Bring on the Europeans: it's the Nikolaj Hubbes Of The World Who Make Ballet an Essential Art

This afternoon I saw another “Traditions” program at NYCBallet. Go here for my description of the program and the ballets. My reason for re-seeing this program was basically that a young dancer, Daniel Ulbricht, debuted in the lead role of Balanchine’s “The Prodigal Son.” But first, Nikolaj!

The first ballet on was Balanchine’s “Square Dance” which I wrote about earlier. This is a dance that combines classical ballet with modern, American folk dance. This time, instead of Andrew Veyette dancing the male lead, we had Nikolaj Hubbe… soon to become NYCB legend Nikolaj Hubbe, as he leaves NY next month to return to Denmark to take over the Royal Danish Ballet. He’s just so wonderful, watching him is making me so sad; I feel like every performance of his from now until he leaves will be bittersweet. He’s so dramatic, so full of expression; I really hope before he leaves he can teach some of the other dancers how dramatic dancing is done. For example, the way he reaches out to something in the distance, looking out over his arm — it both elongates the line and infuses the pose with meaning. The way he flexes a foot and regards it, the way he bends a standing foot, then looks back over his shoulder at it — like it means something; it’s not just an empty image. The way he looks to a place on the stage, then runs to it; it’s like he absolutely must be there for some reason. We don’t know what the reason is, but we know it exists in his mind and we’re compelled by it. And the way he throws himself so fully into every move: when he takes a solid stand in fourth position and pushes outward as if against some opposition; the way he throws his upper body forward or backward far over his center seemingly with abandon; even just the way he holds his hands, curling his fingers. Everything he does is so full of intent and passion — this is a story-less ballet and you don’t always know what the meaning of his movements is, but that doesn’t matter. It is there and you can sense it and it draws you to him, into his world, and you’re just so sorry when it’s over and you have to leave it. I see so few who dance with that intensity and expressiveness and conviction. During the intermission, Wei, Philip‘s partner, told me it’s a European thing. That Nilas Martins dances the same way. Then please please please bring on the Europeans! Isn’t the Ballet Master- in- Chief Danish? Can’t he impart some European wisdom to his dancers? Can’t he bring over some friends from the Old World. Come on, Mr. Martins, you can’t just let Nikolaj go without a replacement! Ugh, why am I just discovering him at the end of his time here… The Royal Danish Ballet is so going to thrive.

Okay, moving on to Daniel Ulbricht‘s debut in “Prodigal Son.”

(all headshots, by the way, by Paul Kolnick, and from the NYCB website).

Well, there were many bloggers there today (as we had a nice little blogger get-together on the promenade, much of which I unfortunately missed thanks to an enormous line at the ladies’ room — but thanks so much to everyone who showed up and sorry if I missed any of you!) Anyway, as I was saying, there were many bloggers there today and I’m sure all of them are going to give Mr. Ulbricht glowing reviews. So, knowing that, I feel I can step out of the mold and speak my mind and be a little harsh. The complete antithesis of Hubbe, Ulbrich is a jumper, not an artist. He can jump really really really really really really really high. How high? Really high. Which is good; it provides a great many thrills for all of the teenage girls in the audience — and oh were they there today, giggling, cheering, laughing and squealing, up in the balcony. And it’s also very athletic, so I don’t mean to diss the high jumps. I shouldn’t say he is a jumper rather than an artist; maybe I should say he is an athlete rather than an artist. But my point is, he came out onstage and performed these huge leaps, NOT in order to express his character’s angst and need to get out and see the world, but in order to please those teenage girls in the audience. And I’m sorry but that annoys me greatly. He seemed to realize this early on and tried to correct it by lashing out and making angry faces at his “family.” But the angry faces were too much by that time — he overdid it and it and it seemed almost cartoonish.

In the middle scenes with the Siren, I felt like he became more himself, but too much so. He regarded the Siren the way a guy on the street would look at a cute girl. He was into her, and he let her know it. But I didn’t see him becoming bewitched by her, entranced by her spell so that it was impossible to escape. I didn’t see any real seduction; it was more like flirting.

I felt he did the best with the third part — when he was beaten and broken and trying to find his way home. But I still felt as he crawled along the floor, spotted his house, reached out for his mother, and finally embraced his father — that none of it came from within, that it was all how he thought a “prodigal son” would act. He needs to find those emotions within himself though; he needs to find his own prodigal son, make the character his own. Otherwise it looks fake and it fails to move the audience.

I do think Mr. Ulbricht has artistic potential. I felt all the things I mentioned above with ABT’s Herman Cornejo at first too, and he’s now one of my favorites. Maybe it’s just a youth thing with all the crazy jumps and bravura leaps — wanting badly to impress. It makes sense. He just needs to decide who it is he wishes to impress.

There was a new Siren too — Teresa Reichlen. I liked her beautifully expressive wrists, and, at the end of her scene, when she snatched the prodigal son’s golden chain, she had wicked greediness written all over her face. But I felt like she wasn’t much of a seductress. I realize those lifts are very very hard — standing up on the guy’s bent knees and trying to keep balance, sitting on his head while he lifts you that way, no hands… It makes sense that everyone is deep in concentration, especially two dancers who are performing the roles for the first time, which necessarily takes away from their ability to throw themselves into the roles. I do wish though that Mr. Martins would try Georgina Pazcoguin in the role. This season she’s proven herself one of the most dramatic ballerinas in the company and I really would love to see what she would do with this part. Please, Mr. Martins, let Georgina have a shot! Please, please! Janie Taylor would also be interesting. Where has she been lately?

And then the evening concluded with Jerome Robbins’s “The Four Seasons,” which, again, I described here. I really liked Sterling Hyltin in Winter. She was adorable in her shivering surprise at being snatched up into a high lift by a rolling snowball of a man, then accidentally bumping butts with a bunch of snowflake ballerinas, causing a flurry of further shivers.

Tyler Angle also impressed. He didn’t have a large part, but when he was onstage with three others, all jumping, one at a time, then together or in pairs, I noticed he looked curiously at his fellow dancers, as if asking to see what kind of spark they’d give to their little hop. The others simply looked straight on and did their jumps. It’s things like this that make a performance something far more than just a recital of choreography. Angle is getting absolute loads of critical acclaim from all the critics, so I don’t need to point out that he’s good. But this kind of engagement with a dance is why people take notice of him.

Finally, I was also mesmerized by Antonio Carmena as Fall’s impish little faun. I saw Daniel Ulbricht in this role last time, and Antonio also did well at the bouncing jumps and leaps, but he was more focused on character. And his elfin little Cupid, playing mischievous matchmaker with the leads, was charming. I haven’t seen much of Carmena but can’t wait to see more!


  1. Janie Taylor was in the audience for PRODIGAL; she would make a terrific Siren. Right now she is making a comeback from a prolonged injury; she danced in BRANDENBURG in January and I am hoping she’ll be doing more ballets in February.

  2. I’m so sorry I didn’t get a chance to see you during that second intermission but I know how impossible it was to see everyone when you have to deal with long lines for the restroom as well. You also know how much I admire your “eye” for the ballet and your perceptive critical observations. However, I do have to say for the record that I could not disagree more with your assessments of Danny and Tess. Both of them are young and will obviously grow and mature in those roles but as far as debuts in difficult roles go, I think that both of them and Danny in particular were quite sensational. I have seen Prodigal many times (performed by Damian Woetzel and Peter Boal in the Prodigal role and Karin von Aroldingen, Suzanne Farrell, Darci Kistler and Maria Kowroski in the Siren role) and I have rarely found the ballet as powerful and moving as it was on Sunday. I felt that both Danny and Tess made their characters wholly believable and truly captured the dramatic intensity of the ballet. But then disagreements with one another are the stock-in-trade of balletomanes, right. On the flip side of the coin, I strongly agree with your comments on Nikolai Hubbe. Although there have been long stretches when for one reason or another he was not dancing much, he will definitely be a big loss for the company, But to end on a positive note, I would point out that since Hubbe has been teaching at SAB for quite a few years now, we can hope that his European expressiveness and passion on stage will have rubbed off to some degree on some of the extremely talented young male dancers currently emerging in the corps and soloist ranks at NYCB.

  3. Thanks for the update, Philip — I didn’t know she was still injured. Bob, sorry I missed you all too! That’s good to know about Nikolaj — that he taught for years at SAB. Well, I am definitely going to miss him…

  4. What a great review! It sounds like a lot of exciting things are happening at NYCB, will be looking forward to more NYCB reviews.

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