Head of the Class

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

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