Face to Face: DT Talks With Daniel Ulbricht
New York City Ballet principal Daniel Ulbricht has a history of precocity. At age 15, after a three-day visit to the School of American Ballet as a guest pupil, he was awarded a full scholarship on the spot. NYCB Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins then cast him as a spunky, side-straddle-hopping jester in Martins’ production of The Sleeping Beauty while he was still a student. Once in the company, Ulbricht proceeded to set new standards for crowd-pleasing virtuosity in such demi-caractère parts as Puck in Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and conjure up the power of the great Edward Villella in his signature roles in Tarantella and Prodigal Son.
Given his lightning-fast ascent through the ranks, it’s no surprise that he’s now an in-demand teacher as well—at age 24. His burgeoning parallel career includes serving as a guest professor at Indiana University and a guest faculty member at the Chautauqua Institute, The Rock School for Dance Education and Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet. In New York City, he teaches at SAB, Ballet Academy East and Studio Maestro. Last summer, he and fellow NYCB principal Jenifer Ringer became associate directors of the New York State Summer School for the Arts in Saratoga, NY.
Dance Teacher: When did you start to teach and where?
Daniel Ulbricht: I started teaching in Saratoga three years ago, when I was a soloist with City Ballet. Saratoga is the company’s summer home, and our dancers are traditionally involved with NYSSSA. Amanda Edge, a [now former] corps member who served as a liaison, called me and said, “Daniel, would you like to come teach?” I said I’d like to try. Little did I know. The class was co-ed for New York state students, ages 14 to 18, who had qualified for the summer program. The first five minutes I was so nervous I stuttered, “P-p-plié.” But then it was smooth sailing. I talked so much, encouraging the students, that I lost my voice. I was mentally as well as physically exhausted, but I was hooked. Teaching was like another kind of performance.
DT: By you?
DU: Not just me. I want students to think of class as a performance. I want steps done at the barre and in the center to be presented as if for an audience, with musicality and personality—and energy. Ask your students to define “energy,” and they always say it means “fast.” Actually, energy is about being alive. An adagio must have energy. Without energy, without musicality, there is no dance. When students come to class with that attitude, they bring extra adrenaline and they pay extra attention. A dancer should look energetic—that is, ready to go—just standing at the barre.
DT: So you start with posture?
DU: Teachers can improve students’ posture just by walking around. Students always straighten up when teachers approach, then slouch after they pass. That’s why I walk around all the time. It’s my job to keep the energy level high. Growing up in St. Petersburg (Florida, I alsways add after a pause), I was fortunate to have had teachers whose classes were so exciting I couldn’t wait to return. [Leonard Holmes, who studied at SAB, and Javier Dubrocq from the Ballet Nacional du Cuba] taught me the proper attitude while giving me a solid foundation in technique.
DT: How large are your classes?
DU: I’ve taught up to 60 in a college class or summer program. My average, I’d say, is 30 students. Last summer I taught up to 25 classes a week.
DT: Can you give students individual attention in a class of 30?
DU: My general corrections apply to everyone, but for specific, personal corrections, I’m a tailor making a custom-tailored suit and keeping everyone’s measurements in my head as I teach. It’s like having 20 or 30 different classes going on at once. That’s a challenge, since my goal is to get to everyone in one way or another, either by demonstration or hands-on training, but I like challenges.
DT: You were notorious for cutting up in company class. One City Ballet teacher said you should be in a cage. How would you have disciplined you?
DU: I’m still a cut-up, but that’s beside the point. I put undisciplined students on the spot by challenging them to do a demanding step or combination. If it’s a gifted student who’s bored because he thinks he knows it all, I make up a really challenging combination for him. You have to keep pushing your best students because they tend to be content with how good they are. Demonstrating is also a good way to build confidence. Some students may score a breakthrough by being put on the spot. They didn’t know they could deliver! I always ask to see an outstanding demonstration done again. Consistency is absolutely essential. A student may be proud of doing seven pirouettes in succession, but wobbling on the third and the fifth means there’s more work to be done.
DT: How bluntly do you put that?
DU: First, I always say something positive, like, “You’re on the right track.” That’s how Lenny and Javier empowered me. Then I get specific about what’s being done wrong. My teachers showed me they were there for me but let me know what I had to keep working on.
DT: What if the student is hopeless?
DU: “Hopeless” is my least favorite word. If students are “unpromising,” let’s say, but really trying, I give them plenty of encouragement. I want every student to develop a love of dancing. Everyone deserves that experience of having worked hard at something they love. Maybe in the future they will support dancing because they remember what it felt like to dance and how much they loved it.
DT: Do you prefer teaching single-sex or mixed classes?
DU: Mixed classes. There are few steps that belong exclusively to one sex. For older students, practicing steps in a mixed class raises the energy level. The gentlemen try harder to impress the women in the room, and the women try harder to impress the gentlemen. Of course, if you’re teaching a class of children, you don’t start little boys out on steps that are done in a tutu; otherwise you’ll lose them.
DT: Do you learn from teaching?
DU: Oh, absolutely. Let’s say I’m correcting a student with balance problems, and as we break the steps down, I realize the solution involves a distribution of weight I’ve never thought of. “Daniel, you’ve got to try this!” I’ll tell myself, and next time when I take class, I do. This happens all the time.
DT: Doesn’t teaching interfere with your career as a dancer?
DU: Dividing my time and energy is a problem I’m always working on, but I’d say the two biggest enhancements of my career as a dancer are teaching and Pilates. Dancing is like a language the best dancers have total command of. Teaching is an analysis of that language and learning its complexity, while dancing is using it competently, securely and correctly with an elegance that makes the audience think it’s easy.
DT: Which career do you enjoy most?
DU: Dancing. I love meeting the challenges and—I admit it—there’s no satisfaction like having 2,500 people roar their approval when you take a bow. But there’s a similar satisfaction when I’m standing with my back to the mirror, facing the class after I’ve given a correction that hits the target. Yes, I have a smaller audience but it’s a great satisfaction to see the light bulbs go on. If you don’t wholeheartedly love it when that happens, you shouldn’t be teaching. DT
Harris Green is a writer in New York City.