Ryan Summerlin July 29, 2011
Even when he’s standing still, Damian Woetzel is in motion. You can see it in his eyes, and in his body language. The energy he exudes is charismatic, contagious, and a little bit intoxicating. The director of the Vail International Dance Festival, which begins Sunday and runs through Aug. 13, is a former New York City Ballet dancer. He took over the festival in 2007, officially retired from the stage in 2008, and earned a master’s degree in public administration at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. This is a man who doesn’t seem capable of stopping. And over the course of the next two weeks, while hordes of dancers and choreographers fill our valley with their own boundless energy, it’s even more doubtful Woetzel will find the time to stand still. As he said, it’ll be “fast and furious and wonderfully exciting.” We can’t wait.
Vail Daily: What excites you about the festival?
Damian Woetzel: Running the festival is great, great fun and very fulfilling. I’m able to work with such a variety of artists and pair people up that don’t normally work together and do all kinds of things that are really rewarding in terms of a creative point of view. So much goes on in such a short period of time and one of the challenges is to be able to do it in a condensed environment. There is a tremendous amount of time that goes into making it happen. And then it’s so fast and furious; it’s wonderfully exciting.
And, then, there are moments when things finally come together and you think, ‘Wow,’ that’s the sum of a tremendous amount of thought – and life, for a second, feels daunting. But, for me, it’s just the excitement of it. And then I’m on to another project with that added steam and I look at the project and think, ‘Where can we go with this?’
VD: What is your creative process for the dance festival?
DW: There are a few factors that go into how I make up a program. Some choreographers arrive with a piece virtually finished based on what they want to do – whether it comes from the music or the dancers participating in the ballet. There is a wide variance as to how these pieces are created. For instance, Emery LeCrone is going to go to work with director, Gill Bogs, from the Colorado Ballet to create a piece. Christopher Wheeldon is going to do most of his work and in Vail. He has chosen his dancers and I’ve spoken with him about the venues and where it’s going to happen. Chris takes it from there. Charles “Lil Buck” Riley is bringing a new piece that will probably start in Los Angeles. The pieces are all very individual in nature because a lot of different factors go into it – including length, personnel, type of music and other things we haven’t yet thought about.
VD: What is your role as curator?
DW: I put together performances all year long. And that essentially is curating. So, for instance, I’d bring a group to Vail with a mission of doing repertoire, maybe not seen in Vail, or have a new piece created. It’s very natural for me to take that one step further and apply it to a larger frame and ask, “What else are we interested in and how do we bare down on that?” For instance, look at the dance on television. It’s been growing in popularity and it’s just a fascinating thing. And I think, what does that mean for the stage? What does that mean for dance? Is there a real relation or is it just for television? What do we have here?And I wanted to explore that and the festival framework really gives me the opportunity to do that.
VD: How do you approach rehearsals?
DW: When I danced, I preferred life on the stage to the rehearsal process. Rehearsal for me was the traditional: the pianist at the piano, talk about the tempo, go through it, make sure you have the stamina, think about ways to differentiate one performance from another, yada, yada, yada. And in the end, what I cared about was what was going to happen when I walked out on the stage. What I was going to feel like and will that work and what will be creative about it.
These rehearsals are something else entirely. Yes, we’re tying to get to that moment as well, but wow, look at all these added values that are going into this process. And for me that’s another chance of huge creative development that can be rewarding.
VD: How do you engage the audience?
DW: Really, I want the audience to feel involved more than simply as a viewer. There’s the traditional model where the audience comes in and they simply watch. Wherever possible, I like to bring in the new things. I love the idea that the audience has a little bit of a higher level of engagement. It creates a kind of relevance in a different way than just watching something. It’s the same as an education. I found out, in the things I do in the educational world, that the way a lesson is learned, truly, is actually participating in some way rather than simply receiving information. So, I carry that with me to the festival.
VD: Many people were surprised when you retired. What made you decide to hang up your dancing shoes?
DW: It’s complicated. My body was absolutely fine when I stopped dancing. But, I felt it was a logical time to do so. I always wanted to stop when I still felt great on stage. I wanted it to be a happy finale, so to speak, and I worked towards that. My choice of timing was based on a number of factors and other interests when I moved forward – like going to Kennedy School at Harvard and working on a lot public policy projects. Then, I began thinking about running the dance festival in Vail. And life was becoming quite rich off the stage. Also it was a logical time to stop dancing – I was in my 40s and was very lucky to have an injury-free career.