Dancers & Companies

Damian Woetzel Named Juilliard's New President

Damian Woetzel rehearsing Misty Copeland at Vail Dance Festival. Photo by Erin Baiano, courtesy Vail

A dancer is taking over Juilliard: Damian Woetzel will be the school's next president, starting in July 2018.

It's just the latest feat for the former New York City Ballet star who's racked up an impressive list of accomplishments since retiring from the stage in 2008. After earning a master's degree in public administration from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard (while still dancing), he became director of both the Aspen Institute Arts Program and the Vail Dance Festival. He's also taken on wide-ranging side projects—from producing shows featuring Lil Buck, to being a visiting lecturer at Harvard Law School, to serving on President Obama's Committee on the Arts and Humanities.

Now, he'll be leading the country's most prestigious performing arts conservatory and its $110 million annual budget. He's only the seventh person in Juilliard's 112-year history to hold this position—and the first to come from the dance world. We spoke to him today to learn more.


Woetzel at last year's Dance Magazine Awards. Photo by Christopher Duggan.

Congratulations! How did this opportunity come about?

I've known Juilliard my whole life, essentially. I took my first class at School of American Ballet when it was still in the Juilliard building, and it's been ever-present in many ways ever since. I've had quite a lot of intersection with Joseph Polisi, the Juilliard president for last three decades. In fact, his book "The Artist as Citizen" inspired my going to the Kennedy School and a lot of the work I've done.

The school asked what I thought about taking on this position. My instant reaction was that this is an unbelievable culmination of so many different things I'm passionate about.

What excites you about Juilliard?

The combination of music and dance and drama in one place. And training the new creative forces of tomorrow, working towards what I would consider the golden age of creativity. I believe passionately that collaboration is how we are at our most creative. We can do things together that we cannot do alone.

I remember being in the cafeteria when I was at SAB, and the music and the acting and the people rehearsing in the common rooms. The feeling that it was all part of one big creative enterprise always stuck with me as some sort of beautiful ideal.

Will you still be involved with Vail or Aspen Institute at all?

Over the next year, I will be listening and learning and discussing strategies for the future here at Juilliard. But I will stay with Aspen until June 2018.And I'm going to do Vail this year and next year as planned, and am in conversations to see if there are ways to maintain my relationship with the festival in a new form in the future.

Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild rehearse at the 2009 Vail International Dance Festival with Damian Woetzel. Photo by Caitlin Kakigi, courtesy Vail.

Any ideas yet about what you want to bring to Juilliard?

My focus is very much on maintaining the incredible level of both excellence and citizenship that Dr. Polisi has created here. I want to take the history that is embodied in this building and in Lincoln Center and work toward creating a new generation of citizen artists.

You have created such an incredible post-performing career, and have been such an example for other dancers in that way. Do you feel any pressure?

Not so much pressure as fortune. I feel so incredibly lucky in have had these opportunities. And frankly, that is a huge part of the philosophy I bring to the arts education work I've done: Providing opportunities, because the possibilities are exponential the more opportunities there are.

I always think that I just happened to be introduced to ballet. And if I hadn't, I would have been walking around my whole life with this thing that I was ultimately so suited for. And I think we all have those things within us that we don't even know about.

The opportunities of learning, of experience, of experimentation, inquiry and being curious, providing those platforms is what I dream about doing here.

What does it feel like to be back in the Juilliard building again?

I stood on the stage today to greet the faculty, staff and students, and I remembered that I did my workshop performance here 32 years ago this month before joining City Ballet. And I just remember the magic of the place. It feels extraordinarily inspiring.

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New York City's Dante Brown used rubber Trump masks in his work Package (revamped), which examines the monstrosities of power.

A video titled "Dancers vs. Trump Quotes" went viral last summer, showing dancers taking Trump's "locker-room" talk to task.

Alexis Convento, lead curator of the New York City–based Current Sessions, dedicated a whole program to the concept of resistance, while educator and interdisciplinary artist Jill Sigman has initiated a workshop called "Body Politic, Somatic Selves," as a space for movement research around questions of support, activism and solidarity.

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Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.

Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.

Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."

If you're interested in supporting the project, check out the online shop, or donate directly at swandreamsproject.org.

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