Damian Woetzel’s Greatest ‘Turn’
October 4, 2016
The Vail International Dance Festival is
more than a series of performances
Eight years ago, when Damian Woetzel, then 41,
took the stage at the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater for
his final performance as a professional, few attendees at the Vail International Dance Festival knew one of the greatest ballet dancers of his generation wasn’t really retiring at all. Rather, it was just the latest “turn” in a life committed to dance as an art form, moving graciously and in perfect balance into another as an advocate for the arts.
Woetzel had taken the reins of the Festival as artistic director two years prior, and has now given a full decade
of dedication to the annual event, elevating its status to being one of the world’s great international dance festivals while redefining its mission as a vehicle for making the
arts more accessible to all.
“I can’t believe it myself," says Woetzel, now 49. "These 10 years have flown by. But time marches on." He then shifts focus to lauding others, in typical fashion. “I can’t believe all the people who’ve been involved, from dancers and musicians, to artists of all types, to the incredible Vail staff, to audiences that have grown in so many and different ways. When I think back on 10 years, we’ve really had such a wealth of people contributing to dance and the arts in the Vail Valley.”
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For Woetzel, the son of a successful international law professor and an equally successful UNICEF programs director, it is all part of a plan that seems to have been in motion since he put on ballet slippers for his first lesson at age 4. His early exposure to ballet was just the beginning of the classical education both his parents and an influential godfather had intended for him, alongside his brother, Jonathan.
“I remember going to a little studio in our town of Auburndale, just outside of Boston. I even remember where it was, in a small storefront, and I remember walking in time to music and clapping,” Woetzel recalls. “They had little performances I wasn’t really involved in, but I watched them prepare and I got an understanding for what ballet really was.”
By the time he was 7, after performing The Nutcracker onstage as a student at the Boston Ballet, Woetzel says he was in the very early stages of becoming a dancer. “That was the beginning of what I understood to be life in theater. I remember backstage. I remember the drama of it all and really enjoying it. That alone kept me hooked for several years,” he recalls. “Then, at 11, I just tried a little harder and the results were immediately apparent…As soon as I applied a little more effort and interest and time to ballet, it was just clear it was right for me.”
Discovering he had a rare talent further bolstered his drive.
“First off, I had quite an ability to ‘turn.’ That means I could do multiple spins without a whole lot of effort, Woetzel explains. "It was something for which I had a natural gyroscope, of sorts.” It was one ballet master at Boston Ballet in particular who first identified this gift. “He gave me this step that involved turning. I was able to do two, then three, then four, and that probably was about as far as I got; but he was really taken aback by that and he said, ‘well, this is quite natural for you.'"
With a mission clearly defined and a true talent identified, Woetzel was inspired more than ever to focus on dancing. While his family continued to pressure him academically — he graduated high school at 15 — instead of heading for college, he moved to New York City to dance. Even before making the official move, he made his NYC debut as a young member of the Los Angeles Ballet in a work created for him, entitled The Young Apollo, drawing praise from some of the keenest eyes at the heart of the American dance world. Dance critic Jennifer Dunning wrote in The New York Times: "The ballet is an occasion piece, the occasion being the impressive talents and presence of Damian Woetzel."
By 18, Woetzel took the opportunity of a lifetime, accepting an invitation to join the New York City Ballet, where for the next 23 years — the latter 20 as a principal — he went on to greatness, dancing in roles created especially for him by the most important choreographers of his time — Jerome Robbins, Eliot Feld, Twyla Tharp, Susan Stroman and Christopher Wheeldon, to name a few. Accolades rained upon him along the way, including “simply magnificent” from New York Post dance critic Clive Barnes.
"[Woetzel] combined explosive pizazz with impeccable style and notable authority," Barnes wrote. "He takes his leave at the peak of his form…that perfect crossover mark between physical possibility and artistic maturity."
“Without ever seeming to act, he changes that real-life aura from role to role,” observed Alastair Macaulay of The New York Times. “His trick is he always dances each role as if for the first time…When there is a story, he tells it with perfect focus; when there isn’t, his presence and focus are such that he makes us see the architecture and atmosphere to this dance.”
Beyond Woetzel’s physical prowess and artistic maturity, there was a wide-ranging intellect pulling off impressive feats behind the scenes — most notably his earning a master's degree in public administration from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., near his childhood home — while not missing a beat at the New York City Ballet.
“Being involved in things beyond just dancing started fairly early in my career. I wound up doing my own version of education to develop myself,” Woetzel says, going on to explain how self-teaching through extensive reading and involvement in programs such as the Young Leaders Forum, a diplomatic effort between the governments of the United States and China, led him to do what seemed impossible — earning a masters degree without having a bachelors degree. “Sometimes, opportunity knocks. In this case, I’d always hoped to further my education in some way, but I never really imagined it would happen.
“At Harvard, they told me if I took my tests as well as everyone else, got my recommendations, wrote my essays, who’s going to say ‘no’? As it happened, it was a year-and-a-half program, and with the way we worked it out I barely missed anything in New York. I went for a whole fall semester, twice, and another in the summer,” he explains. “Before I knew it, I had a master’s degree. It was an incredible opportunity.”
The field of public administration covered the range of knowledge he was looking to engage, including everything from political campaigning and business strategy to rhetoric and speechmaking. His intuition to put theory immediately into practice led to many leadership prospects, including, years later, the chance to co-teach a course on performing arts and the law at Harvard Law School.
“The opportunities were wide and gave me a great range of possibilities. It was an education first, but it was also a door-opener and a way to expand what I would do when I retired from dancing,” Woetzel says. “In a very real sense, I was still on the stage but working on policy as well…and it’s what I’m still doing, even though I am not performing any longer.”
It is no wonder that Macaulay, covering Woetzel’s farewell performance in 2008 for The New York Times, sensed the presence of a person ready for even loftier ambitions. "[Woetzel] brings onto the stage the fullness of having a life off it,” he wrote. It’s no surprise, either, that Ceil Folz, then the president of the Vail Valley Foundation — which produces the Vail International Dance Festival — had already courted Woetzel two years earlier as its new artistic director. It seemed a fitting role, given that Woetzel had accepted invitations to dance at the Festival off and on since 1993.
“At first, it was a gig, like any other, where you go somewhere and dance. I remember vividly, however, that Vail was different from any other place in the world. It looked different, it felt different, the whole atmosphere was incredibly welcoming, and there was a level of excitement that made it stand out from other guesting opportunities around the world,” Woetzel recalls. “Ceil was incredibly warm, welcoming — and forceful — in convincing me it would be something the Foundation would be behind, and that it was important to the community.
“I brought with me, too, all the idealism and feeling I’d been developing at the Kennedy School, that this just wasn’t a series of performances. It had to be something more; there has to be education involved, community building, ways to integrate the Festival into people’s lives. Ceil was always on that train. She agreed with it all, right from the beginning.”
Since taking the helm of the Vail International Dance Festival and retiring from the stage, Woetzel continues to make his signature turns with remarkable focus, continuously raising the bar for himself, the people and organizations with whom he works, and the wide-reaching arts community.
Perhaps the crowning achievement thus far on a long and growing list of other awards, recognitions and honors is his appointment to the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities in 2009, along with other prominent artists in other disciplines — including cellist Yo-Yo Ma, with whom he continues to work on a variety of projects. Woetzel directed the first performance of the White House Dance Series in the East Room, hosted by First Lady Michelle Obama, and has since gone on to direct two additional educational performances at the White House.
“[The committee] came to be in 1982 and had done valuable work — but until 2009, there weren’t a tremendous number of artists involved with it…Yo-Yo and I wound up looking at each other asking, ‘What can we do with this vehicle?'” Woetzel recounts. “So, we worked to help create a program called Turnaround Arts, which places the arts as a successful turnaround strategy for failing schools around the country.”
Woetzel cites the influence and partnership with his wife, the former New York City Ballet ballerina Heather Watts, as key to his work in Vail and elsewhere, both on the stage and off. Watts, who is now an educator and remains involved in working with today's dancers, urged Woetzel in his first season as director to bring to the Festival a public dance and music education element. Working with the Vail Valley Foundation, Woetzel imported to Vail "Celebrate the Beat," an affiliate of Jacques d’Amboise’s renowned National Dance Institute, which has now brought high quality, in-school and after-school dance programs to more than 4,000 students in the Vail Valley’s public school system since its Vail launch as a one-week program in the summer of 2007. And now, Celebrate the Beat is a central part of the Vail Valley Foundation’s Making It Possible campaign as well.
“To be in the nonprofit realm, first of all, you are making a statement. You’re saying 'this is worth something to the public,' so you can’t say you just want to put on a great show and entertain. Yes, we want to do that, absolutely; we want to put on performances that are valid, that are groundbreaking. But what else? Primary among those is Celebrate the Beat,” Woetzel says. “It’s not about creating great artists — though that can happen. It’s about using dance and music to learn how to learn."
As Woetzel continues to strive to bring the arts to the masses of all demographic persuasions, he continues to impress everyone from the most esteemed aficionados of the arts to the burgeoning dance lovers of the Vail Valley.
Perhaps writer John Heilpern tapped into all this in a piece for Vanity Fair in 2011 entitled “After the Last Dance,” with the subheading “New York City Ballet’s main man for nearly two decades, Damian Woetzel is trying on other roles.”
“Do you miss dancing?” Heilpern asked. “Perhaps the thing I miss most is that when you’re dancing, everyday concerns vanish,” Woetzel replied. “It’s a unique world.” When asked recently to elaborate, Woetzel still agrees. “It’s true. Dancing is a unique world. You go onstage and, for that time period, you’re in a different place. The time-space differential is completely changed.”
Is it like skiing, in which making turns is everything and one’s mind is free, at least for that moment, of those everyday concerns? “That’s it, absolutely,” he says. “I get that.”
— By stephen lloyd wood