Dancers & Companies

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.)

It's no secret that affording college is a challenge for many students. And for dancers, there are added complications, like the relative lack of merit scholarships that take artistic talent into consideration and the improbability of a stable salary to pay off loans post-graduation. But no matter your budget, a smart approach to the application process can help you focus less on money and more on your training.

According to Drexel University performing arts department head Miriam Giguere, figuring out the kind of financial assistance a school offers is just as important as navigating what kind of dance program you want. Here's how to incorporate finances into your decision-making process:

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Thinkstock

When dancers get injured, they often think they should eat less. The thought process goes something like, Since I'm not able to move as much as I usually do, I'm not burning enough calories to justify the portions I'm used to.

But the truth is, scaling back your meals could actually be detrimental to your healing process.

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Photo by Theo Kossenas, courtesy The Washington Ballet

With her fearless demeanor onstage, it's easy to see how Washington Ballet apprentice Sarah Steele attracted the keen eye of former American Ballet Theatre stars Julie Kent and Ethan Stiefel. Promoted mid-season from the studio company by artistic director Kent, Steele was cast by Stiefel as the lead in Frontier, his world premiere for The Washington Ballet, this past spring. For the space-themed piece, Steele donned a black-and-white "space suit" onstage, exhibiting dual qualities of strength and grace. Most evocative about Steele's dancing might be her innate intelligence—she was accepted to Harvard on early admission, and plans to resume her studies there in the future. But first, she'll dance.

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Lots of college groups do stepping—a form of body percussion based on slapping, tapping and stomping—but Step Afrika! is the first professional dance company to do it. They are currently at New York City's New Victory Theater, presenting The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence, a show based on the painting series by Harlem Renaissance artist Jacob Lawrence about The Great Migration of the 1900s, when millions of African Americans fled the Jim Crow South and traveled by train to the North for a better life. The Great Migration transformed the demographics of the country, and Jacob Lawrence's paintings became famous for their bold color and evocative power.

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Health & Body
LINES dancer Courtney Henry. Photo by Quinn Wharton

We always figured that stretching made us more flexible by loosening up our muscles and joints. Some of us, ahem, might have even tried to fall asleep in our middle splits to get our stubbornly stiff inner thighs to let go.

But it turns out that might not actually be how stretching works.

A new review published in the Scandinavian Journal of Science & Medicine in Sports suggests that increased flexibility actually comes from your brain growing more used to the tension.

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Training
Laurel Jenkins, Photo by Vincent Beaume

Efficient movement is easy to recognize—we all know when we see a dancer whose every action seems essential and unmannered. Understanding how to create this effect, however, is far more elusive. From a practical perspective, dancing with efficiency helps you to conserve your energy and minimize wear and tear on the body; from an artistic point of view, it allows you to make big impressions out of little moments, and lasting memories for those watching.

So much struggle and determination goes into your training that it can be difficult for early-career dancers to recalibrate their priorities toward simplicity and ease, says Laurel Jenkins, freelance performer and Trisha Brown Dance Company staging artist. "Your aesthetic might shift, and you might have to find new things beautiful." Mastering the art of effortless movement requires a new perspective and a smart strategy—on- and offstage.

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Breaking Stereotypes
Still from La Folía. Shot by Olivia Kimmel, Courtesy Adam Grannick

As we approach Thanksgiving, there's much to be grateful for. Perhaps one of the most important things on your list is dance. Whether you're a full-time company member, an aspiring professional, an audience member, or you simply delight in dancing in your daydreams, this art form is a creative escape.

That's not to say that being a dancer is easy: Pursuing such a competitive career can be heartbreaking, especially when you're faced with rejection.

La Folía, a short dance film by director Adam Grannick that was recently released online, echoes these sentiments in under 12 minutes.

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Advice for Dancers
Pixabay

It took two years of intense nutrition counseling and psychotherapy to pull me out of being anorexic. My problem now is that I've gained too much weight from eating normally. Is there no middle ground? I can't fit into my clothes, but I don't want to go back to being sick.

—Former Anorexic, Weston, CT

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Dancers & Companies
Photo by Johan Persson, Courtesy ROH

Whatever your feelings about Wayne McGregor's heady, hyper-physical choreography, we can all probably agree on one thing: We'd really, really love to pick his brain. And tomorrow, Dance Umbrella, a UK-based dance festival, is giving everyone the chance to do exactly that.

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Dancers & Companies
Nisian Hughes

"Women are often presented as soft, fragile little creatures in ballet," says Léonore Baulac. "We're not." The Paris Opéra Ballet's newest female étoile is discussing her unease at some of the 19th-century narratives she portrays. "It was real acting," she says with a laugh of La Sylphide. "James kills her by taking away her wings, yet she tells him not to worry and goes to die elsewhere onstage!"

Sitting in the canteen of the Palais Garnier, Baulac embodies some of ballet's contradictions in the 21st century. With her fair curls and dainty features, she could easily pass for a little girl's fantasy princess. As Juliet, she exuded a girlish ardor that felt entirely natural; her reservations notwithstanding, her Sylphide was committed and carefully Romantic in style.

Yet the 27-year-old is no ingénue. At Garnier that day, her sweater reads "I can't believe I still have to protest this s**t," a feminist slogan; last winter, Baulac proudly wore it over a Kitri tutu on Instagram. And her repertoire is as thoroughly modern as she is offstage. A versatile performer even by Parisian standards, she is equally at home in Nutcracker as she is in the works of Pina Bausch and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker.

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