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Pianist Celebrates 45 Seasons With Pennsylvania Ballet

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — The Pennsylvania Ballet opens its new season Thursday at the Academy of Music with a performance of The Sleeping Beauty. As the artists prepare, the company is also celebrating a huge milestone for its longest tenured member.

The dancers’ athleticism is remarkable. Their grace is breathtaking. But without one woman, they’d never get off the ground.

“I remember saying to a friend, I remember distinctly saying, I hope I get to play for them someday,” Martha Koeneman recalls. “Here it is, 45 years later, I never left.”

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Malvern’s Martha Koeneman has claimed her spot behind the piano at the PA Ballet for 45 seasons. She’s now the principal pianist, but it has been a long journey.

After graduating from Temple University, she quickly turned a fill-in position into a full-time gig. At first, the job was daunting.

“I went home every night crying for a month,” Koeneman says with a laugh. “Driving down Kelly Drive, just a mess. I thought I’m not going to be able to keep this job. I can’t do it, it’s so hard.”

There was a communication gap that was immediately apparent.

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“I knew virtually nothing,” she says. “I knew plié. And that was about it. I’m not trained as a dancer, so we had to learn each other’s language.”

Accompanying a dancer isn’t just about playing the notes. Martha knows the choreography too. It’s vital in order to make a rehearsal seamless. It took Koeneman a decade to master the skill. Now, it’s second nature.

The first ballet of Koeneman’s 45th season is The Sleeping Beauty, and it is extremely physical. She plays at least six hours of rehearsals a day. And when the dancers rehearse the whole show, she plays 225 pages of music. They often run through the show twice a day.

But over four-plus decades, Koeneman says the job has never felt like work.

She credits the artist director Angel Corella, who she calls brilliant, and the dancers.

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“It’s very fulfilling,” she says. “It never occurred to me to choose anything else.”

Koeneman hasn’t really thought about retirement too much. She teaches on the side and is mentoring the next generation at PA Ballet. For now though, her main focus is this season. Whenever you hear the keyboard during a show, that’s her.

The Sleeping Beauty runs through October 22nd.

For ticket information, click here.

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