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Balanchine and Beyond

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” So goes the perpetually apt assessment of Charles Dickens. Despite these lean times, indeed perhaps because of them, there is an exciting and affordable evening to be had that promises to be the best of times.

photo by Erin Baiano

On a program that might easily cost a New Yorker over $100 per ticket at Lincoln Center, Daniel Ulbricht and Friends will be in Buffalo to present “A Dance Spectacular” at UB Center for the Arts on Sunday, September 20, at 3pm.

Ulbricht—described as a “high octane” performer, his leaps as “pyrotechnic”—considers himself a cultural liaison, an ambassador of his art, on a mission to bring the highest level of achievement to a Buffalo audience. Doing so in an affordable way, he aims to capture a new generation of enthusiasts.

Ulbricht, with several principals and soloists of the New York City Ballet and Boston Ballet, will dance a program that presents choreography spanning the development of classical dance, from the Romantic period to the neo-classics of George Balanchine. Before mounting the four works on the program by Balanchine, Ulbricht had to get permission to use the material from the Balanchine Foundation, which oversees dissemination and quality control. The dancers cast and venue must be approved by the trust. Though his appearance here in Buffalo might be milked for its star power, Ulbricht firmly grounded in the Balanchine tradition of making dance the star. Attention is deflected from individual performers and put squarely on the choreography.

The Balanchine repertoire—Apollo, Tarantella, the pas de deux from the “Diamonds” section of Jewels, and Who Cares?—is a special gift to area dance lovers. The program will also feature local dance company Configuration Dance Theatre, headed by its artistic director, native Buffalonian Joseph Cipolla.

The gala event is to be preceded by a week of master classes and talks given by Ulbricht at area schools. He will be teaching at several local studios, and give exclusive classes for the students at the Buffalo Academy of Visual and Performing Arts. Ulbricht has also been added to the Distinguished Speakers Series sponsored by the City Honors Foundation and the International Baccalaureate Program, giving talks at both the City Honors Middle and High Schools.

As a teacher, Ulbricht extends unconditional support to his students. No shooting down the next aspiring artist. No flaunting of talent or technique. “Port de bras [carriage of the arms] should be like perfume,” he tells his students. “It should linger in the air.” He bids his students not to execute the steps, but to dance them. He enjoys the challenge of breaking down the material, revealing it in such a way that the “light bulb goes from a flicker to dim to full on.”

He was taught to love and respect his art by great teachers, and is passionate to give back. A native of St. Petersburg—the one in Florida, though he likes to hesitate here, allowing the listener to make the leap to the home of the Imperial Russian Ballet—by age 12, Daniel was drafted by the Miami City Ballet to play the Prince in The Nutcracker. Winning a scholarship at 17 to the School of American Ballet, the affiliate school of the New York City Ballet, he then spent three years as a corps member before artistic director Peter Martins promoted him to soloist at age 22. Ulbricht made the cover of Dance Magazine last year.

Short though a career as a performer may be, Ulbricht is wise to use his momentum to propel him into ancillary arenas. Having danced at the Chautauqua Summer Program as a youth, Ulbricht made connections in Buffalo; and it is through these connections that he has come to UB this week.

The “friends” who will join him in Sunday’s concert have been chosen for their artistry. “They are charming, normal people,” Ulbricht says. “They are good representatives of their art.”

They are on lay-off for the summer, returning to work just following the Buffalo engagement. Sunday’s concert is an opportunity for them to dance roles they would not or have not otherwise had.

The September 20 program will open with Ulbricht partnering with Misa Kuranaga, principal dancer with the Boston Ballet, in the Tarantella, originally choreographed by August Bournonville, and re-choreographed by Balanchine. This 19th-century courtship dance, using music by Louis Gottschalk, is a vibrant dance, a frenetic antidote to the poisonous bite of a tarantula. It is considered exceptional for the male role, a showcase for Ulbricht’s talents. It is rich in ethnic color, the dancers energetically egged on by the banging of a tambourine.

The pas de deux from “Diamonds,” one section from Balanchine’s triptych Jewels, will be danced by Teresa Reichlen and Jonathan Stafford. With music by Tschaikovsky, the work was considered to be the first full-length abstract ballet when it premiered in 1976.

Daniel will perform a solo he premiered last year, Piazzolla Tango, choreographed by Servy Gallardo to the sultry music of Argentine tango master composer Astor Piazzolla.

Brittany Pollack and Robert Fairchild will dance in Balanchine’s oldest surviving ballet, Apollo. The rich history of this ballet involves the god of music, Apollo, visited by his three muses. The ballet’s origins were as close to artistic heaven as one can get: At its 1928 premiere at the Theatre Sarah Bernhardt in Paris, composer Igor Stravinsky conducted the orchestsra for impresario Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes. The following year, designer Coco Chanel redesigned the costumes. The spare austerity of this neo-classical piece became the hallmark of the New York City Ballet.

Performing three pieces to complement the Balanchine program is the locally based contemporary company Configuration Dance, founded by Cipolla. Taking residency in the former Lexington Coop space at the corner of Lexington and Ashland, this homegrown talent brings an elegant and sophisticated sensibility, heavily influenced by his 16 years spent performing in Europe.

As its name implies, the company’s emphasis widens the scope of dance, bending it towards the dramatic. There’s a certain “noir-ness” here; the seeming intent is to lay bare emotions, startle the senses, make one think.

Five of the Bach cello suites are used in a condensed version of What’s the Pointe?, choreographed by Michael Shannon. Bach’s Goldberg Variations is used for Royenne, choreographed by former American Ballet Theatre star Susan Jaffe. The piece had its debut earlier this year at the Albright-Knox’s Gusto at the Gallery. Performing is Young-Sil Kim, the com pany ballerina, partnered by Raul Peinado, a freelancer who regularly returns to Buffalo to work with the company.

Configuration Dance Theatre also will perform the contemporary work Breathless to music by Puccini, Kodo, and Arvo Part. The program concludes with Ulbricht and friends dancing an adaption for his ensemble from Balanchine’s Who Cares?, featuring music by Gershwin.

For more information on schedules for master classes at various local studios, including UB, and the Distinguished Speakers Series, call 716 882-1285.

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