With the charisma of a movie star, Damian Woetzel has been irresistible to audiences at New York City Ballet for 23 years. One of the best virtuosos of his generation, he is also a gloriously relaxed performer. He brought bursting spirit to Stars and Stripes, tossing off amazing turns and jumps like fireworks. He was all dreamy sensuality in Afternoon of a Faun, and a cocky cowboy in Western Symphony. He was a sailor who loves to get his pals into trouble in Fancy Free. In A Suite of Dances, he held the audience rapt as he passed through a wide range of moods.
So it was with heavy hearts that many of us attended his farewell concert in June. But our hearts grew lighter as the evening progressed, simply because Woetzel projected a sense that this is the right time. He took it in stride that there were standing ovations after each piece: Fancy Free, “Rubies,” and Prodigal Son. During his farewell bow, when dancers and choreographers lined up to say goodbye, he spontaneously lifted Eliot Feld about two feet in the air. While Peter Martins cued the orchestra to play a drum roll, confetti rained down and Woetzel kept his arms out, like he was singin’ (and dancin’) in the rain.
Woetzel, 41, said, “I felt like last Wednesday was a dream. I have so loved my time onstage at State Theater; there are a million memories.”
This summer, he went on a farewell tour to Italy organized by Alessandra Ferri. Woetzel has also been named the 2008 Harman-Eisner Artist in Residence at the Aspen Institute. And at the Vail International Dance Festival this summer, which he now directs, he danced Sinatra Suite with NYCB’s Tiler Peck—“That’s a dance that has been on my wish list for a long time.”
Woetzel’s long-term plans include setting up a foundation to support cultural diplomacy initiatives. But first, he’ll serve on Barack Obama’s Arts Policy Committee. “I feel so lucky to have had the career I have enjoyed, and now it’s time for Act II.” —Wendy Perron
National Ballet of Canada principal Jennifer Fournier, 39, gave her farewell performance in June in bare feet and a flurry of rose petals. Toronto fans cheered her poignant interpretation of Ashton’s Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan, taught to Fournier by the role’s originator, fellow Canadian Lynn Seymour. Company members showered her with flowers onstage.
Fournier trained at Canada’s National Ballet School and joined NBC as an apprentice in 1984, rising to principal in 1997. A fine dance-actress, she performed many of the full-length classical roles, but she was particularly notable in works by Balanchine, Glen Tetley, and former NBC artistic director James Kudelka. Given her appetite for contemporary choreography, in her farewell performance Fournier aptly also danced in Forsythe’s the second detail.
In fact it was her second farewell. She danced her supposed final performance in 2000 when she was four months pregnant. However, after her daughter’s birth Fournier was lured back to dance with the Suzanne Farrell Ballet and rejoined NBC in 2002.
It was after the birth of her son last year that Fournier, finding fewer new roles coming her way, made the difficult decision to retire. “When I’m inspired, I could dance forever,” she says. “If I’m not busy, I get bored.”
Fournier, highly articulate and intelligent, is unlikely to remain a full-time mom for long. She is already weighing higher education options. A new career cannot be far away. —Michael Crabb
Cyd Charisse (1922–2008)
With her passing, the era of great dancing movie musicals has become one for the history book, and, when it is written, it will tell the story of the former Tula Finklea of Amarillo, TX, who metamorphosed into Lily Norwood, and then, definitively, into Cyd Charisse.
She was the last of the screen’s dance divas, and she came by her status honestly. Charisse trained in ballet with legends like Bronislava Nijinska, Adolph Bolm, and David Lichine and toured with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. She was noticed by the Hollywood moguls and attracted attention in bits in the MGM movies of the 1940s. Then came a trio of musicals, all co-directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, that propelled her into stardom.
When, in the “Broadway Rhythm” number in Singin’ in the Rain, Kelly almost collides with Charisse’s leg and traces its infinite length with his eyes, he makes voyeurs of us all. She got her first lead in The Band Wagon, and her stroll through Central Park with Fred Astaire to “Dancing in the Dark” remains one of the movies’ foremost essays in telling a story and capturing a relationship through movement. Charisse brought exotic beauty, dauntless technique, and sheer star power to a medium that could never get enough of any of them. —Allan Ulrich
Robert Rauschenberg (1925–2008)
A titan of American modernism, visual artist Robert Rauschenberg collaborated with Merce Cunningham and John Cage early on, helping to define the startlingly contemporary look of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Beginning in 1954, Rauschenberg designed some 24 pieces for Cunningham, always working on separate but equal terms.
In the 1950s, Rauschenberg also created set designs for Paul Taylor; his wonderfully weird costumes for Three Epitaphs (1956) are still in the current repertory. He collaborated often with Trisha Brown, for whom he once designed a coat of roses to wear during a curtain call. He made it artistically possible for her to migrate from smaller spaces and outdoor work to the stage. His five decors for her include the exhilarating Set and Reset (1983).
In the 1960s Rauschenberg took an antic tilt at choreography himself, including the 1963 Pelican, in which he wore rollerskates and a parachute (while Carolyn Brown wore pointe shoes).
On the afternoon of Rauschenberg’s death from heart failure, Cunningham said, “He was a dear friend and a great artist. Together we erased boundaries between the arts.” —Nancy Dalva and Wendy Perron
From top: Woetzel at his farewell performance. Photo by Paul Kolnik; Charisse in the movie
Silk Stockings (1957). Photo from the DM Archives.