Dance Festival celebrates 10 years with artistic director Damian Woetzel
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 of the Vail International Dance Festival knew one of the greatest ballet dancers of his generation wasn’t 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.
The ambitious young man, who’d taken the reigns of the festival as artistic director two years prior, has now given a full decade of hard work and dedication to the annual event, elevating its status as one of the world’s great international dance festivals while redefining its mission as a vehicle for making the arts more accessible to the masses.
“I can’t believe it myself; these 10 years have flown by. But time marches on, I guess,” said Woetzel, now 49, before lauding others, in typical fashion. “I can’t believe all the people who’ve been involved, from dancers to musicians to artists of all types, audiences that have grown in so many and different ways. When I think of 10 years, I think, wow, we’ve really had such a wealth of people contributing to dance in the Vail Valley.”
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‘A natural gyroscope’
For Woetzel, son of a successful international law professor and an equally successful UNICEF programs director, it’s all part of a plan he seems to have had in his mind since he first put on ballet slippers. His first ballet lesson came at 4 years old, the beginnings of a classical education those parents, and an influential godfather, had intended for him, along with his brother, Jonathon.
“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 said. “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 in “The Nutcracker” onstage as a student at the Boston Ballet, Woetzel 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 said. “Then, at 11, I just tried a little harder and the results were just different than with anything else I’d done. … 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 real talent for ballet at age 12 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; it was something for which I had a natural gyroscope, of sorts,” he said, going on to tell the story of when one of the ballet masters at Boston Ballet 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 quite taken aback by that and he said, ‘well, this is quite natural for you — and your attention is good, and focused.’”
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 heading to New York officially, he made his debut there as a young member of the Los Angeles Ballet in a ballet created for him titled “The Young Apollo,” drawing praise from some of the keenest eyes at the heart of the American dance world. Dance critic Jennifer Dunning, for example, 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 final 20 as a principal — he danced 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,” wrote 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, meanwhile, there was a wide-ranging intellect pulling off impressive feats behind the scenes — most notably earning a master’s degree in public administration from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, at Cambridge, Massachusetts, near his childhood home — while never missing a performance.
“Being involved in things beyond just dancing started fairly early in my career. I wound up doing my own version of education, reading or other ways to develop myself,” Woetzel said, going on to explain how 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,” he said. “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 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. Before I knew it, I had a master’s degree. It was an incredible opportunity.”
Public administration covered the range of knowledge in which he was looking to engage, he said, everything from political campaigning to business strategy to rhetoric and speechmaking. All that led to many things, including his going on, years later, 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 also was a door-opener and a way to expand what I would do when I retired from dancing,” Woetzel said. “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.”
So, it’s no wonder Macaulay, covering Woetzel’s farewell performance in 2008 for the New York Times, observed the presence of a person far more focused and ready for even loftier ambitions.
“(He) brings onto the stage the fullness of having a life off it,” Macaulay wrote.
Vail was different
It’s no wonder, either, that Ceil Folz, then the executive director of the Vail Valley Foundation, promoter of the Vail International Dance Festival, already had courted Woetzel two years earlier as its new artistic director, to replace the outgoing Katherine Kersten. Woetzel, after all — in addition to everything else he was doing — had been accepting invitations to dance at the summer 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 than 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 said. “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.”
“Since bringing Damian Woetzel on as our artistic director 10 years ago, there is no doubt that his influence and vision and capacity to take some risk with new works has catapulted the Vail International Dance Festival into a new realm of success on a world stage,” said Harry Frampton, the Vail Valley Foundation’s chairman of the board.