Dancers Trending

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.)

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