Damian Woetzel extends term as artistic director of Vail International Dance Festival
he Vail International Dance Festival last month announced that Damian Woetzel would extend his term as artistic director, securing his vision for the world-renowned event through 2018. This summer will mark Woetzel’s 10th year as artistic director of the festival, which opens in Vail on July 30 and closes Aug. 13.
“This is great news for the Vail International Dance Festival, it’s great news for us and it’s great news for the world of dance,” said Mike Imhof, president and CEO of the Vail Valley Foundation. “Damian has brought a level of brilliance to the festival that has placed this event in the highest echelon of artistic presentations, and we are looking forward to helping him achieve his vision for the festival in the years to come.”
From the beginning
Woetzel came to Vail for the first time in 1993, performing at the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater as part of the International Evenings of Dance, which at that point was a handful of couples dancing from different companies hailing from around the world.
“I continued to come back periodically over the next years for those performances,” he said. “As the festival started growing, I’d bring groups of dancers from companies I’d put together from the offseason of the New York City Ballet. …
“When I was approached and asked to direct the festival in 2006, I knew a lot about it already. I had an appreciation for what could happen here, especially with regards to the venues. At the time, I thought that the amphitheater was such a unique space, a unique place to see dance and to dance.”
Woetzel continued to perform with the New York City Ballet for the first two years he directed the Vail International Dance Festival, applying his knowledge of what would and wouldn’t work in the somewhat unorthodox space of the amphitheater.
“It lends itself greatly to doing things that are experimental,” he said. “When you think about a ballet in the state that it normally exists, like Balanchine’s ‘Serenade,’ you picture this ballet on stage at the New York City Theater, at Lincoln Center. You put it on our stage at the amphitheater, and it’s an entirely different thing.”
The ballet remains the ballet, nothing changes in the steps or the music, Woetzel said, but the dancers are surrounded by nature in a way they never would be in a traditional theater setting, sharing the space with the faint sound of flowing water from Gore Creek and the occasional squirrel that flits across the stage.
“I think to myself, OK, what would look different that we could try this year? And then that quickly becomes, who should dance here that is interesting for them? Who should they dance with that’s unusual?” he said. “It lends itself to doing things that are beyond the norm.”
Making his mark
Woetzel established many of the programs and performance nights that have become cornerstones of the Vail International Dance Festival’s programming. He said trying to choose the one that brings him the most pride is like trying to choose a favorite child, but NOW: Premiers, a signature program since 2011, is definitely a standout.
“Originally, we just did premieres that occurred on select performances,” he said. “Then we made a performance that was all about them. With that comes a nice obligation of being a part of that work of creating new things.”
The program has made the festival a leading venue to see world premieres in a variety of dance disciplines and has featured choreographers from Paul Taylor, Christopher Wheeldon, Fang-Yi Sheu, Alexei Ratmansky, Shantala Shivalingappa and Pam Tanowitz to Lil Buck, Brian Brooks, Matthew Neenan, Jill Johnson, Silas Riener and Rashaun Mitchell.
Among the things that the Vail International Dance Festival has accomplished during the past decade, Woetzel said some have been specifically about bringing dance to the Vail community. Celebrate the Beat started as a summer project in 2007 and has become a resource for teaching local children to value artistic expression through music and dance.
“Now it goes year-round here, bringing music and dance into the lives of students,” Woetzel said. “As a tool for learning everything from being a part of a team to understanding what it means to perform in every sense of that word, it has been a huge event to me.”
Dancing in the Streets brings the Festival performers off the stage and into the public arena, with not only performances but also participation by the audience.
“When you come into Vail to dance, in most cases, it’s simply not enough to come and dance on the stage,” Woetzel said. “We’re also going to do a performance in town to teach the public some of what you might be doing on the stage.
“Those things are directly related to building a community that feels that what goes on, on the stage, is not separate from real life. It’s magical when you sit down in your seat and the music starts, but it’s a magic that you can feel and experience yourself that’s important to me.”
10 years of dance
Under Woetzel’s artistic vision, the Vail International Dance Festival has received wide acclaim for its innovation and growth as a nationally recognized showcase for dance. During the past 10 years, he has made Vail the launching point for important new dance ventures and every year has brought prominent dance companies to the valley.
“For decades, Damian’s body of work has spoken for itself,” said Judy Berkowitz, chair of the Vail International Dance Festival committee. “He has enlightened and entertained audiences throughout his career, and he has shown an unmatched ability to comprehend where dance is heading, even while extolling its classical history and values.”
Woetzel said he’s approaching 10 years as a nice landmark to reflect on what the Festival has accomplished and continue to build upon that legacy, with new works, more collaborations and a continued presence in the community.
“The wonderful thing about looking back on 10 years is thinking about all the people who have experienced the festival, whether from the audience or the viewpoint of the dancers or choreographers,” Woetzel said. “It’s cumulative; it builds over time. There are people who come to Vail specifically for the Dance Festival beyond the people who live here and cherish it.”