Very rarely do we get the opportunity to see ballet stars like Stella Abrera, Rebecca Krohn, Robert Fairchild and Sascha Radetsky on the same stage. Thanks to Daniel Ulbricht and his company, Stars of American Ballet, the Dallas dance community will get its chance to see these dynamic dancers perform on Tuesday, Aug. 20, at the Eisemann Center for Performing Arts.
The evening’s program includes the pas de deux from George Balanchine’s Rubies and Stars & Stripes, Servy Gallardo’s Tango, Christopher Wheeldon’s Liturgy, Antony Tudor’s The Leaves are Fading and Jerome Robbins’ beloved production of Fancy Free. In addition to the performance Ulbricht and Radetsky will be conducting a series of master classes for students in the area.
Originally from St. Petersburg, Fla., Daniel Ulbricht began his dance training at the age of 11 at the Judith Lee Johnson Studio of Dance, studying with Lenny Holmes. He was invited to continue his training at the School of American Ballet in 1999 and joined the corps de ballet of the New York City Ballet in 2001. He was promoted to the rank of principal dancer in 2007. Ulbricht is also the artistic advisor to the Manhattan Youth Ballet, the associate artistic director of the New York State Summer School for the Arts in Saratoga Springs and also conducts workshops and master classes around the country.
TheaterJones asks Daniel Ulbricht about his motivation for starting Stars of American Ballet, the challenges of working with so many different personalities and how the male role in ballet has evolved over the last several decades.
TheaterJones: What motivated you to start Stars of American Ballet?
Daniel Ulbricht: I started this group about five years ago. My mother was diagnosed with cancer. Because of her treatments, she couldn’t make it up or have the energy to so, I decided to bring the show to her. I rounded up six dancers mostly from New York City Ballet and a dancer from Houston Ballet and brought the show to her. I said to myself that I would only do this once, but I fell in love with the entire process. It was truly a learning experience. The responsibilities that come with this kind of opportunity are endless but I really thrived on the challenge. So, the following year, I brought another show home to my mom and added a new city, Buffalo. Since then I have been blessed to bring shows to St. Petersburg, Fla; Buffalo, N.Y.; Pittsburgh; Santa Fe; Ulaan Baator, Mongolia; and now Dallas. In November, we go to Mobile, Ala; Jackson, Miss; and Longview, Texas.
The mission of the show is to provide education and accessibility to the art form. I have found that most people are hesitant for two reasons when it comes to ballet. Either they don’t know anything [and/or] are afraid of it or it is too expensive. So, along with the performance we also offer master classes as well as a pre-performance talks about the program. The U.S. is such a vast country, but you have to live in a big metropolitan area to have an opportunity to see these amazing dancers and timeless masterpieces. Our goal is to bring it to your front door.
How does it differ from other ballet companies?
In terms of differences, there are a few. Certainly, we aren’t bringing the same scale of what most companies can present. We can’t mount the entire production of a full-length ballet like Swan Lake with eight people. I also don’t want the programming or dancers to be exclusive to one particular company like New York City Ballet or American Ballet Theatre. In other words, these companies tend to only perform the repertory that is in their own collection. With Stars of American Ballet we are able to include dancers and repertory from various companies which allows us the opportunity to put together a balanced and exciting program. The idea is to continue to bring out other companies around the country as well as collaborate with other regional companies to promote or give a platform for them in their own community. Most other companies have a one mission mind for their own company. We are more concerned about educating and inspiring the next generation to appreciate the arts.
What challenges have you encountered working with so many different personalities?
Thankfully, I haven’t run into too many. I run more into scheduling issues with various dancers than personality issues. Sometimes, I will ask a dancer to suggest what they’d like to perform and another dancer may have already selected that so I have to figure out who does what role and keep the program balanced. Regarding the dancers, I spend as much time scrutinizing the dancers off stage as I do on stage. Not only are these dancers phenomenal artists, they are also the kind of people who will help me inspire students, meet with the audience, take photos, sign posters, etc. You need great artists and people to make a lasting impression. I have been tremendously successful in that respect, but I always try to do my homework to get the best of both worlds.
How did you go about selecting the pieces we will be seeing?
The program is always crucial to the show. The hard part of directing is that you are in charge of creating the audience’s experience. So, I try to think about it as a menu. Not everyone likes the same dish. You need to have something that has sweet for one, salty for another and gluten free. You get the picture. The tough thing with eight people is how to close a program. Most of the dancers will dance twice so you also get to see a different element in their dancing which is fascinating to watch. So, finding a group or ensemble piece is difficult. But after doing some homework I found Jerome Robbins’ Fancy Free to close. I believe it fulfills our artistry and athleticism undertone for the show. It is very American and it is a true masterpiece that many people don’t get the opportunity to see.
What is it like to be a part of one of America’s oldest and most prestigious ballet companies?
It is truly a blessing to be a part of a company like New York City Ballet. I have been a dancer there for 13 years and it has been one of the most amazing rides I have ever been on. The repertory, the music and the talent is just so vast that I am in awe every day. Also, I have learned so much from my director, Peter Martins. He runs a great organization. He knows how to program. The benefit is that I have been able to learn a lot as a dancer there. Peter got his start in directing while still dancing, like me. So, it has been nice to have his blessing and encouragement to explore that. We have talked about it a few times. This country is so big that you need to do whatever you can to reach out to new audiences.
How has the male role in ballet evolved over the last several decades?
The male role in dance is getting a second wind now. The first wave came with the likes of Edward Villella, Peter Martins and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Not to say that generation has dwindled, but I feel this crop now wants to really push the dance world forward. I think this generation has to fight harder to show the artistry and athleticism of dance though. I think every genre in art has someone who can champion their art form. I feel that there is a team now who is trying to do that. That is what I am aiming to do. For today though, my goal is to show how tough dance is. That dance can really compete with football, baseball, etc. Strength, balance, control, and speed all of those fields share, but musicality and artistry, that is what makes the dance world tough. Who said you have to smile and play football to music?
How do the male roles in works by newer choreographers like Christopher Wheeldon differ from those of their predecessors such as Balanchine?
Great question. I feel the male role is sort of the same in the partnering sense. Christopher is taking the shapes further, pushing the boundaries where Balanchine may have been a little more subtle. The beauty of Balanchine’s work is that you just have to dance them. You don’t have to sell what he has crafted so beautifully. That is the mastery of course. But Wheeldon has really done wonders in the fact that he takes his audience somewhere when you watch his work. That is what any choreographer would want to do. We are lucky to have his work on the bill as well as the Robbins and Balanchine masterpieces.
What advice do you have for dancers looking to pursue a career in ballet?
If you want to pursue it, go all the way. This profession is truly about dedication and commitment. Perfection is not going to happen, but you can always better yourself. Drive and push forward. No one ever made progress by keeping their car in neutral. Work with other dancers and take master classes. They open your eyes and ears. There is so much to learn and I am still learning after all the years I have put in. Dance is a progression, so don’t give up on the hard days. The pro will keep going!
What are your hopes for the company’s future?
My future ambitions for the group are to tour around the country and abroad to bring high caliber dance and programs to places that can’t afford to go to New York or other big cities. Everyone should be able to experience dance at least once in their life and not just The Nutcracker. The education and outreach is really about creating that opportunity for any one at any age to appreciate the arts. Ballet can do it and Stars of American Ballet will bring it to you.
◊ Katie Dravenstott is a freelance writer and dance instructor in Dallas. Visit her blog at www.kddance.wordpress.com