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.)
We knew that New York downtown dance darling Okwui Okpokwasili was a big deal. Critics and audiences have been raving about her dance-theater works for years, and the new documentary about her, Bronx Gothic, has attracted the attention of the larger arts community.
But never in our wildest dreams did we imagine she'd show up in a Jay Z video, along with flex dancer Storyboard P. Though we're slightly less surprised to see Storyboard in Jay Z's "4:44" video than we were to see Okpokwasili, we're jazzed that two of our favorites are featured on such a huge platform. (We're also feeling #blessed that we didn't have to subscribe to Tidal to watch this.)
Throughout the years, choreographer Seán Curran has worked with a diverse array of talented collaborators—from Kyrgyz music ensemble Ustatshakirt Plus to the the Grammy Award–winning King's Singers. But perhaps none are as meaningful as his most recent group of co-choreographers: At-risk teens from the after school program and nonprofit The Wooden Floor.
Curran has been in residence with The Wooden Floor since June, where he's worked with students to build choreography based on their lives and communities:
Their creation will be shown July 20-22 at The Wooden Floor Studio Theatre in Santa Ana, California.
"Besides the stage, baking is my other happy place," says New York City Ballet corps member Jenelle Manzi.
Four years ago, she thought her baking days were over when she was diagnosed with gluten intolerance. Manzi had been dealing with pain, frequent illness and joint inflammation for nearly 10 years. Once she cut out gluten, Manzi gradually started to feel better, noticing a transformation in how her body felt and functioned. She found her joints were less inflamed, and she got sick less often.
New York City Ballet soloist Unity Phelan and American Ballet Theatre soloist Cassandra Trenary spend every day making their hard work look effortless and graceful both in the studio and onstage. That's exactly what makes them the perfect spokesmodels for the dance-inspired activewear line, Belle Force.
To celebrate our 90th anniversary, we excavated some of our favorite hidden gems from the DM Archives—images that capture a few of the moments in time we've documented over the decades.
This image was captured during a 1978 New York City Ballet tour that took the company to Copenhagen—home turf for Adam Luders (right), who trained at the Royal Danish Ballet School and briefly danced with the company before joining NYCB as a principal dancer in 1975. Next to Luders is (of course) George Balanchine, in conversation with ballerina Suzanne Farrell. And looking on with a smile? NYCB's current ballet master in chief Peter Martins.
On March 8, 2016, Rami Shafi found himself inspired to film an impromptu dance video of his best friend, Aaron Moses Robin, improvising on Gay St. in New York City's Greenwich Village. Thus was born Pedestrian Wanderlust, a collection of dance videos that has grown to include a monthly improv jam.
Shafi works with anyone who wants to take part in the project, filming videos in locations chosen by the dancers and later adding music. The videos are shot on Shafi's iPhone in one take and, other than the starting and ending points, are entirely improvised. The editing afterwards—including the music choice—is minimal. "I don't like to edit too much. It's just what it is," says Shafi. "I usually can do the editing on the train ride home."
Many people see dance and choreography as separate pursuits, or view choreography as a dance career's second act. For some dancers, however, performing and choreographing inform one another. "That's just the kind of choreographer I am. I feel things so deeply in my physicality. I have to do it to know it," says Jodi Melnick, who is a prolific performer of her own work. She also maintains an active practice as a performer for other choreographers: Throughout her career, she's worked with Trisha Brown, Twyla Tharp, Tere O'Connor and Donna Uchizono, to name a few.
Though a dual career can be fulfilling, simultaneously inhabiting the roles of dancer and choreographer requires focus, organization and a great deal of energy.