When it comes to dance, it’s all about the feet. Without them, dancers wouldn’t be able to twirl, twist, spin, glide, jump or slide across the floor in ways that continue to amaze us. Since its debut in 1988, thousands of pairs of feet have graced the stage at the Vail International Dance Festival, bringing audiences to their own feet many times. In honor of its 25th anniversary, here’s a look back at some of the most memorable people who’ve danced during the festival’s long run; the ones whose feet often spend more time flying and leaping rather than touching the ground.
1989: Madame Golovkina starts it all
In 1989, the Bolshoi Ballet Academy of Moscow was touring the U.S. for the first time in 20 years. Artistic director Madame Sophia N. Golovkina agreed to let the company perform in Vail that summer. Despite a torrential downpour on its first night, the Academy sold out all three of its performances, setting the stage for what would eventually be known as the Vail International Dance Festival.
1993: Debut of Damian Woetzel and International dance stars
1993 was a big year for the festival. The first International Evenings of Dance were held, bringing the first U.S. performances of Paris Opera Ballet Company’s Agnes Letestu and Jose Martinez.
Stuttgart Ballet dancers Beatriz de Almeida and Stephen Greenston performed Jiri Kylian’s contemporary pas de deux from “Return to a Strange Land”.
“Kylian’s work was seldom seen in the USA in 1993 and has had a very significant influence on the evolution of ballet today,” said Katherine C. Kersten, artistic director of the festival from 1992 to 2006.
Also that year, Damian Woetzel made his debut at the festival as a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet. A world-renowned star in the world of dance, Woetzel has had pieces created for him by Jerome Robbins, Eliot Feld, Twyla Tharp, Susan Stroman and Christopher Wheeldon. After performing at the festival many times throughout the past two decades, Woetzel became its artistic director in 2007.
1994: Wendy Whelan wows crowds
Ballerina Whelan first danced at the festival in 1994. One of the only dancers still performing today to have directly worked with the famed director and choreographer Jerome Robbins, Whelan is currently a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet whose presence on stage continues to make headlines.
1996: Joan Boada beats the competition
Joan Boada danced as part of the new Ensemble series that year.
“(Boada) was a rising young dancer with incredible talent who had won all the major international ballet competitions,” Kersten said. “(He) brought audiences to their feet with his incredible performances.”
San Francisco Ballet artistic director Helgi Tomasson attended Boada’s first Vail performance, and he is now a principal dancer with the company.
1998: David Hallberg studies for a summer in Vail
Hallberg was a 16-year-old unknown dance student in ’98 when he spent the summer with the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Vail. Now, Hallberg is an international ballet star, and the first American and first foreign principal dancer to join the historic Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow. He splits his time between the Bolshoi and the America Ballet Theater and has returned to Vail to perform multiple times. Hallberg told the Associated Press in 2011 that when he was growing up in the Midwest, all the other boys in his class brought hockey sticks to show-and-tell, but he brought his brand new tap shoes.
2002: Colleen Farrell and Colin Dunne infect festivalgoers with Riverdance fever
Farrell and Dunne, former stars of Riverdance and Dancing on Dangerous Ground, brought the Irish step dancing sensation to Vail audiences that year. If you’re unfamiliar with Riverdance, then you must have been hiding under a boulder for most of the ‘90s and early 2000s, as one couldn’t turn on the TV without seeing Mr. “Lord of the Dance” himself, Michael Flatley, kicking and stepping his way into our living rooms and sparking a phenomenon that continues to this day. Fun fact: The style of Riverdance debuted in 1994 at the Eurovision Song Contest, where it received a standing ovation.
2007: Savion Glover taps for a packed house
Taught by tap legend Gregory Hines, Glover developed his own style dubbed “free style hard core” and helped bring tap dancing back into the mainstream with his hit 1996 musical “Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk.” Glover tapped for a sold-out audience in Vail in 2007, and he returned with ‘da noise and ‘da funk again in 2009 and 2010.
2007: Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon launches Morphoses
The festival has a tradition of showcasing original pieces from upcoming choreographers, and more than one new dance troupe has made their first appearance there. When Wheeldon presented the first six dances of Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company, many received an instant standing ovation. Even The New York Times was surprised.
“Could any new ballet company have begun with more good will and eager applause than Christopher Wheeldon’s Morphoses?” the newspaper asked rhetorically in its 2007 review.
2011: Small screen stars dazzle the stage
The television series “Dancing with the Stars” began in 2005, rejuvenating an interest in ballroom, tango and B-list celebrities like Donny Osmond, Ralph Macchio and Kirstie Alley. The dance competition craze then took America by cha cha, with many of the dancers becoming celebrities in their own right. The festival’s first Dance TV showcase allowed for those dancers to take the spotlight, and for local audiences to meet their favorites from shows including “So You Think You Can Dance” and “America’s Best Dance Crew” in addition to DWTS.
“Dance is getting so hot right now,” said dancer Kent Boyd in a 2011 interview with the Vail Daily. “All these dance shows on TV are opening the eyes of America to teach people what good dancing is.”
Dance TV continues to be a popular program for the festival and returns this year on Aug. 10.
2011: Charles “Lil Buck” Riley introduces Memphis jookin’
Riley was an artist in residence at the festival in 2011, where he performed five different programs. Sometimes referred to as “urban ballet”, the intricate and fluid footwork of jookin’ melds the grace of traditional dance styles with a hip-hop flow and groove. If you haven’t seen Riley’s awe-inspiring performance with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, check it out on YouTube, where it has more than two million views. Riley returns to the festival again this year for the Opening Night Celebration on Sunday and for “Upclose: Footwork,” a 25th anniversary benefit performance on Wednesday.
After 25 years, the Vail International Dance Festival has certainly grown up, but it’s still growing. Somewhere in the wings of the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater there’s a nervous young dancer, waiting to become the next Hallberg, Whelan, Glover or “Lil” something. Watch those feet carefully, because you never know which ones are made for walking, and which ones are made to fly.