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The barre and beyond

When local teen Daniel Ulbricht took up ballet, little did he think that his talent in dance would far outstrip his skill at karate. At 17, he is dancing solos with the New York City Ballet.

By MARINA BROWN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- If Daniel Ulbricht were a baseball player, he'd be batting .300. If he played hockey, he'd be racking up a goal or two a game.

If Daniel Ulbricht were a karate champ -- well, actually he is a karate champ: a two-time Florida state karate champion and the holder of a second-degree black belt. But more on that later.

But these are the stats that give this athlete his adrenaline rush: eight to nine pirouettes, a 5-foot grand jete, entrechats huits and triple tours en l'air.

His sport?

Daniel throws his head back and laughs out loud, "Ballet! It's got it all. Running, jumping, spinning, squatting and lifting, like a 40-minute game with no time outs!"

On the brink of what seems to be a major professional career with the New York City Ballet, the 17-year-old was in town recently, visiting his parents, getting his hair cut, trying to pass his driver's test. And, just as he does every day, taking dance class and dropping jaws.

Dressed in black cut-off tights, polo shirt and aging canvas ballet shoes, Daniel looks a little like Ron Howard just out of his Opie period.

But there is nothing Mayberry about his scrapbook: photographs show the 5-foot-6, powerfully muscled dancer in full split leaps and grand jetes of tremendous height, with a vitality that seems to spill over the footlights.

The New York Times' eminent dance critic Anna Kisselgoff applauds the "unadulterated joy" of his dancing. Dance magazine tells its readers to keep an eye on him.

And, even more exciting, Peter Martins, probably the most powerful director in ballet today, is creating new works especially for his young prodigy.

Nine years ago, when Daniel took his first dance class, nobody was expecting anything like this to happen.

Tagging behind his older sister Heidi, Daniel -- already competing at karate meets -- decided to try a tap class. He liked the feel of moving to music and later tried a jazz class. Then he added gymnastics.

Looking back, he marvels at the support and patience of his parents, Paul and Susan Ulbricht, who live in the Pinellas Point area of St. Petersburg. His father, a self-employed handyman, and mother, an office manager, enthusiastically chauffeured their kids from interest to interest.

"My parents were so amazing. It didn't matter what we wanted to try, they took us to everything," Daniel said.

All of his work soon began to show results. Daniel won prizes in state and national karate meets. He earned his black belt.

Then he decided to give ballet a try. "He was so easy to teach," said Judith Lee Johnson, an early instructor. "I taught him for a year, but he just soaked up everything. Incredible raw talent."

Another local mentor was Leonard Holmes, formerly of the prestigious School of American Ballet. "He's the reason I'm dancing," Daniel said. "He was a cool guy, first of all. And he made ballet fun. He even let us take class wearing weird hats if we wanted to."

By age 13, Daniel, then a student at Baypoint Middle School, was winning prizes in gymnastics and karate and garnering prestigious dance scholarships. It was decision time.

"I asked myself what the future held if I continued with karate. I could either make movies like a Bruce Lee or own a karate school. With gymnastics, I figured I'd eventually just hurt myself. In the end, I basically was having too much fun dancing."

Daniel began spending summers away from St. Petersburg. North Carolina Dance Theatre's Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux offered him a scholarship to his summer program. Daniel spent a summer at the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre summer workshop. He was being asked to do guest performances with out-of-town companies.

Two years ago, during a Pittsburgh Ballet guest shot, he was persuaded to try out for a scholarship to the School of American Ballet, undoubtedly the most coveted student award in the country.

"Dad and I flew to New York, I took six classes -- and well, they gave me the full scholarship," said Daniel, who left for New York after his freshman year at Lakewood High School. The school pays for Daniel's room and board in a dorm at Lincoln Center, in the same building as the ballet school. Also covered are his airplane tickets, up to four 90-minute ballet classes a day and chartered bus rides between the dance classroom and the Professional Performing Arts School, better known as the Fame school, where he is a junior.

A typical day may include two hours of academic work, plus weight training, partnering classes, technique classes and "variations" -- learning dances from established ballets. With this punishing regimen, Daniel is no stranger to pain. In his first month at the ballet school, he had a compression fracture in a lumbar vertebra; the school sent him to doctors and physical therapists until the injury healed.

For the past two seasons, Daniel has been pulled out of the school roster to perform solos with the main company. At 16 he had danced two of Mikhail Barishnikov's solos at a gala for the celebrated Russian star. He danced three solos in the monthlong New York City Ballet Nutcracker, including the "jump-athon" Chinese variation and the acrobatic Candy Cane role. He began to step in for injured company soloists after only a day or two of rehearsal.

"Best of all," he said, Martins began to choreograph solos for Ulbricht's talents and give him key roles in pieces he'd already created.

On Christmas Eve 2000, Daniel received "the biggest Christmas present I've ever gotten." That's the day Peter Martins invited Ulbricht to join the New York City Ballet at its entry apprentice level.

"I want to use you in as many things as I can," Daniel recalled Martins telling him. The words pulsed in Daniel's head for days.

Daniel is considered small for a ballet dancer. "But Edward Villella was just my height and Misha Barishnikov one inch taller. They didn't do too badly. I think I'll be okay," he said.

In a recent review of his performance in Balanchine's Stars and Stripes, Kisselgoff, the Times critic, agreed, describing him as a "prodigy" and as "rocketing across the stage like a cannonball." And January's Dance magazine lists Ulbricht as one of "the top 25 dancers in the nation to watch."

Can he still break boards and bricks with a karate chop? "Oh sure. And I still have a target at home for occasional drop kicks."

But these days, with his head filled with Stravinsky scores, Balanchine classics, algebra II, original choreography and the perplexities of a driver's manual, Daniel Ulbricht is happy to find his daily peace and joy at the barre and on the stage.

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