Let Him Entertain You

May 21, 2008

Being short is no handicap for male dancers whose low centers of gravity can be a springboard to airborne virtuosity. Those possessing the artistry and technique to compensate for their stature include Vaslav Nijinsky, Edward Villella, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Herman Cornejo. Whether Daniel Ulbricht can join this distinguished honor roll remains to be seen, but New York City Ballet’s ballet master in chief Peter Martins has such faith in the dancer’s star power that he has created high-flying, technically demanding solos for him in his last three ballets. The decibel count during curtain calls always spikes when Ulbricht takes a solo bow.


Otherwise Ulbricht has failed to follow the usual ballet traditions. Yes, he did join his sister, Heidi, in ballet class when he was 11 years old, but before succumbing to that cliché, he had devoted five years to karate. “The Karate Kid and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles made a big impression on me,” he recalls. “I begged my folks to sign me up. Because my teacher, Kathy Marlor, always stressed self-respect and discipline, I carried her lessons over into ballet.” Before he decided to concentrate on dance at age 13, he had earned a second-degree black belt, won two Florida championships in kata—variations on established forms—and found time for gymnastics. It took a knee injury to slow him down—for a while.


He felt fortunate in his ballet teachers, beginning with Leonard Holmes at Judith Lee Johnson’s Studio of Dance in St. Petersburg, Florida, his hometown. “Lenny wisely made me—the only guy—feel at ease by letting me take class in a baseball cap and baggy shorts and T-shirt,” he says. “I could do double tours and entrechats six from the start, but the barre bored me. He taught me how to harness my energy.” Holmes, who had studied at School of American Ballet, gave Ulbricht a foundation in Balanchine style. Private lessons with Javier Dubrocq from the Ballet Nacional de Cuba followed. Ulbricht stood a little over five feet at the time, but he continued to grow and is now about 5’8″. (Heidi’s short stature would eventually rule out a career in dance; she’s now married and has a degree in elementary education.)


Four years of summer study on scholarship at Chautauqua Summer Dance Program in upstate New York led to further Balanchine training under Patricia McBride, Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, and Violette Verdy (her likening a plié to melting ice cream remains with him to this day). “Soon teachers who were visiting Chautauqua were offering me gigs,” he says. His freelance career began at age 14 with four Nutcrackers: Miami, St. Petersburg, Buffalo, and Pittsburgh. Everyone was suggesting he study at SAB, so in the spring of 1998, he flew to New York with his father for three days.


During that visit, he sneaked into Peter Boal’s advanced men’s class. Boal, now artistic director of Pacific Northwest Ballet, says he spotted Ulbricht as a “trickster” but he was stunned by how advanced he already was: “I thought: What on earth can I teach this kid? Yet I found him open to any correction. He was a dream student.” SAB offered him a full scholarship, and Martins didn’t wait until he was an apprentice to cast him as the central jester in the last-act divertissements of his Sleeping Beauty. “I was dazzled by Daniel when I first saw him as a student at the school,” Martins says, “and my admiration only continues to grow.”


Ulbricht’s jester, with its brilliant à la seconde turns and uniformly high side-straddle hops, and his leader of the men’s regiment in Stars and Stripes at SAB’s spring 2000 workshop earned him a Dance Magazine “25 to Watch” in 2001. Former City Ballet principal Daniel Duell, who now runs The School of Ballet Chicago, was bowled over by Ulbricht in Stars, a role Duell had danced. “Everything Daniel did was unfailingly musical,” he says, “always on the center of the beat. And he regularly landed in soft plié—a perfect fifth.”


Casting after he joined NYCB’s corps in the 2002 winter season proved a feast-or-famine affair. One Saturday he made two major debuts: as the spunky Faun in the Fall section of Robbins’ The Four Seasons and that evening as the refined Gigue in Balanchine’s Mozartiana. “The Gigue is my hardest role,” he says. “Victor Castelli taught me I must always consider myself a delicate Dresden figurine, which was a stretch.” More often he was, say, a huntsman in Balanchine’s one-act version of Swan Lake. (“If you think it’s easy keeping a straight face wearing a feathered cap while standing between two swan girls, you try it some time.”) Opportunities were limited by his height and the difficulty of finding a regular partner. (His offstage partnership with principal Sterling Hyltin has cooled but they remain chums.)


Waiting his turn at repertoire occurs less often now that Martins is creating roles on him. As Mercutio, Ulbricht danced eight of the first 14 performances of the new Romeo + Juliet last year. He bristled with prankish virtuosity yet died with powerful simplicity. No one else has ever been assigned the midair twists yards above the stage in Friandises. Tiler Peck, his partner, remembers, “Danny would finish rehearsing some really demanding stuff with Peter and then have the energy left to partner me. I felt I could trust him completely.”


Not everyone appreciates the veneer of sunny showmanship in his performances. One reviewer said he looked like he was “auditioning for a Three Stooges routine” as the First Sailor in Robbins’ Fancy Free. “I know I enter the bar walking like Popeye,” Ulbricht says, “but that’s what Robbins wanted.” More newsworthy was his performance of the sailor’s solo with its sensational split landing after a double tour. No one else at NYCB or American Ballet Theatre really goes for it like Ulbricht. Most guys land on their heels, then slide to the floor, but he performs both actions so quickly he seems to have crash-landed on his crotch. “You have to do everything in a split second,” he says.


Now a principal at age 24, with the great Villella roles such as Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and “Rubies” within his reach, he’s concentrating on toning down the showmanship. Villella, for instance, smiled but Ulbricht grins. Fortunately, the grin flickered only fitfully during his first two performances of Prodigal Son last winter. What drove audiences to demand multiple curtain calls was the power of his soaring Prodigal leap, his spiky pirouette of rage, and his embodiment of defeat and degradation. (“You can’t use your legs when you drag yourself off; it’s done with your elbows and shoulders.”)


, another Villella specialty, has become Ulbricht’s signature ballet. When City Ballet visited London last March, he impressed veteran critic Clement Crisp with “his exact phrasing and his engaging freshness, as if inventing on the very moment the delights he shows us.” Before rehearsals for the spring season began, he took it on freelance gigs to San Juan, St. Petersburg (Russia), and Dallas. “Tarantella is going to buy me my apartment.”


And his burgeoning side career as a teacher will furnish it. He was invited to conduct his first class three years ago at the New York State Summer School for the Arts in Saratoga, and became so involved he lost his voice. Now that Damian Woetzel has stepped down as head of NYSSSA, Ulbricht and City Ballet principal Jenifer Ringer will share its direction. Ever adept at networking, he has since taught at—and always been asked back by—Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, The Rock School, School of Ballet Chicago, and Indiana University.


The teenage boys in Ulbricht’s advanced men’s class at SAB, where he began teaching last winter, would be surprised to learn how their teacher regularly clowned around in company class. Now while he gives them a challenging barre, he prowls the classroom, singing the counts like a nursery rhyme while stressing the beat with finger snaps and open-palmed thwacks to his thighs that go off like pistol shots. Once, however, he did a barre wearing the head of a Nutcracker mouse. Inspired by the production manager’s backstage instructions to his stage crew (“Housewarmers cue—go”), Ulbricht would amuse—or annoy—nearby classmates by whispering, “Sous-sus cue—go!”


He tells students that thorough preparation conquers fear, and that the barre should be treated as a performance. Yet he can’t remain solemn for long.

“You’re introducing yourself every time you step onstage,” he says. “But if you stand like this”—the posture sags, the neck disappears, the shoulders grotesquely hunch up to the ears—“it’s like you’re saying”—in the squeaky voice of an adenoidal robot—“Hi, I’m Daniel.”


Then the posture straightens, the shoulders subside, the neck elegantly lengthens, and all caricature vanishes. In his normal light baritone, Ulbricht says, “Hello, I’m Daniel.” And now everyone grins.


Harris Green, a former features editor of
Dance Magazine, has written for The New York Times, Ballet Review, Dance Spirit, and Pointe.


Photo by Matthew Karas.