A Man and a Mission: Daniel Ulbricht On Stars of American Ballet and Dance Against Cancer
This story originally appeared in the June/July 2015 issue of
Admirers of New York City Ballet principal Daniel Ulbricht probably consider “puckish” an ideal adjective for his personality and his dancing, thanks to his definitive performance as Puck in Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. They would be surprised to learn that someone so convincing as Shakespeare’s scampish prankster would soberly discuss dancing not only as a responsibility, but as a mission. From his Stars of American Ballet touring company to his Dance Against Cancer event, Ulbricht uses every ounce of his spare time uniting ballet with good causes.
Do you think of yourself as something of a missionary?
You are right to say I have a mission. For instance, I host the New York City Ballet’s Family Saturdays program. Each hour-long session is an introduction to NYCB’s dancers, musicians and repertory for an audience of parents and children. I regularly get them up out of their seats to perform “choreography” of a sort. It’s certainly not Balanchine, but watching the joy they get from participating makes me feel like an ambassador for our craft.
Any missionary impulse involved in your touring group, Stars of American Ballet?
Yes, because we regularly present repertory rarely performed in other cities. It may be either a portion of a major work or an entire one-act classic. The section of Who Cares? danced by four principals is top-shelf Gershwin and Balanchine, and it bowled over audiences wherever we danced it. For Bernstein and Robbins’ Fancy Free, we travel with six dancers plus a set of a Manhattan saloon.
Those two ballets are now considered 20th-century classics. What about today’s choreographers?
I feel obligated to tour with works by the new generation, such as Christopher Wheeldon, Benjamin Millepied and Justin Peck. Their works are expected at a sophisticated venue like Jacob’s Pillow, which we have been invited to revisit July 29–August 2.
Ulbricht in Jerome Robbins’ “Four Seasons.” Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.
Are you planning to tour with other productions requiring a set like the one you commissioned for
As a matter of fact, I am thinking about several. My goal is to build a repertory of great works that demand sets and costumes. No specific details now, however, but I will say we are planning to visit a dozen cities this year.
When did you become a dedicated activist fundraiser with the annual Dance Against Cancer benefit?
In 2011, I set up the benefit with Erin Fogarty—she’s director of programming at Manhattan Youth Ballet—to create an event that used the talent of the dance world for a good cause. Erin’s father would later die of cancer. My mother was undergoing chemotherapy. Raising money for the American Cancer Society became our mission.
What was the response from your fellow dancers?
It was overwhelming. We had absolutely no trouble finding classical, modern and folk dancers who wanted to donate their services in memory of a loved one or friend. We started small, performing in the intimate black-box theater of Manhattan Movement & Arts Center. We outgrew MMAC in two years and now perform at the AXA Equitable Center. It has a bigger stage and more space for the audience and dancers to mingle after the performance for a catered buffet. To date, our expected five-year total can be as high as $600,000.
Do you have any spare time?
Not much. In New York City I teach up to five times a week at Manhattan Youth Ballet. In between City Ballet’s spring and fall seasons, I administer the New York State Summer School of the Arts School of Ballet in Saratoga Springs. It keeps me busy.