Ballet is an art form that is handed down person to person, its visceral legacy passed directly from one body to another, each generation of artists linking to the next.
This chainlike heritage will be made visible when Daniel Ulbricht’s “Stars of American Ballet” takes the stage Friday night at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.
Presented by the Harriman-Jewell series, Ulbricht’s show will feature choreography by Jerome Robbins, George Balanchine, Christopher Wheeldon and Benjamin Millepied, performed by star dancers from the New York City Ballet, where moonlighting producer/director Ulbricht works his day job.
Known for his pizzazz and ability to launch his compact body into sky-high jumps, Ulbricht is one of NYCB’s most popular male principal dancers.
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Fifty years ago, the most popular male principal dancer at the New York City Ballet was Edward Villella. So when the late Richard Harriman, then an English professor at William Jewell College, started the Harriman-Jewell series in 1965, it was Villella, and his frequent NYCB partner Patricia McBride, whom Harriman invited to be its inaugural performers.
“That’s how our series began, with Richard plucking two great dancers from the New York City Ballet to come and create an evening of dance and present it here in Kansas City,” said Clark Morris, executive and artistic director of the Harriman-Jewell series.
A former baseball player and championship boxer, Villella brought a tough, street-kid sensibility to his dancing, thoroughly upending the stereotype of the effeminate male ballet dancer. With his virile good looks and numerous appearances on television and in stage musicals, Villella extended ballet’s appeal to mass audiences.
One of his signature pieces was “Tarantella,” an exhilarating duet tailor-made for him and McBride by Balanchine. Celebrating Villella’s Italian-American heritage, the energetic folk-dance-inflected ballet showcased his extraordinary athleticism, McBride’s dazzling lyricism and both performers’ charismatic stage personas.
In fitting tribute to the ballet legacy of which he is a part and to the history of the Harriman-Jewell series, Ulbricht’s program will open with a performance of “Tarantella,” danced by Ulbricht and Megan Fairchild, who took a leave of absence from NYCB last fall to star in the Broadway musical “On the Town.”
“Even though it was choreographed back in 1964, ‘Tarantella’ still challenges the dancers of 2015 with that speed and agility people associate with Balanchine,” Ulbricht said. “It’s a nice little red carpet to open the show with.”
Ulbricht learned much of “Tarantella” directly from McBride (a 2014 Kennedy Center honoree), with whom he studied as a teenager at the Chautauqua Summer Dance Program.
“I’ve also been coached by Eddie Villella on ‘Tarantella.’ That was wild,” Ulbricht said. “It was like watching the choreography come to life. I’d never met Balanchine, but here I could see the person this masterpiece was made on. There’s no handbook on this career. It’s handed down precisely like that.”
In November, the George Balanchine Foundation will be filming sessions of Villella coaching Ulbricht on performing the title role in Balanchine’s “Prodigal Son,” another of Villella’s signature ballets.
The decision to invite Ulbricht’s group to perform in Kansas City 50 years after Villella first danced here was prompted by Wendy Powell, a longtime local supporter of dance and the arts. She had seen Ulbricht and his troupe perform a couple of years ago in Santa Fe, N.M., was impressed by what she saw and suggested they be presented as part of the Harriman-Jewell series.
“We respect her taste and appreciation of dance, and we had been looking for a project like Danny’s,” Morris said. “Our role is to reach out into the world and bring some of the best examples of the art form to Kansas City. It is thrilling to be able to see some of the greatest individual soloists the world has to offer, which are often collected in New York, in companies like New York City Ballet.”
The concept of a ballet star assembling a small pick-up company of his fellow big-name dancers and touring it to locales where audiences don’t usually get to see those artists is not a new idea. American Ballet Theatre’s wunderkind Daniil Simkin is currently spearheading a small troupe made up of an international roster of star dancers. This summer, two other ABT principals, Roberto Bolle and Herman Cornejo, joined forces to present performances by dual pick-up troupes: one composed of European ballet stars, the other of dancers from Latin America.
So what’s different about Ulbricht’s company? For him, it’s all deeply personal — the reason he started the project in the first place, the love he developed for producing, and the personal responsibility he feels for the care and nurturing of his dancers. Ulbricht started this project about seven years ago.
“My mom was stricken with cancer, and I knew she wouldn’t be able to come up from St. Petersburg, Florida — that’s where I’m from — to see me dance with New York City Ballet. So what I wanted to do was bring a show down to her. And that’s what I did. I produced a show and that’s how I learned the ropes. I had to cast it, buy airplane tickets, book hotels, do all the behind-the-scenes work, and I actually fell in love with that process.”
From that point on, Ulbricht continued to produce small shows on an annual basis and tour them to what he describes as “underserved markets,” exposing audiences everywhere to top-tier ballet dancers and choreography. But he also feels a great responsibility to care for and support the artistic growth of the dancers he invites to travel with him.
“I’m in charge, I’m like ‘Dad’ on the road,” he said. “It’s important for me to set a tone, to know the dancers’ strengths and weaknesses, know what pieces they like and don’t like, and know what else is going on in their lives. I teach company class for them, I coach them, organize rehearsals. And what’s so wonderful is that I can give them opportunities to do roles they may not get to do in New York, to artistically challenge them, to develop their talents and abilities on a different stage.”
The Harriman-Jewell Series presents “Stars of American Ballet” Friday at Kauffman Center. Tickets are $25-$70 through HJSeries.org.