In George Balanchine’s 1929 ballet Prodigal Son, a dancer depicts the impetuousness of youth, debauchery, sex, utter failure, and a heartbreaking return to his father. The lineage of dancers in the role includes Serge Lifar, Jerome Robbins, Peter Boal, Damian Woetzel, and Mikhail Baryshnikov. When Daniel Ulbricht, a principal dancer with New York City Ballet, was asked to learn the part in 2008, he said he thought he had died and gone to heaven. Recently he was filmed rehearsing the role with the legendary dancer Edward Villella, who first took on the part in 1960. “I would dance for about two seconds,” Ulbricht said, “and then he would ask, ‘What are you thinking? What’s your story?’” Making the video for the George Balanchine Foundation’s Interpreters Archive with Villella, he said, helped him add new depth, texture, and clarity to his performance.
Ulbricht will be taking to the stage in Santa Fe on Wednesday, Aug. 10, and Thursday, Aug. 11, along with a group of his best friends, all principal dancers with NYCB (with the exception of two recruits from American Ballet Theater). Stars of American Ballet will offer, as it has for the last six summers, two different programs on two successive nights, featuring works that not only demonstrate the breadth of choreography available to those granted permission from the Balanchine Trust but also offer an opportunity for Santa Fe to witness some of the best dancers in ballet up close at the Lensic Performing Arts Center. This year, Ulbricht will be joined by Sterling Hyltin, Teresa Reichlen, Rebecca Krohn, Amar Ramasar, Tyler Angle, Jared Angle, Adrian Danchig-Waring, all from NYCB, and Jeffrey Cirio and Sarah Lane, principal and soloist with American Ballet Theater, respectively. Dances by Balanchine, Robbins, Christopher Wheeldon, Justin Peck, and other choreographers will be performed.
Ulbricht, who is thirty-two, has been developing post-performing career strategies, like teaching and directing, for years, unlike some of his colleagues, who may be dancing somewhat in a state of denial. “Dancers just want to dance,” Ulbricht said. He, on the other hand, reads business and leadership books, has a chamber-sized dance company complete with vision statement, and is the Artistic Advisor to Manhattan Youth Ballet, the associate artistic director of the New York State Summer School for the Arts in Saratoga Springs and a guest instructor at the School of American Ballet and Ballet Academy East. When his mother died of cancer last year, instead of letting grief slow him down, he created Dance Against Cancer, a fundraising performance to benefit the American Cancer Society. An Ulbricht solo dedicated to his mother created for the concert, “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” to the song recorded by Nina Simone, will be offered as part of the Aug. 11 program.
Will Ulbricht eventually take over the leadership of a major ballet company in America? “That’s the million dollar question,” he said. “Not yet.” Stars of American Ballet has been an opportunity for Ulbricht to develop his own style, after observing Peter Martins, ballet master-in-chief of NYCB, lead that company the entire time he has worked there. “I have my own ideas, but Peter has been a mentor, and I wouldn’t be doing Stars of American Ballet without the opportunities he has given me. “
“Directing 10 dancers is a lot different than 95 dancers and an orchestra,” he said. “We’re a team. I can have the best of both worlds — I can choose dances, cast dancers, buy plane tickets, hire musicians, build costumes, and then, on tour, play dad and drive everyone around. I can take care of my dancers, let them know their work matters, and still get on stage and dance myself. I’m still learning,” he said. “It’s like attending business school, arts management school, and a performing arts conservatory all at the same time. Every time I put on a show, it’s like another year of college.”
Ulbricht moved from a childhood of competitive martial arts and gymnastics in St. Petersburg, Florida, into ballet at age eleven, thanks to a sister who was studying the form and her teacher, who invited him to join class wearing shorts, no tights. “I had some smart teachers. They taught me the fun stuff first. All the jumps and turns. I also studied jazz and a little tap, but I fell in love with ballet.” He attended the summer program at the School of American Ballet (NYCB’s school) at fifteen, was invited to attend full time the next school year, and appeared as the Jester in Peter Martins’ Sleeping Beauty at sixteen. He has been with the company every since.
As a shorter dancer — Ulbricht is 5 feet 6 inches tall, although he has admitted in print that the number is rounded up a little — opportunities to play the classic romantic leading roles in ballet have not come his way. “I used to be terrified at the thought of partnering a ballerina,” he said. “Everyone was too tall for me. I’m the short guy, the jester. My parts are flashy and fun, they’re audience favorites, but I’d like to have a full-time partner. I have to travel to other companies every December so that I can have the opportunity to dance those roles, to partner the prima ballerinas.”
Among the roles he has been given at NYCB, Prodigal Son may be the most famous, but Tarantella, a 1964 Balanchine dance for two, is one of his signature roles. “Tarantella is really hard,” he said. “No one likes to do it. It’s unbelievably technical, and you have to play the tambourine. I feel like an ambassador of that piece. I have my Tarantella costume always hanging up at home in case I get a call to replace someone at the last minute. I have a box full of tambourines. Balanchine created the dance in 1964, but it still challenges dancers today. I know there will be dancers who come along who will be more athletic, more technical, than I am, but hopefully, in years to come, people will look at my performance when they need inspiration. Great roles are like the Stanley Cup. You may win it. You may get to hold onto it. But you don’t get to keep it. I relish every moment I have with Tarantella.”
Ulbricht first began teaching seriously 11 years ago, as a guest instructor at the Saratoga Springs Summer School for the Arts. “I stuttered. I was a nervous wreck. But once I started giving a class that I wanted to take, I relaxed. Teaching opened up my craft completely. You learn to break things down. I’m not a taskmaster, and I don’t teach to the front row. I don’t give up on a single kid. When I teach, I’m learning through every child. The class is like a room filled with light bulbs. Some flicker, some beam, some are burned out. I acknowledge everyone in class. I learn every name. Kids matter. I want to create a glow in the room.” ◀