field from competitions in Varna, Moscow and Paris.”