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.)
Before too long, dancers and choreographers will get to create on the luxurious 170-acre property in rural Connecticut that is currently home to legendary visual artist Jasper Johns.
If you think that sounds far more glamorous than your average choreographic retreat, you're right. Though there are some seriously generous opportunities out there, this one seems particularly lavish.
Every dancer has learned—probably the hard way—that healthy feet are the foundation of a productive and happy day in the studio. As dancers, our most important asset has to carry the weight (literally) of everything we do. So it's not surprising that most professional dancers have foot care down to an art.
Three dancers shared their foot-care products they can't live without.
Dancers trying their hand at designing is nothing new. But they do tend to stick with studio or performance-wear (think Miami City Ballet's Ella Titus and her line of knit warm-ups or former NYCB dancer Janie Taylor and her ballet costumes). But several dancers at American Ballet Theatre—corps members Jamie Kopit, Erica Lall, Katie Boren, Katie Williams, Lauren Post, Zhong-Jing Fang and soloist Cassandra Trenary—are about to launch a fashion line that's built around designs that can be worn outside of the studio. Titled Company Cooperative, the luxe line of women's wear is handmade in New York City's garment district and designed by the dancers themselves.
Royal Ballet dancers Yasmine Naghdi and Beatriz Stix-Brunell recently got together for a different kind of performance: no decadent costumes, sets, stage makeup or lighting. Instead, the principal and first soloist danced choreography by principal character artist Kristen McNally in a stark studio.
The movement is crystal clear, and at the beginning, Naghdi and Stix-Brunell duck and weave around each other with near vacant stares. Do they even know they have a partner? And how should they interact? The situation raises a much larger question: How often do we see a female duet in ballet?
As a student, Milwaukee native John Neumeier appeared in an opera at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. As Hamburg Ballet's artistic director and one of the world's leading choreographers, Neumeier now returns to the Midwest to direct and choreograph a new version of Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice, a co-production of the Lyric Opera, LA Opera and Hamburg State Opera. Set to open in Chicago September 23 with the Joffrey Ballet, the ambitious work will see additional engagements in Los Angeles and Hamburg over the next two years.
How did you come to be involved with this collaboration?
It was initiated by the director of the Lyric Opera, Anthony Freud, but I had already been in contact with Ashley Wheater about a separate project with the Joffrey Ballet. The two things came together—and this was really interesting to me because Chicago was important at the start of my career. I was born in Milwaukee, but most of my training was in or near Chicago.
You've previously created version of Orpheus for Hamburg Ballet. What about this particular production caught your interest?
When I got this offer from Anthony, I just went back to the piece and tried to sense what it meant to me now. Gluck's Orphée was part of a push to reform opera and to make a complete work of art involving music, text and dance. What interests me—particularly in this French version we are doing—is that dance plays such an essential role. When Agnes de Mille choreographed Oklahoma!, it was considered a revolution in musical theater, because dance moved the plot along. In Orphée, we can see that the same idea had been realized several centuries ago: that dance would not be just a divertissement, but a theatrical element, literally "moving" the plot along and expressing in another form the emotion of each situation.
Another idea in Orphée which fascinates me is its directness in projecting profound human emotions—emotions not used as an excuse for vocal virtuosity, but expressed in simple and direct musical terms. In Orphée, we have a mythical subject which is related in an extremely relevant, familiar, human way.
What happens when drones become part of the dance? For Margaret Jenkins Dance Company's latest work, Skies Calling Skies Falling, video artists David and Hi-Jin Hudge used a drone hovering 200 to 400 feet above the ground to film the dancers performing in an industrial granary. The resulting footage will be projected onto the floor and walls of the Taube Atrium Theater, creating a dystopian backdrop to the live performance.
Alex Carrington of MJDC, Photo by RJ Muna
It's been 34 years since Sir Kenneth MacMillan's Mayerling touched down on American soil, when The Royal Ballet first performed the great English master's tour de force ballet stateside. On September 22–24, Houston Ballet becomes the first North American company to perform MacMillan's epic chronicle of the murder-suicide of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Crown Prince Rudolf, and his 17-year-old mistress, Baroness Mary Vetsera. Chronicling the last chapter of the Hapsburg Empire, the ballet is known for its true-to-life realism, and for the role of Rudolf, which transformed the way male ballet dancers drive a story. It's considered a dream role for a male dancer. And with seven pas de deux with five different women, a deadly difficult one at that.
Driving Houston Ballet's Mayerling train is principal Connor Walsh, who nearly missed this opportunity to dance the part when Hurricane Harvey flooded Houston Ballet's theatrical home, Wortham Center. Now moved to the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts and back in rehearsal, Walsh took a break from his busy schedule to talk about the role of a lifetime.
Have you ever felt like your relationship to dance is something of an addiction? Not to worry, that's completely normal—it's simply the way our brains are wired.
This week, The Washington Post published an intriguing feature that looks at the science of what actually goes on upstairs when we're watching a live performance. The insight comes from the emerging field of neuroaesthetics, which uses tools like brain imaging to study the relationship between art and the brain.
Here are some of the most fascinating takeaways: