In Duke dance classes, Natalie Gilbert is not the ballerina. She’s the pink-haired musician perched on an extra cushion on a black piano bench in the glass cube at the front of the Rubenstein Arts Center.

Gilbert has played behind baby grand pianos in dance studios for over 50 years now. She has been at the American Dance Festival, a summer school and nationally recognized performance series in Durham, for 35 years, previously serving as director of musicians.

For Gilbert, her work is an art form — even when it’s not the main focus of the show. And she has no plans to vacate her piano bench.

Figuring it out 

Already picking up tunes by ear at 4-years-old, Gilbert started piano lessons at a young age. “I was learning how to read music while I was learning how to read,” she said. 

She got her first commission when a high school teacher recruited her to play for dance rehearsals for a staging of "West Side Story." Later, at Oberlin College, Gilbert decided to work as a dance accompanist after realizing it paid the same rate of $2.50 per hour as her cafeteria job.

Gilbert had no dance accompanist training; she was just thrown in. But for her, that was exhilarating.

“Part of the fascination for me was figuring it out,” she said.

Figuring it out became a motif. She found her own path, progressing to accompanying at some elite institutions: Columbia University, Princeton University, New York University's Tisch School, the Martha Graham School and the Taylor School, to name a few.

In 1982, American Dance Festival teacher Betty Jones asked Gilbert to play for her classes during ADF’s summer residency at Duke.

“At that time it was quite small,” Gilbert said. “There were a fraction of the number of teachers who currently teach at ADF.”

But the program grew exponentially from there.

With an ever-expanding festival and a desire to collaborate with other dance teachers, Gilbert decided to create a new position for herself: director of musicians.

Initially, she mostly coordinated musicians with different dance classes. Later she remained creative, establishing an annual concert for the musicians at ADF. ADF executive director Jodee Nimerichter considers this ongoing concert a highlight of the summer.

“The musicians’ concert is always quite riveting,” Nimerichter said. “By the end of the show, the audience is on their feet, dancing to the music.” 

Evolving styles

Even after hours in front of the piano, Gilbert finds ways to stay enthusiastic. 

“I always try to change it up,” she said. "When I am listening to the radio, I think ‘Ah, that could work for plies’,” she said.

In the past, ballet pianists often played only classical music, as ballet dancers only performed to classical scores. Now, choreographers don’t limit themselves to 18th-century composers, so Gilbert also got more creative, too. In ballet classes at Duke, she’ll throw in a little "West Side Story" or "Sound of Musical," or a little jazz or some alternative sounds.

For an added challenge, Gilbert likes to improvise in class.

“Sometimes the teacher’s voice will inspire me. Sometimes a particular dancer will inspire me. Sometimes it's a game for me, like ‘Oh, I haven’t played in the F sharp minor yet today. Why don’t I try that?’ I try to find new musical ideas or make my hands go in different patterns than normal,” she said.

And she doesn’t limit herself to striking keys to make music. She recruits her piano’s wooden base and strings, and pedals, playing them with a whack to the wood, a pluck on the strings and a quick release of a pedal.

In spring of 2018, Gilbert brought a loop machine and drum machine to ballet class in the Rubenstein. She used natural sound apps and a Brian Eno app of electronic sounds to pre-record different timbres, textures and soundscapes.” During class, she would supplement them with live voice or piano. Duke sophomore and ballet student Cordelia Hogan remembers hearing crickets and rain from the machines.

“The first time she did, I was kind of like ‘what’s going on?’ But I really liked it. It took me out just going through the motions in ballet class. It made me focus more on the music, and that made me focus more on dance. Check in and not just, ‘Oh, gotta do tendus again’” Hogan said.

Always collaborating

Gilbert thinks arts collaboration is vital, be it with a pianist, a drummer or a set designer.

“I think that it is the best way for arts. Egos get out of the way more. More interesting ideas come up when you are sharing ideas, but you are coming at it from different practices,” she said.

The inspiration Gilbert gains from collaboration is evident in the dance classroom, Nimerichter said.

“The crossover between the worlds of dance and music has been a huge inspiration for her. That dedication, that perseverance to provide music for dancers is inspiring,” she said.

Gilbert said her dream would be to time travel to the 1920s during an era that she described as ideal for arts collaboration.

“If you go back to the Diaghilev idea of bringing contemporary artists of all kinds—painters, sculptors, composers, choreographers, writers—and get them all in the same room talking, that’s when art happens. Like in the ‘20s in Paris. I still believe in that model really strongly,” Gilbert said.

She’s starting to work on a Diaghilev-like partnership here in Durham. Linda Belans, Durham area artist, dancer, and dance critic, invited several artists to collaborate on a piece called “Double Crossed,” asking Gilbert to compose the music. The piece, which is still in its beginning stages, is related to women’s rights and the #MeToo movement. It considers how some people thought women were supposed to sit in a certain way traditionally, with their legs crossed.

“She is always pushing herself and expanding the possibilities,” Nimerichter said of Gilbert. “She is adventurous and willing to try new things. She has curiosity to stretch and push beyond.”