Zara Baroyan would love to play piano outside of the box, read intricate sheet music and improvise songs, but her job just doesn’t allow it.
As Sarasota Ballet’s company pianist, Baroyan must play what she calls “a square count,” meaning music that squares off every eight, 16 or 32 measures — simple, unromantic melodies.
“Ballet dancers don’t need fancy music for class,” Baroyan says. “They need simple songs they can match their rhythm to.”
Baroyan has played the piano for the Sarasota Ballet since 2004. She works without sheet music, paying attention to the class combinations and drawing energy from the dancers. Seated with her back to the class, she watches the dancers through a mirror, stopping every time the teacher stops and restarting wherever the teacher picks back up.
Every teacher’s count is a little bit different, and the same goes for the dancers.
“You have to know who you are working with, their personalities,” Baroyan says. “You have to be a mind reader. Teachers can do unexpected things, and you have to be prepared to change.”
She says she has a tendency to slow down or speed up if she notices that the dancers have fallen off beat.
But if Artistic Director Iain Webb is running the class, he’ll tell Baroyan to keep the tempo steady regardless of who is off-step.
“Sometimes, Iain says, ‘Don’t play for them. They have to dance for you. They have to feed into your music,’” Baroyan says. “It’s hard to play against them! I always want to help them.”
An Armenia native, Baroyan, 44, grew up in the former Soviet Union, where she received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music studies and a Ph.D. in piano studies.
She came in 1999 to the United Sates after receiving an invitation from Troika Entertainment to play piano and keyboard for the U.S. National Tour of “Music of the Night,” featuring the ballads of “Phantom of the Opera” composer Andrew Lloyd Webber.
The tour had her hopping from big city to big city for 10 months straight, which was a whirlwind experience for Baroyan, who had spent 15 years as the principal piano accompanist at the Armenian State Opera and Ballet Theatre.
Things got even wilder when Baroyan signed on as the keyboard player for the L.E. Barnes Circus’ national tour.
The tour lasted only five months, but, for Baroyan, it felt like a lifetime.
“I’m not a circus person,” she says. “It’s a different kind of life. Your sprit has to be into it, and I couldn’t survive trailer life.”
After a brief stint in New York City, where she played auditions for an off-Broadway production company and worked as an accompanist for an Armenian chorus, Baroyan moved in 2003 to Florida, where she received another circus job offer from a Sarasota-based troupe.
The company, however, never got off the ground, and Baroyan, who was living in Arcadia at the time with her husband and then-8-year-old daughter, was tired of traveling. When she learned there was an opening for an accompanist at the Sarasota Ballet, she auditioned right away and was hired on the spot.
“I love everything about working for the ballet,” Baroyan says. “What I see every day in class is like the frame around a picture. When I watch the final show, I get comfort in my spirit that I’m doing the right job. I see the big picture.”
Baroyan's Favorite Composers
Johann Sebastian Bach
“Bach is the top of everything. In a couple of measures you can get everything from his music. I don’t even know how he was able to write all that music. In my opinion, Bach is God.”
“His emotions are very close to my emotions.”
Contact Heidi Kurpiela at [email protected].