Cover Story

What to Expect From Juilliard's New Dream Team: Damian Woetzel and Alicia Graf Mack

Jayme Thornton

Sometimes, change happens all at once. Last year, The Juilliard School, one of the country's top conservatories for music, dance and drama, got not one new leader but three.

Damian Woetzel, a former star at New York City Ballet, took the reins as Juilliard's new president, the first in the institution's history to come from the field of dance. (The previous six have been musicians.) Evan Yionoulis was named director of drama. And Alicia Graf Mack, an exemplary dancer at both the Dance Theatre of Harlem and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, became Juilliard's incoming director of dance—the first African American, and, at 39, the youngest person to ever take up the position.


As Ara Guzelimian, Juilliard's provost and dean recently told me, "it's a generational shift." So, what does this shift mean to the institution?

The Role Model: Alicia Graf Mack

Alicia Graf Mack leads a ballet class at Juilliard

Claudio Papapietro, Courtesy Juilliard

As I watch Alicia Graf Mack teach a third-year ballet class at Juilliard, it is obvious what a model she is to the students. This is true both when she demonstrates steps—she is truly a paragon of form—and when she talks about the underlying principles behind them.

"It's exciting to have that kind of presence inside the school, someone who only left the performing part of her career very recently," Javon Jones, one of these third-year students, says. "And, as a student of color, seeing representation at the front of the room is very empowering."

As a former leading dancer for both DTH—under the exacting eye of Arthur Mitchell—and Ailey, she effortlessly embodies Juilliard's ethos: an equal focus on ballet and modern dance. She also holds a degree in history from Columbia University and an MA in nonprofit management from Washington University in St. Louis. She is an overachiever in every sense.

In class, instead of giving corrections, she tends to engage the students in conversations about ideas.

"How do you isolate the action of that dégagé?" she asks at one point. Two dancers give different answers. "I heard two ideas," Graf Mack says. "Both were really good." She suggests combining both approaches.

Later, in her office—empty minus a photo of her two kids and another, of Arthur Mitchell—I ask about her teaching philosophy.

"I like to talk about building the foundational technique in the body and also about having the information to deconstruct it. Which creates a very smart and exciting dancer," she says.

Juilliard, in her eyes, should also be an incubator for the consideration of larger questions facing the arts.

"Who defines what excellence is? What defines excellence?" she asks. "I've been trying to look at things through multiple lenses in order to find a way to maintain the sense of rigor Juilliard is known for while at the same time giving the dancers the ability to push the boundaries of what is happening today."

To that end, she has been exploring ways to increase the students' exposure to a wider array of contemporary dance forms, including contact improvisation, Gaga, William Forsythe's improvisational techniques and hip hop. She envisions making space in the schedule for classes with a focus on technology, like dance on film and choreography utilizing new media.

Todd Rosenberg Photography, Courtesy Juilliard

She's also intent on making Juilliard more representative of the city and country around it. Hers is a thoughtful approach, based on relationships and an understanding of the barriers that aspiring dancers face. "Diversity is not about looking into a studio and saying, 'You have or you haven't made the mark,' " she says.

Over the next few years, she's planning to visit performing arts high schools, which have traditionally trained a wider swath of the population (not just kids from families who can afford to send them to private dance classes). Repertory is another part of the puzzle—Graf Mack's plans include opening up the pool of choreographers to include more people of color.

With openness and curiosity, Graf Mack is building a new vision for the program. As she puts it: "I would love to have part of my legacy here be to say that wherever a dancer dreams of going, whatever direction, that we have supported that with our curriculum."

The Master of Ceremonies: Damian Woetzel

"I started studying dance and music at the same time," Damian Woetzel tells me in his expansive new office at The Juilliard School, which, incidentally, looks out over his old stomping grounds at New York City Ballet. He didn't grow up in a cloistered dance bubble; as a kid, in Boston, he took flute and guitar lessons along with dance classes.

The sense of the interconnection between the arts has stuck. "My work always overlapped with music and a sense of theater."

Woetzel, a youthful 51, was a star at NYCB for much of his 20-year career there. Since his retirement, he hasn't stopped moving. He has produced shows for the Kennedy Center (the interdisciplinary DEMO series) and sat on President Obama's Committee on the Arts and Humanities. He directed the Aspen Institute Arts Program from 2011 until last year, and still runs the Vail Dance Festival. Along the way he got a master's in public administration from Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

He brings this entrepreneurial spirit to his new position as president of Juilliard, a role that requires constant shifts of focus.

"Today I met with alumni," he says, "and then held interviews with people who might be joining our staff. Then faculty meetings and a short conversation with one of our creative associates. And it's only 2:45."

In addition to his other responsibilities, he's teaching a class on "The Arts in Society," open to students in every discipline. And he spends part of every day walking around the building, looking in on classes and striking up conversations with teachers and students.

In his first year at Juilliard, he has introduced a series of initiatives, built around the idea of bringing together artists from different disciplines, fomenting creativity and fostering a sense of community. He calls them "flags in the ground" on the way to a "gauzy and golden-hued age of creativity."

Perhaps the one he is the most proud of is Creative Associates, a program through which Juilliard invites genre-bending artists to engage the Juilliard students at different points throughout the year. They might involve the students in their own creative projects, or act as advisors and coaches, or lead workshops.

The job definition is kept intentionally open. The tap innovator Michelle Dorrance, for example, created a piece with the incoming first-year dance students for Juilliard's opening convocation ceremony. Then she came back during the early weeks of the semester to develop ideas for a premiere she was working on for American Ballet Theatre, and she also worked with musicians in the jazz program. Her interactions with the school were meant to stimulate creativity, both in the students and in her own practice.

Juilliard dance alumna and director of Gallim Dance Andrea Miller gives a master class to fourth year dancers

Rachel Papo, Courtesy Juilliard

The resident artists, and other guests, often stay on to take part in Juilliard's public programs. In October, Mitch Landrieu, the former mayor of New Orleans, came to speak to Woetzel's class and then took part in a public conversation with Wynton Marsalis (head of Juilliard's jazz program) about the musical culture of New Orleans.

Woetzel—a performer who loves talking about ideas—is a natural fit for such semi-improvised evenings, in which he often acts as master of ceremonies. "There's definitely an Iron Chef element to it," he says with a laugh, "with so many ingredients, mixed with questioning and curiosity."

Or as dean Ara Guzelimian puts it, "inside Damian beats the heart of a performing artist…and there's no question he's the producer in chief, as well."

To advance the cause of diversity Woetzel has introduced a partnership with Sphinx Performance Academy, which actively recruits and engages students from cultural backgrounds underrepresented in classical music. This coming summer, the two institutions will be partners in a summer intensive for string players, held at Juilliard, with hopes to expand into other disciplines in the future.

The ideas are big, the schedule packed, the ambitions overarching: "To my mind," Woetzel says, "Juilliard can be a vibrant, dynamic, creative, educational nirvana."

The Conversation
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Sin #2: Misaligning the spine. Photo by Erin Baiano

Throughout your dancing life, you've heard the same corrections over and over. The reason for the repetition? Dancers tend to make the same errors, sometimes with catastrophic results. Dance Magazine spoke to eight teachers about what they perceive to be the worst habits—the ones that will destroy a dancer's technique—and what can be done to reverse the damage.


Rolling In

To get a 180-degree first position, dancers will sometimes let their arches roll forward. But turnout is not about forcing your feet open; it's about opening up in the hips. “Turning out is an activity, not a position," says Irene Dowd, who teaches anatomy at the Juilliard School. “If we stop sustaining that movement, our feet will passively roll in." Rolling in places stress on the tendons of the feet and leads to injury because the rest of the body compensates for the imbalance when your knees can't line up over your toes.

Dowd warns against using only the arch to combat rolling in. “Dancers will try to lift up their arches and pull up on the inside of the ankle," she says. This can result in the inflammation of the tendons in the ankle and lead to tendinitis, a painful overuse injury that's common in dancers. What she feels are “Victorian furniture feet—feet that aren't fully in contact with the ground" should be solid in three areas: the heel, the ball of the big toe, and the ball of the little toe. Imagine how your weight is being transferred from above, through the body and down the legs, rather than gripping the foot and lifting from the arch.

Misaligning the Spine

Distorting the back, either by crunching the lumbar vertebrae and splaying the rib cage open or by hunching the shoulders forward and tucking the pelvis under, affects every other part of the body. Since the proper placement of the torso is the foundation of any movement, a dancer with a misaligned spine will develop other deadly technique sins. Problems can ripple all the way down to the extremities and upward to the neck and head. The core will be loose, unable to provide essential support. A pelvis that either tips back or tucks under will limit the range of motion in the hips.

Christine Spizzo's students at the North Carolina School of the Arts constantly work on their placement. “The one directive I give in class more than any other," she says, “is tailbone down, navel muscles lifted." She emphasizes that the tailbone lengthens downward without tucking under, and the navel muscles lift upward, not inward. This opposition allows the external rotator muscles to be actively engaged at the top of the thigh. Spizzo uses the expression the Four Ts—“no tucking, tipping, tilting, or twisting of the pelvis"—as a reminder for students.

Clenching the Toes

Clenching, curling, knuckling—no matter what it's called, this condition hampers a dancer's ability to articulate the feet. Clenched toes also make the feet an unstable platform to stand on, creating problems for the rest of the body. The muscles and tendons of the foot, knee, and ankle must work together to perform a relevé or jump, says Edward Ellison, director of Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program in New York. Clenched toes will place unwanted stress on the joints of the legs, leading to imbalance and overuse injuries. On pointe, knuckling over can damage the bones and tendons of the feet.

Master ballet teacher Sara Neece of Ballet Arts in New York says that when the first joint of the toe presses down into the floor too hard, the second joint of the toe jams into the metatarsal. For Neece, the key to remedying clenched toes lies in “bringing sensation to those unused tendons" beneath the second joint, and teaching the toes how to work in a careful and deliberate manner. While seated, a dancer should prick the back of each clenched toe with a fingernail about 20 times. Sitting on a chair with the foot on the ground, she should drag it back toward the body, slowly raising it to demi-pointe with a forced arch. Teachers must pay attention to the response of the feet to this localized work, since overstressing the tendons can damage them. Another way to teach the toes to stretch out is to weave a strip of cloth over the second toe and alternate below and above successive toes, leaving it there during barrework and nondance activities.

Giving In to Extreme Hyperextension

Hyperextended legs, in which the straightened knee naturally curves behind the thigh and calf muscles, are prized in the world of extreme ballet bodies. Christine Spizzo sings the praise of a moderately hyperextended leg line, as the leg fits snugly in fifth position, and the arabesque looks gorgeous, with that slight curve offsetting the arch of the foot. However, dancers with extreme hyperextension must take special care. “The hyperextended dancer tends to have weak external rotator muscles," she says, so the legs are more prone to collapse in on themselves when landing from a jump, letting the body weight fall on the knees. This can result in damage to the joints that maintain the alignment of the leg, including twisted knees and sprained ankles. Even if the dancer understands how to avoid giving in to her hyperextension, she has to learn how to express herself fully while restraining her legs.

But Spizzo points to dancers such as international star Sylvie Guillem, who has used her extreme hyperextension to her advantage. The dancer must think of lengthening rather than straightening or locking the knee, even if it feels slightly bent. She must develop a heightened awareness of the turnout muscles from the top of the thigh down to the calf. “The muscles must be activated to not allow the dancer to give in to the hyperextension," says Spizzo. She uses the image of the barbershop pole to encourage dancers to apply that feeling of an infinite spiral to their legs. Somatic practices such as Pilates can help to strengthen those stabilizing turnout muscles. Spizzo insists that dancers stand with the heels together in first position and never be allowed to press back into that knee joint. To do this, “the quadriceps must remain soft. As soon as you grip, it pulls that kneecap back dangerously."

Using Unnecessary Tension

“Tension," says Daniel Lewis, dean of dance at the New World School of the Arts, “pulls you off balance. It tightens the muscles and causes injury." Stiff muscles are injury-prone muscles, which make free and confident movement impossible.

Unwanted stiffness can also limit your versatility as a dancer. “Modern dance is concerned with trying to go into space off-center and off-balance," says Mary Cochran, chair of the dance department at Barnard College. “If you spend too much time holding your body stiffly, it's hard to make the transition from working in-balance to working off-balance."

Rhythmic breathing helps dissipate tension. Think of the lungs as another limb and pace the breath with the dynamics of the music. Sustain a sense of motion in the body, even when you are still, advises Cochran. Doing so will help reverse the muscle memory of using tension as a form of stability.

Pinching Your Shoulder Blades

Although used as a strategy to open the chest in front, pinching your shoulder blades together immobilizes the back. The serratus anterior on the sides of your rib cage is so overstretched that it can't work. Edward Ellison says that pinched shoulder blades impede the freedom of the arms and the support of the upper spine. He feels that they “cause your weight to fall behind your axis, and strain the trapezius and rhomboid muscles of the back."

Irene Dowd suggests thinking about widening the tips of the shoulders to the side, to allow plenty of room for the chest. “It helps to think about the chest—full of your lungs, your heart, all those organs—as a sphere," says Dowd. “We need to have enough room for all those precious organs to breathe." To relax shoulder blades, sometimes she will tell students to focus on the movement of the hands. “Is the hand really a lively part of my being?" Dowd has her students ask. “The shoulder blade should support that hand."

Getting Stuck in a Rut

While physical habits impede progress, the deadliest sin is losing the drive to improve technique at all. Franco De Vita, principal of American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, says good technique begins with a dancer's approach to class. Being present and focused enables the dancer to learn combinations quickly—and correctly. “Not listening and changing the exercise is unacceptable," says De Vita.

Michael Vernon, chair of the ballet department at Indiana University, feels the worst thing a dancer can do “is to get fixed into doing something a certain way, being safe. I love young dancers who understand that you have to dance for tomorrow, and not yesterday." Keeping an open mind means more than just trying a different preparation for a pirouette. “Being open to new styles of dance and new ways of moving the body is vital to keeping the art relevant."

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"Question," Portner asks. "Are we looking at our hands?"

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"When I started out, I wanted to be a Fred Astaire," he told us, "and after that a Jerome Robbins. But then I realized there was always somebody a dancer or choreographer had to take orders from. So I decided I wanted to become a director, namely a George Abbott. But as I got older I dropped the hero-worship thing. I didn't want to emulate anyone. Just wanted to do the things I was capable of doing—and have some fun doing them. By this time I'm glad I didn't turn out to be an Astaire, a Robbins or an Abbott." He would go on to become an Academy Award–winning director, indelibly changing musical theater in the process.

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Let's say that today you're having a terrible time following your class's choreography and are feeling ashamed—you're always stumbling a few beats behind. Do you:

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2. Feel worthless and alone? You slump your shoulders, avoid eye contact with your teacher and fellow dancers, and wish to disappear.

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