“Stars of American Ballet” was created by dance visionary and renowned principal dancer with New York City Ballet, Daniel Ulbricht, a principal dancer with New York City Ballet since 2007. As director and choreographer, Ulbricht blends his fellow New York City Ballet dancers with other top soloist talents from major ballet and dance companies throughout the United States and abroad. This fast-paced performance pairs premier choreography with commanding athleticism.
After a two-year COVID hiatus, Ballet Hawaii brought world-class dance back to the Kahilu Theatre with a performance of “Stars of American Ballet” on March 15, 2022. This is an interview with Daniel Ulbricht prior to the performance.
Can tell us about your background with Ballet Hawaii, and then we’ll talk about the “Stars of the American Ballet.”
It was about seven years ago we had our first trip to Hawaii, and this was part of a small group that started in Hilo, then came here to Waimea, and then finished and concluded in Oahu, Hawaii. So, it’s been seven years since, but luckily the world is moving forward. Dance is back. We’re seeing that there’s a demand for this. So I coordinated 13 other dancers to bring a show to inspire audiences to get their hands clapping, the feet tapping. And remember, dance is accessible. Dance is critical for people to experience.
Tell us Stars of the American Ballet. I got a chance to watch the rehearsal there. And it’s very diverse. I think I heard some Eartha and Michael Jackson.
When designing a program, I think about creating a menu for the audience. You must find something for everyone. There needs to be a tutu for the person who knows what ballet is. There needs to be something contemporary, maybe something that’s slightly more lighthearted. So, I tried to design pieces that complement each other that push the audience towards this kind of journey, like a roller coaster ride. I only have an hour plus to do that, but my goal is to feel like there’s one piece the audience can feel that they’re attached to. Ideally, it’s to find the whole arc of the evening. With the performance here, the audience will be able to feel that, and they don’t have to know a lot about dance. The second thing is I think many people go, “I don’t know dance,” and that’s exactly what we’re trying to dispel. We want it to be so accessible that you could jump or lean in closer to work. And that’s sort of the fun part about curating it and then bringing these extraordinary dancers.
Tell us about some of the dancers in the show. What are their backgrounds and skill levels?
The dancers are principals and soloists, some from the New York City Ballet and some from Ballet West. Two dancers from Ballet West are doing two pieces that we haven’t had into our repertory often at Stars of the American Ballet. “Light Rain” by Gerard Pino and Romeo Juliet by Michael Simon. Again, very iconic titles, but these different versions come together. And despite the dance world being relatively small, I think these opportunities bring us even closer together. The rest of the program is filled with top-shelf repertory; Masterpiece Repertory, whatever you want to call it, works by George Balanchine Diamonds Perdida. You Have Apollo Perdida You Have Stars and Stripes Perdida You have a fun ballroom couple coming in and doing a nice piece to stir up the evening a little bit. You have another piece by Justin Peck, our resident choreographer at New York City Ballet. Christopher Wheeldon is also a former resident director at New York City Ballet. And so, for me, it’s kind of creating that, again, that path, laying the breadcrumbs to our final piece, which is a trio for three gentlemen set to a solo piece. And again, I think there’s something about the tension, the energy, not only in the music, but then, of course, what we see on stage.
Were you able to perform or practice during the pandemic?
Like everyone, we had to figure out how to pivot, right? So, Stars American Ballet was on tour when the pandemic hit. On March 14th, 2020, our last show was in Budapest, Hungary. We had a tour in Israel and Budapest, and we cut our tours short. We had one more country to knock off that list. And during the show, I was purchasing plane tickets for people to return to the States. It was the evening of the 14th, in the morning of the 15th. However, you want to say that the travel ban went in place. We got everyone back to New York as best as possible. And it wasn’t until about a year later we finished off that tour, but everyone had to pivot to zoom. Everyone had to dance home. My wife and I were fortunate that her family is about a half-hour away from New York City. We were able to get away, get a little more space, teach online, have a yard for a dog to go in because Manhattan is an incredible, energetic metropolis, as we all know. But space is not its best asset; let’s call it that. So, we and not just I, but the dance community, I think for about a year we’re kind of in that limbo and then very slowly figuring out what is the way to be productive and safe but continue to move forward.
It wasn’t until about the fall of last year that we started to see New York City Ballet, and the rest of the dance world began to kind of open. So, 18 months, 20 months without dance was huge. And I think they also handle it very differently for a lot of people. Some were like, I love it even more. Some are ready to step out. Some being families, you know, these things don’t often happen. So, we found that everyone handled it differently. Luckily, I tried to keep the momentum going and have opportunities. The most important thing is to remember the interaction of the audience.
Photos: Steve Roby
Steve Roby is the editor of Big Island Music Magazine