South Tahoe born dancer turned composer debuts music in pandemic inspired ballet

Katelyn Welsh /

Shannon Rugani lays out the scene, describing a woman rushing out of her building to console a widow as they brought her husband’s body out. That’s when the she realized how awkward that was. Unbeknownst to the couple, this stranger had watched them through their apartment window. The couple had never pulled the blinds down. It allowed her to know them closely, having watched many chapters through this window into their lives. She watched from the moment they moved into the longtime vacant apartment, to being newlyweds, to the fight with cancer, and now to this moment. They had never met in person—until now.

“I think we all kinda felt that a little bit during the pandemic, especially in big cities,” where Rugani describes everyone was confined to windows, “We all started building relationships with people we aren’t even connected with physically.”

Previously Shannon Roberts, the Tahoe born, former professional dancer says the scene is from a podcast that inspired the The Window, a 25 minute ballet that premieres next week, Nov. 3 in Seattle. But what makes it special to her is she’ll also be debuting as a classical composer, having created the music for the feature.

Former professional dancer and Tahoe native, Shannon Rugani, debuts her work as a classical composer at a ballet in Seattle on Nov. 3, 2023. Provided / Shannon Rugani

Too many crayons

When Rugani went to the drawing board for this project, she initially felt like a kid with too many crayons and a blank piece of paper.

“It just goes to show that female empowerment is an inside job.”

“They kinda don’t know what to draw,” she says, “because it’s, like, too many options.”

She fiddled on the piano for a bit after receiving the story concept from the choreographer. Then, it came like lightening.

“I can’t even explain it,” she says “it just comes to you.”

The task itself is large with 57 instruments to individually compose for. Yet, once the lightening struck, she describes the process as effortless, writing music to the story she visualized in her head.

She describes the creativity as a faucet, “it just flows through you.”

She was also graced with angel winks, accidents that produced a beneficial result. She once accidentally slipped a piano track over the strings where it wasn’t supposed to be. The result was something she couldn’t make up, but matched perfectly.

It took her three months to send Choreographer Danielle Rowe the full 45 minute version. Together they whittled it down to 25 minutes.

Rowe then had about three to four weeks to develop the choreography to music, something she’s currently in the process of doing now until the ballet debuts next week at the McCaw Hall in Seattle.

Rugani was happy to finally have it on paper.

The creation process for her was an obsession, she says, “It plays on repeat in your head, so you can’t even sleep and turn it off.”

An inside job

Rugani hopes her accomplishment creates more opportunities for women composers and in the ballet industry in general.

Debuting as a female composer is bittersweet for her since she’s never danced for a female composer in her 20 years on the floor. She’s a part of a handful of female composers and even fewer living ones, she says.

To acquire this project, she reached out to female choreographer Rowe, who took her up on her pitch. Rugani says nine out 10 men would have said no.

“It just goes to show that female empowerment is an inside job. It’s not like we can go out and kind of make men give us this platform”, she says, “we can create it ourselves with just supporting each other.”

She attributes the male domination to it being an archaic art form that has repeated this pattern over multiple centuries.

“It’s not that we can’t do it,” she says “It’s that we’re not doing it that often and I think that’s maybe a choice that directors can be making differently.” 

Only recently did a New York ballet company hire an in-house female choreagrapher, she says.

With this environment, Rugani says it’s important for successful women in the competitive industry to extend that success to other women, because “there’s enough for us all to succeed.”

She became even more grateful for the all women team after discovering she her pregnancy during the process. A severe form of morning sickness, called hyperemesis gravidarum, slowed the creative process down for her. The all female team, she says, provided “a different kind of understanding.”

Rugani explains there’s something to be said about the energy women bring to music, “you can’t tell that its female or masculine, but you’re just touched by it,” saying it, “hasn’t been heard enough in order for us to really even identify what that would be.”

In the few words she can find, she to describes it as an emotionally deep component, “it’s just different.”

Full circle

As far as Rugani knows, she’s the first ballerina to dip their toes into composing, male or female. It all makes sense to her since composing was her first true love.

She’s been composing since the moment her parents brought a piano home. She was four years old. In fact, she’s using a line she composed at the age of four in an upcoming project. At four, it was before she had any formal training, but she credits her natural ear and very supportive parents for that.

The Mary Poppins of piano teachers, as Rugani tells, eventually did give her that formal training. Most know her as Pam Grant. She taught Rugani all the music theory she needed to compose, and she made it fun.

The young pianist naturally starting moving to the music and that’s when her focus evolved to dance, taking her all the way to Broadway.

Her onstage experience gave her an awareness for incorporating dance friendly characteristics in her music that most composers have no idea about. This includes making sure the counts are clear enough to cue the dancers.

“Those are the things,” she says, “that sometimes waste so much time in ballet rehearsals.”

Her lifelong immersion in the musically driven dance environment rubbed off as well. She writes music that she would dance to.

“If I can feel or envision the movement while composing then I know I’m on the right path,” she says.

Shannon Marie Rugani, Francisco Mugamba in Tomasson’s Nutcracker. Provided / Erik Tomasson

It’s a path that led her back to where she started at four years old, “it just feels right that I’m going back to my roots and composing.”

What’s next for the Tahoe native

Anyone wanting to see The Window will have see it live at the McCaw Hall in Seattle under the program called Love and Loss from Nov. 3-12, but Rugani plans on giving everyone a taste with the music streaming on all platforms shortly after the premiere.

Next year has many things in store for the multi-talented artist. First she’ll be applying everything she’s learned from her past careers into being a mom. Her and husband Robert Rugani Jr. are expecting a baby girl, set to debut mid-January.

Shannon Rugani composed the music to The Window while pregnant. The ballet debuts her work as a classical composer on Nov. 3, 2023. Provided / Shannon Rugani
Rugani at studio

While being a mom, she plans on writing a middle grade children’s book. The female empowered plot is narrated by 18 of her original pop songs.

It’s of course centered around music since Rugani says, “music is like the through lines of my entire life.”

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