What do professional dancers do on their summer vacations? They dance. In the case of Stars of American Ballet — a group of New York City Ballet dancers and friends — they hit the road in a stripped-down, duet-heavy program and perform in smaller cities, like Santa Fe. All the usual trappings of classical ballet are gone. There is no orchestra, corps de ballet, scenery, or immense stage to perform on. There is no hiding. It’s two dancers, some basic lighting, costumes, and a CD player. They’re offering small-town America (and beyond) a shorthand version of the real thing.
For those with easy access to dance meccas like New York, San Francisco, or Houston, who can see major dance companies perform during their winter and spring seasons, this truncation of the experience would be a travesty. For anyone who really loves ballet, however, it’s an unusual opportunity to see dancers like Gonzalo Garcia, a renowned New York City Ballet star, up close and in the flesh. Two such programs appear at the Lensic Performing Arts Center on Wednesday, Aug. 7, and Thursday, Aug. 8.
This is the ninth year that Performance Santa Fe has invited Daniel Ulbricht and his ever-changing band of ballet dancers to the Lensic. Ulbricht has been a dancer at NYCB since 2001. (He started in 1999 at age 16 as a scholarship student.) He founded Stars in 2013. Talking to him, you get the sense that he is not just putting together a dynamic program of ballet to take on the road. He’s trying out a post-dance future for himself as an impresario, and offering a group of his dancer friends a paid trip to enjoy Santa Fe and the other eight cities on their summer tour. By fall, most of the dancers will be back at work at their regular company jobs in New York City.
“I’m 35, healthy, still dancing strong with the company,” he said. “I’ve had a career as a dancer for 20 years, but I’ve been directing Stars for 10. Now, when I have an idea, I can bring it to life. Stars has let me see the industry from many different angles. Santa Fe is our flagship, our original booking, but we are finding more and more ... places looking for dance.” Stars opened its 2019 season in Dubai. This summer, the show also travels to Key West and Boca Raton, Florida; Philadelphia; and Paris. “Our goal is to bring the highest caliber of dancing to the backyards of America.”
Arguably, Stars’ biggest star this summer is Garcia. Originally from Zaragoza, Spain, he moved up the ranks at San Francisco Ballet, starting as a student there in 1995. He joined NYCB as a principal dancer in 2007. Among dozens of leading roles, he has played Apollo in the Balanchine ballet of the same name and danced the title role in the choreographer’s Prodigal Son. He was the Harlequin in Harlequinade, Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the Cavalier in Balanchine’s The Nutcracker. Other credits include ballets by August Bournonville, Peter Martins, Jerome Robbins, and Justin Peck.
In Santa Fe, Garcia will be performing a solo called Elemental Brubeck, with music by Dave Brubeck and choreography by Lar Lubovitch. “It’s an opportunity for Gonzalo to show another side of himself as a dancer,” Ulbricht said. “I look at him as this virtuosic classicist, the Cavalier. Here you get to see his personality. The Brubeck music allows him to let loose.”
Garcia will open the first program with Andantino, a pas de deux with Megan Fairchild, also a principal dancer with NYCB, who recently starred on Broadway in the revival of On the Town. Andantino was choreographed by Jerome Robbins in 1981. The dance is set to music from Tchaikovsky’s lilting Piano Concerto No. 1. “It’s a shade romantic,” Ulbricht said. “Also, there are elements of figure skating. The dancers are side by side, zigzagging around the stage.”
Other stars on the 2019 tour include Teresa Reichlen, Russell Janzen, Sterling Hyltin, Ask la Cour, Adrian Danchig-Waring — all principal dancers from New York City Ballet. Skylar Brandt and Gabe Stone Shayer join the Stars company from American Ballet Theater (ABT). Joseph Gatti is a gold medal-winning freelance dancer based in Florida, Danielle Diniz is a musical theater performer, and Antonina Skobina and Denys Drozdyuk are champion ballroom dancers who appeared together on CBS’s World of Dance. Drozdyuk, in fact, was the first ballroom dancer accepted into the dance program at Juilliard.
The programs continue to be dance smorgasbords, with the NYCB mainstays George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins naturally represented. Other choreographers include Alexei Ratmansky, the resident choreographer of ABT, and Christopher Wheeldon, NYCB’s first resident choreographer and the Tony award-winning director/choreographer for a 2015 Broadway version of the classic musical film, An American in Paris. A pas de deux from the 1959 Bolshoi Ballet piece Spring Waters, by Asaf Messerer (music by Sergei Rachmaninoff) is an opportunity for Brandt and Shayer to show off the Russian ballet training common at ABT.
In a sea of duets, the Stars program does include one trio, Tres Amigos, and one group dance, Who Cares? a 1970 ballet by Balanchine. The latter piece wraps up the program on both evenings. “In the early ’70s, Balanchine was in something of a creative slump,” Ulbricht said, adding that the choreographer began listening to old songs by George Gershwin at around the same time. “The dance that emerged was classic Balanchine genius. He managed to present challenging pure dance and remain true to the Gershwin music.” Ulbricht will dance in the piece, as will la Cour, Reichlen, Fairchild, and Hyltin.
The education of audiences around the country is part of Stars of American Ballet’s mission. So is the education of children. Ulbricht will present pre-performance lectures before each show at the Lensic. During the day, the company will offer master classes at the National Dance Institute to young ballet students. “The three pillars of our company are access, education, and the highest caliber of dancing,” Ulbricht said. “The fact that our touring schedule has grown, that we are now spreading the news to nine cities this year, is unbelievable. I’ve noticed that the audiences in the cities we have been to over the last 10 years seem to have developed. There’s a level of awareness that wasn’t there initially.
“If ballet as an art form is going to survive, this is where we need to be: outside the major cities. The energy of live performance is something you just can’t get on So You Think You Can Dance on TV.” ◀
▼ Stars of American Ballet
▼ Program One at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 7; Program Two at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 8
▼ Lensic Performing Arts Center, 211 W. San Francisco St.
▼ Tickets are $29-$115; 505-988-1234, ticketssantfe.org