New York City Ballet principal Daniel Ulbricht takes on a new role: artistic advisor to Manhattan Youth Ballet

Who’s the short guy at the front of the classroom with the springboard jump, permanent high spirits, muscular technique and insatiable stamina? It’s Daniel Ulbricht, principal dancer with New York City Ballet. Ulbricht is widely renowned for his electrifying presence onstage. What isn’t so well-known is his talent for teaching—and his remarkable drive to do so.

Last June, Rose Caiola, the executive artistic director of Manhattan Youth Ballet, announced that Ulbricht, who’d been teaching regularly at MYB, would become artistic advisor to the pre-professional ballet academy. The departure of François Perron, the former managing artistic director of MYB, left a vacancy for a teacher and advisor with energy, foresight and the ability to pull the best out of young ballet students.

Erin Fogarty, the director of programming at MYB, had worked with Ulbricht at the New York State Summer School of the Arts in Saratoga. “I have been friends with Daniel for many years, and I’ve seen him come to life as a dance educator,” she says. “He’s so good with kids of all ages, and he really knows how to deliver information.” NYCB principal Wendy Whelan, who teaches at MYB when her schedule allows, also admires Daniel’s teaching talent. “Daniel is a natural,” she says. “He’s organized and very confident and comfortable. The guy likes to talk and explain—he’s generous with his knowledge.”

After Perron’s departure from MYB, Ulbricht says, “I started doing a little more at the school than just the guest-teaching spot. I was frequently coaching and running rehearsals.” He sat down with the MYB staff and NYCB artistic director Peter Martins and made a plan to work this demanding post into his dancing schedule. Now, as artistic advisor, “Daniel is in a lot of the meetings for our programming—what we want with the curriculum, how we are developing and changing it, helping it grow, what the kids will perform, what variations we think they should learn,” says Fogarty. “He doesn’t sit here at a desk, but he has major decisions to make.”

But why, at the age of 27—and the apex of his performing career—would Ulbricht want to divert his energy to another demanding job? Even before the appointment, he was devoting 50 percent of his time outside of NYCB to teaching jobs, often during stretches on the road. “I’m hoping that this will help me build something,” he says. “To really sustain and accelerate progress, you have to have a more present approach to teaching. I thought it would be interesting to create a unique platform here, an open forum to make this as successful as possible for a nice caliber of teachers and students.”

“I think he’ll do a fantastic job,” Whelan says. “I’m sure he’s chomping at the bit—he has so many ideas, so much energy. He dances a lot with the company, but not as much as some others, so he wants to fill in the time with more dance.”

As artistic advisor, Ulbricht’s duties include teaching at least twice a week at MYB and helping to outline and improve a solid curriculum and standard for the school. For the past 16 years, MYB has offered a diverse curriculum that included Vaganova and Balanchine training. Ulbricht hopes to highlight the faculty’s teaching strengths and find out what shortcomings need to be addressed. “If I have one teacher teaching style A and another one teaching style B, I’m losing the cohesion I need,” says Ulbricht. “That’s probably the most sensitive area as well, because a lot of teachers get very comfortable in their styles, but that’s really what it’s about—getting the teachers on the same page so the students can take full advantage of this opportunity.”

But he admits that he will be experimenting as he goes along. “The syllabus is ever evolving in dance, I find,” he says. “You see a wave of students who do pirouettes particularly well and you go, ‘OK, that’s great.’ But if you have a school that doesn’t have very strong partners or jumpers or balancers, you need to address that. You want to find something that has a structure but can adapt. The dance world is changing, and we want our techniques to grow with it.”

Ulbricht began his teaching career at age 21, giving classes at NYSSSA during NYCB’s summer residency at Saratoga. At 23, he co-led the NYSSSA session with Jenifer Ringer and has been in demand as a teacher ever since. His style of teaching matches his vibrant presence onstage. “I would say it’s very high energy—that’s for sure,” says Ulbricht with a chuckle. “It’s a mix of strong classical technique and the speed and musical nuance that the School of American Ballet gave me. I am very positive and upbeat. I don’t want to see a student walk away from a class without reaching her potential.” A lot of students, he points out, think they can do anything because they see it on TV or YouTube. “They have to understand that there are still mechanics and technique involved—then we can have a really good discussion,” he says.

But Ulbricht wasn’t always confident at the front of the classroom. He started out so nervous that he would stutter through pliés. “I could show steps, but I had a hard time vocalizing them,” he says. Gradually, he learned that, just as with his dancing, a little fun went a long way. “I learned that the students did better when they were enjoying what they’re doing—when they weren’t doing tendus and pliés like they’re long division,” he says.

A number of mentors led Ulbricht to examine the methodology of teaching. Peter Boal, former NYCB principal and now artistic director of Pacific Northwest Ballet, tops the list. “He has a way of showing the combination without showing off,” says Ulbricht. “He realizes that sometimes people need to see how something is supposed to look. He’ll show it and you’ll say, ‘That’s amazing—I get it now.’ It’s very revealing, the way he demonstrates.” Ulbricht also cites Michael Vernon, now the Ballet Department chair at Indiana University, for giving him insight into how to work with people, and Patricia McBride and Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux for teaching him about Balanchine’s legacy while he was a student at the Chautauqua summer intensives.

Nonetheless, Ulbricht stresses that dancing is still his number-one job, and that teaching has only enhanced his performance quality. “Every time I teach a step, it’s like teaching a language—I’m looking up the verb, the origin and the usage of it,” he says. “Then I see how I can apply that knowledge to my craft onstage.”

One of Ulbricht’s top priorities for MYB is to bring in dancers from NYCB and American Ballet Theatre to teach and choreograph, making a tangible connection between the studio and the professional stage. “It’s not just about seeing so-and-so onstage in a tutu, but seeing that person and knowing that she cares about me and my dancing,” says Ulbricht. And he believes the professional dancers—Whelan included—will learn as much as the students. By encouraging both his colleagues and his students, he aspires to inspire both.

Choreographically, Ulbricht will be cutting his teeth with MYB, as well. “I always use the word ‘dabble’ when it comes to my choreography, because I think I am still discovering my voice and my process,” he says. He relishes unhurried time in the MYB studios to create, which is unlike the often-frenetic process at NYCB.

Ultimately, Ulbricht wants the ballet world to progress, and he wants to be part of the process. He thinks of his students as lightbulbs. “There are some who flicker, some who need to be replaced and some who are beaming bright,” he says. “My goal is to get that whole classroom beaming. My job is to turn it up to a brighter wattage. Success to me is if somebody says, ‘I received the best training possible.’ You never know what your students might become—they might become dancers, or fans of ballet, or philanthropists to the arts. But I want to instill that passion so that they can enjoy dance at any time in their life.” DT

 

Joseph Carman, former soloist with ABT and the Joffrey Ballet, is the author of Round About the Ballet.

Photo by Matthew Murphy

Dance Buzz
PC Break the Floor

Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?

If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.

"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."



The Boy Factor doesn't just have to do with competition scores: It's how we treat boys throughout their dance education. "We idolize the boys," says Ashley Harnish, a teacher at a competition studio. "We build entire dances around one boy, and we teach them that we need them more than we need the girls."

On the surface, The Boy Factor is flagrant sexism. But what's really behind the phenomenon? "So often, young male dancers are bullied because our culture says that dance is for girls," says a second national competition adjudicator. "This stigma pushes some judges to reward boys by scoring them higher than their female competitors." The Boy Factor also stems from a simple fact: There are far more girls than boys in the dance world.

"Judges see boys as valuable commodities," says Marissa Jean, a staff member at Broadway Dance Center's new building for children and teens and a teacher at several competition studios. "To encourage their career in dance, judges will throw a little extra their way. It could be placing them in the top ten or giving them a special award. They nurture them a bit more than the girls."



But by trying to retain more male talent, are we suggesting to girls that they are less valuable to the dance world than boys? "There's so much about this getting into these kids' psyches," says Childress. "Like, 'Oh the boy will beat me no matter what.' How do we teach self-worth knowing that you're going up against a boy, so what's the point?"

The Boy Factor is a product of and a contributor to the culture that sends the few men in dance up the glass escalator: "Many boys growing up in the dance world are not told the word 'no' often, so they tend to climb the professional ranks more quickly than the women," says Jean. We often bemoan the absence of female leadership in dance, but the damage is already done if we've taught young women that their gender determines their value to our community.

So what can be done about The Boy Factor? First, we could change how we encourage boys to continue dancing. Instead of empowering young men by devaluing young women, we could work as a community to dispel the culture of toxic masculinity that discourages boys from pursuing dance in the first place.

But it also falls in the hands of judges and teachers. "We need to increase awareness," says the second adjudicator. "A lot of us judges don't realize what we are promoting and the messages we send through our scoring and awards. If enough of us band together, I think we can make a difference so that this part of our field is less toxic."

How-To
Thinkstock

Q: Do you have any advice for how to clean competition pieces?

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Buzz
Kenedy Kallas (via Instagram)

Every true dancer knows just how valuable a perfectly arched foot that curves effortlessly from the ankle to the end of the toes is to a performance. In fact, it's so important, it seems we've all taken an unofficial pact to spend inordinate amounts of time stretching our feet with ominous looking contraptions that cause us severe pain. We are completely crazy! With good reason, but crazy, nonetheless.

In order to keep us all inspired to stretch our toes until they are drool-worthy, DT compiled a list of five dancers whose feet we have a very real crush on. Honestly, these guys should get their toes insured! Truly, they are perfect.

Check 'em out!

Keep reading... Show less
Thinkstock

Q: After running my studio six days a week for 20 years, it's time for me to delegate. How can I transition into a shared-workload system with my teachers?

Keep reading... Show less
How-To
Thinkstock

Students need strong feet for pointe work, but few concentrate on their toes specifically. "Fatigue sets in and they start knuckling," says Atlanta Ballet podiatrist Dr. Frank Sinkoe. This puts excess pressure on the nails, causing bruising. The exercises below strengthen the arch and intrinsic muscles, which flex the toes and support the feet.

Keep reading... Show less
Your Studio
What are your non-negotiables? Share on Dance Teacher's Facebook page.

It could be argued that half the battle of owning a dance studio is getting people to follow the rules. To ensure your business will run like a well-oiled machine, it helps to have clear expectations in place for students and their families—and, most important, to make sure everyone knows them from day one. Of course, every school is unique, and behavior that may be acceptable to you might be out of the question for someone else. "There are so many studios out there," says Dana McGuire, a studio co-owner in North Kansas City, Missouri. "Know and stand by what you're about." Here, four seasoned studio directors discuss the issues they consider non-negotiable.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Thinkstock

I have a student who's going through a growth spurt, and I'm wondering what advice I should give her. Is there anything you recommend?

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Videos

Sponsored

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox

Win It!

Sponsored