Along with chestnuts roasting on an open fire and dashing through the snow, The Nutcracker ballet has endured for generations as a universally beloved holiday tradition. Carolina Ballet Theatre once again draws Clara and her enchanted Nutcracker Prince from a fairy tale’s pages and into familiar scenery with The Nutcracker: Once Upon a Time in Greenville, a fantastic reimagining crafted by artistic director Hernan Justo. New York City Ballet principal dancer Daniel Ulbricht will mark his Greenville debut as one of two renowned guest professionals that will join the talented company’s opening night production (Jeanette Delgado, principal of the Miami City Ballet, will also perform). Daniel spoke to us about coming to Greenville, his prep for The Nutcracker, and giving back as an artist.
What do you look forward to most with this performance in Greenville?
“We’re just excited to be here. This is a new audience for me personally, and being able to share this energy, this choreography, and this opportunity with the students in Greenville is amazing. It’s a chance to act as a sort of ambassador to the community. I think we assume everyone knows what goes on in New York, so when we have the ability to go to people in their own backyard, it really resonates. I feel honored that we are able to enhance that culture, and help audiences see Hernan’s contribution to the dance world.”
What makes The Nutcracker such a timeless piece?
“I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that it’s a story ballet. You don’t have to come in and worry about being ‘read’ on an abstract piece or composer, because the music is friendly and the story is told right before your eyes. It’s sort of like filling in the blanks. People know The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy; they know the March. They know a production like this exists, but when they get to see the music, the dancing, and the story together, that’s what creates the magic. I think people enjoy seeing that and sharing it with their entire families. It’s become a tradition in that way, especially at this time of year.”
How do you prepare for a show like The Nutcracker?
“For the Nutcracker pas de deux, I’ll be dancing with Jeanette Delgado of the Miami City Ballet. We’ve danced together before, so what we’ll do from our end is work with each other to be on the same page choreographically and get everything up to speed. That way, we can capitalize on our time with the students, and make it look like we’ve had months to prepare with them instead of just a few days. That’s sort of the beauty, because it involves all these layers and interactions. There’s such a beautiful exchange of ideas and inspiration. It’s a very fun thing, but it’s part of the process to tell the story accurately. We can’t stop in the middle of a performance and say, ‘Ok, audience. Let us do a quick rehearsal.’ We want it to be seamless.”
What elements attract you to work in certain productions?
“First, repertory work is usually a very enticing offer. I don’t perform The Nutcracker pas de deux in New York, so any time I have the opportunity to perform this particular role, I value it highly. I respect it so much that that itself would bring me in. The people you end up interacting and working with is also a huge part. I always tell people there’s no handbook in this career. It’s knowing teachers, students, and mentors, and making yourself available to pass on traditions in the dance world. I had worked with Hernan years ago, so when he called, I said, ‘Absolutely. How can I help?’ It’s who you’re working with, the connection you have with them, and of course just the role itself. That’s something very special.”
What keeps you motivated?
“I have been performing The Nutcracker as a professional for 17 years, but as a dancer, it’s been over 20. One thing that helps me stay very fresh is realizing there’s probably one person in that audience who’s never seen it before. It’s my role to open someone’s eyes to what dance looks like. To what ballet looks like. The intricacies, the athleticism, the musicality, the style. When you start to look at it that way, you realize you’re a part of the audience’s personal history with dance versus just clocking in a show. You’re their first guide. The technique doesn’t change, so it’s really the responsibility of a dancer, regardless of age or role, to engage that audience. Live performance is constantly arm wrestling the digital world, but nothing is a replacement for the experience of music and dance. My hope is that no one’s on their cell phone the whole time. That they forget about the market or the weather, they’re sitting in the audience saying, ‘I’m engaged.’”
What have been the most formative experiences for you as a dancer?
“My sister had danced, so that was sort of the influx of how I got involved in ballet. I also had two extraordinarily supportive and loving parents, who whether I decided to do ballet, or be a gymnast or a trash man, they would support me in that. I think that in itself is the best thing any kid could have in terms of guidance, in any field. A great teacher or mentor, somebody that could lay the bread crumbs along the way. That’s what encouraged me to leave Florida and move to New York to pursue my dream. And I’m still surprised by this profession every day. I’ve been doing it for a long time, but there are still things around the corner that my eyes haven’t seen, which is really stimulating. People doing what they love from the beginning is so rare these days, and I feel blessed I can give with all my heart every time I walk out on stage. Locking yourself in a studio and dancing is a wonderful outlet, but when you have the ability to impact an audience, it changes everything.”
What do you consider to be the greatest accomplishments in your career?
“I guess one of my most gratifying and personal ones would be using my dancing career to give back. I have a small touring group that brings dance to places in the U.S. that don’t really have it. I use my visibility in the dance world to hopefully inspire these communities to support the future and culture of dance. I also coproduce an annual benefit with one of my best friends called Dance Against Cancer, and as of next year, we’ll eclipse over a million dollars raised for the American Cancer Society. When you realize that your gifts have an impact, have a weight, have a bigger purpose than you, that to me is the definition of what success is. As a dancer, you hope to hit that pirouette or nail that turn, but when you look at it in terms of accomplishment, you set out to find something that calls you to serve. When I feel that, it means I’m in the best place as a performer and as a director.”
What inspires you?
“I look at Baryshnikov as sort of the epitome of the male dancer. When you see someone like that who’s still very active in the dance world as a performer with the same drive and ambition, I find that inspiring. A teacher gave me a piece of advice once to see everything out there. I see and do a lot of dance obviously, but I try to see a lot of other things, from theater to musicals, plays and musical concerts. Seeing everything else that’s in these other disciplines is how I feed myself as an artist. The challenge in dance is to stay healthy and inspired. If you have the craft along those with those other two things, that’s when you have the biggest impact.”
What would you say is the ultimate goal of your career?
“To one day be an example for other people to follow and know that their own dreams can be a reality. I want to teach the future generation and inspire others to know that regardless of their age, they can give back and make a difference. There’s always going to be dance, but you want to have artists who think bigger than their careers. And I’d like to maybe buck the trend that every dancer or artist is a ‘diva.’ I want people to know that the same person delivering a beautiful show onstage is the same person that you can stop and say hello to. Art can be the medium of giving back, and that’s a big culture thing that people are starting to figure out now.”