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Damian Woetzel—Our Guy in the White House
Damian Woetzel is power blasting through different orbits at once. It seems to me that the style, ebullience, clarity, and commitment he showed onstage as a dancer at New York City Ballet has completely transferred to his activities offstage and behind the scenes. Here are some of the ways he’s shown leadership.
He’s (re)created a dance festival in Vail, Colorado that has brought different genres of dance together in unlikely ways—some of them becoming wildly popular. He’s put ballet, modern, and street dance on the same page, breaking aesthetic and class boundaries. The synergy he’s able to create reached a pitch with last month's pairing of cellist Yo-Yo Ma playing Saints Saens’ The Swan while Lil' Buck moved, sometimes swanlike, through his gorgeous Memphis jookin’. The video, caught on Spike Jonze’s cell phone, has gone viral and gotten more than a million hits.
Over at NY City Center, Damian created Studio 5, an informal dance-and-talk series where he presents stars like Wendy Whelan and Eddie Villella in a down to earth way.
In 2009 and 2010, he produced the opening gala of the World Science Festival at Lincoln Center, involving cultural stars like Joshua Bell, John Lithgow, Anna Deavere-Smith—and Tiler Peck.
And just yesterday, when I saw Damian at a lunch for the Astaire Awards committee (that we are both on), I learned that he had just come back from the White House, where he attended a meeting on arts education. Here is the full explanation of the photo you see here. He was obviously very moved by Obama—amazingly calm under pressure, and totally committed to the arts.
And btw, he’s also curated dance at the White House. Michelle Obama asked him to oversee a program that honored Judith Jamison in the East Room of the White House. He not only organized a tribute made up of modern, ballet, and hip hop, but he also invited 100 students to take an Ailey workshop there. The First Lady spoke glowingly about the range and power of dance.
And yet he still occasionally dips into the area he knows best: dance and dancing. I love this clip of him coaching Tiler Peck and Joaquin De Luz in Robbins’ Three Chopin Dances at Vail.
In the Vail program this year, he’s giving opportunities to those two guys from Minneapolis who brought down the house at Fall for Dance—Buckets and Tap shoes; emerging choreographer Emery LeCrone; Forsythe disciple Richard Siegal; and Charles “Lil’ Buck” Riley again. They get to rub up against more established folks like Mark Morris, Trey McIntyre, and Christopher Wheeldon. It’s exactly the Big Mix kind of thing I find exciting, that I included as Number Five in my Seven Reasons Ballet Is Thriving blog post. Get the full schedule of Vail International Dance Festival here.
But before Vail happens in August, right here in Central Park, Damian has masterminded an edition of the Silk Road Project that brings 400 sixth-graders to perform with Yo-Yo Ma, Bill Irwin, and Bobby McFerrin. So we’ll be able to see his magic touch on June 7 at SummerStage's Mainstage.
I was sad when Damian retired from performing in 2008. I knew I’d miss the way he lit up the stage with his terrific dancing. But it’s been wonderful to get wind of the other stages he’s been lighting up since then.
What Damian has done is to find ways for ballet, modern, and street dance to interact, and for dance and the other arts to interact, creating cultural hybrids that make us rethink our own borders. This takes the mind of a real impresario to do this—a Diaghilev for today’s world.
That's Damian seated in the back on the left, at the President’s Committee on Arts and Humanities meeting in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, May 11, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.)
My dance coach wants my word that I'll keep competing under his school's name for the next year and not audition. I'm 18 years old and already doing lead roles and winning medals. I love his teaching, but shouldn't I be ready to go out and get a job?
—Gil, Las Vegas, NV
How do we make ballet, a traditionally homogeneous art form, relevant to and reflective of an increasingly diverse and globalized era? While established companies are shifting slowly, Richard Siegal/Ballet of Difference, though less than 2 years old, has something of a head start. The guiding force of the company, which is based in Germany, is bringing differences together in the same room and, ultimately, on the same stage.
Before she became the 20th century's most revered ballet pedagogue, Agrippina Vaganova was a frustrated ballerina. "I was not progressing and that was a terrible thing to realize," she wrote in a rough draft of her memoirs.
She retired from the Imperial Ballet stage in 1916, and for the next 30-plus years, devoted herself to creating a "science of ballet." Her new, dynamic teaching method produced stars like Rudolf Nureyev, Alla Osipenko, and Galina Ulanova and later Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov. And her approach continues to influence how we think about ballet training to this day.
But is the ballet class due for an update? Demands and aesthetics have changed. So should the way dancers train change too?
For many dancers, a "warmup" consists of sitting on the floor stretching their legs in various positions. But this strategy only reduces your muscles' ability to work properly—it negatively affects your strength, endurance, balance and speed for up to an hour.
Save your flexibility training for the end of the day. Instead, follow a warmup that will actually help prevent injury and improve your body's performance.
According to the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science, a smart warmup has four parts: "a gentle pulse-raising section, a joint mobilization section, a muscle lengthening section and a strength/balance building section."
Claude Debussy's only completed opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, emphasizes clarity and subtlety over high-flung drama as a deadly love triangle unfolds. Opera Vlaanderen and Royal Ballet of Flanders are commemorating the 100th anniversary of the composer's death with a new production of the landmark opera that is sure to be anything but traditional: Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet are choreographing and directing, while boundary-pushing performance artist Marina Abramović collaborates on the design. Antwerp, Feb. 2–13. Ghent, Feb. 23–March 4. operaballet.be/en.
Black History Month offers a time to reflect on the artists who have shaped the dance field as we know it today. But equally important is celebrating the black artists who represent the next generation. These seven up-and-comers are making waves across all kinds of styles and across the country:
When a new director began transforming Atlanta Ballet a couple of years ago, longtime dancer Alessa Rogers decided to finally explore her dream of dancing in Europe. "I always had this wanderlust," she says. She wasn't set on a particular city or company, but thought learning French would be fun. She began her research that September, making note of repertoire and the number of dancers as well as which companies employed foreign, non–European Union dancers. "I saw that Ballet du Rhin was looking for dancers," says Rogers. "They also had a new director coming in, so I thought it could be an opportunity." After sending a video, Rogers traveled during her layoff week to take company class. She was offered a job on the spot.
Uprooting and moving out of the country, far away from your support system, language and customs, is not something to take lightly. While it can push you as an artist and be an exciting opportunity for personal growth, working as a dancer in a foreign country comes with its challenges. Lots of research and an adventurous spirit are required.
Justin Lynch is surprisingly nonchalant about the struggles of being a full-time lawyer and a professional dancer. "All dancers in New York City are experts at juggling multiple endeavors," he says. "What I'm doing is no different from what any other dancer does—it's just that what I'm juggling is different."
While we agree that freelance dancers are pro multitaskers, we don't really buy Lynch's claim that what he does isn't extraordinary. In fact, we're pretty mind-boggled by the career he's built for himself.
At the annual Gala de Danza in Los Cabos, Mexico, the lineup of performers is usually pretty typical gala fare: You can expect celebrity performers like Lil Buck, reality stars like Ballet West's Beckanne Sisk and "So You Think You Can Dance" finalist Tate McRae, plus principals from top companies like New York City Ballet's Tiler Peck and Daniel Ulbricht.
What's absolutely not typical? The venue.
At 5'10" I felt like an ant in the studio with Alonzo King LINES Ballet. The San Francisco-based company is full of statuesque dancers whose passion is infectious. Every story was told not only through their movement, but through the expression on their faces and their connection to one another.
We talked to artistic director Alonzo King about his love of collaborations and why he thinks politicians need to dance more.