Damian Woetzel’s Next Chapter in Dance

Johnny Gandelsman, Lil Buck, and Damian Woetzel. | Photo by Erin Baiano.

Is there life after being a major star in the world of ballet?

If you’re Damian Woetzel, a principal dancer at the New York City Ballet from 1989 until his retirement from the stage in 2008, the answer is yes — and then some. Woetzel was a definite star. Choreographers like Jerome Robbins, Eliot Feld, Twyla Tharp, Susan Stroman and Christopher Wheeldon all created works for him.

“I think for dancers it’s never very easy to make that decision and know when to make it,” Woertzel said in an interview.  “But I think if along the way, you’ve already made some decisions and observations about the world of dance and performing arts,  and done some things that take you outside performance, but are creative nonetheless, you get a pretty good idea of what to do next.”

Next for Woetzel became quite a diverse and big thing: he’s already choreographed several ballets for NYCB, has performed in films and television, got a M.P.A. from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, was honored with the inaugural Gene Kelly Legacy Award on the anniversary of the great American popular dancer and movie star’s birth, taught a class at Harvard Law on the performing arts and law. In 2009, he was named to the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, where he worked to create the Turnaround Arts Program, which brings arts education to a number of the nation’s challenged school districts. He collaborated with Yo-Yo Ma to create ArtStrike, which has become a format for artists to engage in public service.

He is currently (since 2007) the director and producer of dance and music performance and artistic director at the Vail International Dance Festival and has produced portions of the Kennedy Center Honors, an arts salute to Stephen Hawking and the first performance of the White House Dance Series. 

He is also a very visible director of the Aspen Institute’s Arts program, focusing on the arts and education, social justice, economics and diplomacy.

There’s a theme to this thick resume — several of them, in fact — involving collaboration and cooperation across disciplines (not only arts disciplines) and genres, with a deep focus on education. It’s become clear that the Kennedy Center and other institutions are taking this approach to heart, seeking out new audiences and new forms of arts.

“Much of what I’ve done is to work with other artists, active or retired, to increase arts education, to get artists who come from different disciplines and genres to work together and create new works that will appeal to broader audiences,” he said. “There’s no such thing as one kind of music, one kind of dance, one kind of theater.”

One of the outcrops of this approach is “Demo,” a series of performance arts events produced and choreographed by Woetzel that brings together diverse artists working together on a theme. The first occurred last fall with “Demo: Time” and featured the participation of poet and scholar Elizabeth Alexander, soprano Jacqueline Bolier, cutting edge flutist Claire Chase, dancer Robert Fairchild, violinist and composer Colin Jacobsen, dancer and actress Carmen de Lavellade, comic actor Bill Irwin, composer and singer Gabriel Kahane and dancer Tiler Peck, who was the star of the Kennedy Center production of “Little Dancer.”

The second installment, titled “Demo: Place,” to be performed at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater Friday and Saturday, practically defines the word eclectic and the idea of collaboration as a fusion of inspiration and flight. The headliners are Memphis jookin’ dance pioneers Lil Buck and Ron “Prime Tyme” Myles.

“Lil Buck is an eclectic, adventuresome, really gifted artist,” Woetzel said. “And the idea here is a kind of tour, a cultural time and travel machine.” “Jookin,” he writes in the program notes, “is a dance that is a developing style born on the streets of Memphis only a few decades ago. The heart of the style is growth through improvisation and cross pollinating. It’s about building a new language, a common language that other artists can build on. . . . Art is always specific but it has a universal resonance, it comes from one place or another, but it can bind us together in the world.”

That spirit is evident not only with the presence of Lil Buck and Myles, but such performers as musician Sandeep Das, Johnny Gandelsman on violin, the great and high-spirited star of Gaita, Christina Pato from Galicia, Wu Tong on the sheng, David Teie on cello and singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Kate Davis.

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