From NYC, a ballet sampler at Byham
Ballet dancers can be independent spirits, but it's rare to find an independent entrepreneur amid the pas de deux and pirouettes.
Daniel Ulbricht, a noted principal dancer at what is arguably America's premiere company, New York City Ballet, brings "Daniel Ulbricht & Friends: A Dance Spectacular" to the Byham Theater on Friday.
"Friends" may be the operative word in the title, for they will include principal Sterling Hyltin, only 21, who was plucked from the soloist ranks to play Juliet in Peter Martins' 2007 production; principal Jonathan Stafford, who has roots in the area (he studied at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet in Carlisle); and principal Teresa Reichlen, a tall beauty who is making a name for herself.
Mr. Ulbricht has plenty of other bonuses in store for Pittsburgh, including three hometown dancers from City Ballet -- former principal Stephen Hanna, now playing the older Billy in the Broadway smash "Billy Elliot," and corps members Faye Arthurs and Stephanie Zungre, who have had their own successes in NYCB's highly competitive dance stratosphere.
In addition, Mr. Ulbricht will be spreading the ballet gospel while teaching no less than nine classes in the area and giving some sneak peeks into the ballet history surrounding the performance. Some will be private sessions at Pittsburgh Youth Ballet and Point Park University. Others will be open to the public, including Ballet Academy of Pittsburgh (4:30-6 p.m. and 6:30-8 p.m. Tuesday), Pittsburgh Youth Ballet (7:15-8:30 p.m. Wednesday) and Wexford Ballet Academy (6:30-8 p.m. Thursday).
The Florida native got the idea when his mother fell ill.
"She couldn't make the trek up to New York," he explains over the phone between rehearsals. "So I thought I could design a show and bring it to her."
Through that process, Mr. Ulbricht learned an "enormous amount" about putting together a show and funding it. Even as a student, this former karate kid and gymnast was blessed with boundless energy and this was the way, he felt, to channel it as a professional.
The 26-year-old performed the program twice in Florida and once in Buffalo, N.Y. Where next? As it happens, he had "a little bit" of Pittsburgh history. It began when he attended a summer session at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre in 1996. Later, while studying at Chautauqua, Pittsburgh teachers there asked him to perform with their schools, primarily the annual "Nutcracker."
So Mr. Ulbricht knew that PBT had community support, along with knowing other local schools and the City Ballet dancers who came from them.
"New York tries to be everyone's backyard, but it's not for those who live here," he says. "Now I'm trying to pass it on, this engaging opportunity for those dancers who leave at a young age to pursue their careers. That's been the beauty of it, to go back and perform."
He knows how it feels because he kept in touch with his good friends in Florida.
"But you kind of drop out of the scene and they wonder what you do between then and now. When I went back and did a performance, they were able to see what this kid was up to. It's kind of neat to give other people that opportunity."
He doesn't come to Pittsburgh with a big-city attitude.
"City Ballet is a like a broad sword. "It's so big and so exciting.
"Having said that, because of its size it's tremendously expensive to bring in a company like that without either bloating the price or sacrificing something. Why not use some of the great repertoire we have and great dancers we have?"
He put a great deal of thought into the program, making sure it was balanced and representative of the NYCB repertoire. The evening will begin with "Tarantella," considered a signature work for him and performed with Ms. Zungre.
"It's a gem, a great way of presenting the excitement of the program," he says.
Ms. Zungre ebulliently adds, "I feel like this performance is more important than some of the performances I do at New York City Ballet."
She takes a few minutes between rehearsals for "Concerto Barocco" and Sean Lavery's balcony scene from "Romeo and Juliet," where she plays Juliet. That night she will also perform in two other ballets at Lincoln Center. To top that, she hasn't been feeling well.
"Tarantella is one of my dream roles to perform. I just didn't know if I'd get to do it!"
So she asked Mr. Ulbricht, a good friend, to coach her. He was able to tell her the story behind it -- two spirited gypsies who come into a village, perform, get paid and leave. As it turned out later, her Italian roots (from a village named Zungre) might have included gypsies.
"Now I can put more into the part," she says.
"Tarantella" will be followed by "Diamonds" pas de deux with Ms. Rechlen and Mr. Stafford.
"It would be so easy for Mr. Balanchine to mimic the flourishes in the music, but he gives you something equally as exciting," explains Mr. Ulbricht. "That pas de deux always speaks volumes to me."
Next on the program will be selections from "Apollo" with Ms. Arthurs and Mr. Hanna, who will be performing together for the first time in Pittsburgh since they were teenagers.
"This work was created in the late '20s, but still has a freshness that is viable with today's standards," says Mr. Ulbricht.
Mr. Hanna is perfectly suited for the role of a Greek god, as tall, dark and handsome as dancers come. The first time he saw the ballet he felt he was looking at his own dream role, where he could "command the stage with not a lot of technical bravura, but presence."
The first half will close with the charming but technically difficult "Flower Festival Pas de Deux," performed by Ms. Hyltin and Mr. Ulbricht. Although it was choreographed by August Bournonville in 1858, he feels that "it's very important to know the roots of choreography." To this day, it's still a popular choice at ballet galas and competitions.
After intermission Mr. Ulbricht will perform a solo, "Tango," by Servy Galliardo to offer a contemporary flair. It will be followed by a finale consisting of selections from Balanchine's "Who Cares?," a sophisticated salute to New York with music by Gershwin and accompanied by pianist Arkadiy Figlan, who plays for classes at the School of American Ballet and at Chautauqua.
"This is luxury for a program like this, but it can be surreal the way he plays it," says Mr. Ulbricht. "With live music, this will be the button for the program. Having the entire cast perform -- it'll be like crossing the checkered flag."
"Who Cares?" will mean even more for Ms. Arthurs because it was the last thing she danced in Pittsburgh as a student.
"It's always a blast," she says. "You get to let loose a little bit and flirt with your partner-- it's just a good time."
The Pittsburgh natives all plan to have a good time when they come home to the Byham. It seems to be timed perfectly, just when NYCB has a three-week break before its annual "Nutcracker" run begins.
Mr. Hanna regularly returns several times a year to "hang out with the family." Ms. Zungre still has friends here and is especially happy that her grandparents, who haven't been able to travel to New York for five years, will be able to see her again.
"I love coming home, spending an afternoon at the Strip and cooking all the groceries that night," says Ms. Arthurs.
"Friends" in the show's title is appropriate, the ex-Pittsburghers say.
"Daniel is always kind of looking out for me," says Ms. Zungre.
Ms. Arthurs adds, "We all love Daniel," and calls him the company clown who has been known to carry a whoopie cushion.
"It's nice to see someone who has so much ambition and drive who can still joke around and not take himself too seriously."
Mr. Hanna goes further to describe his friend as "absolutely hands-down the most exciting performer on stage." If Mr. Ulbricht was scheduled to dance at NYCB, Mr. Hanna would make it a point to go downstairs and watch from the wings, the ultimate compliment from a fellow professional.
"He's such a nice human being, somebody that you'd really like to talk to and enjoy being around," Mr. Hanna says. "He's genuine and that comes across in his dancing. What he does is absolutely incredible, like nobody can do it."
First Published October 10, 2010 12:00 am