Growing up dancing Damian Woetzel on Vail International Dance Festival’s draw for young audiences By Shauna Farnell
Given that children love to dance – as evidenced by the constant presence of twirling toddlers on the lawn at Gerald Ford Amphitheater, even during the most serious of Bravo! classical music performances – the Vail International Dance Festival has an innate draw for families.
Festival director Damian Woetzel knows a bit about the appeal dance can have to a child. It begins with simple movements and the utopia that comes with putting movements together and learning from the fluid movement of the world’s best dancers.
Retired Principal Dancer at the New York City Ballet, Woetzel was actually drawn to the stage slowly as a small child. Dance wasn’t immediately his calling but simply one of the hobbies his parents were trying out on him.
“I started ballet when I was 4 years old, but only once a week … if that,” he recalls. “Once a year I was in The Nutcracker and that would get me out on the stage for a month. I was very lucky in that I was introduced to a lot of different options for things to try – musical instruments and different activities not meant to be a life choice, just a well-rounded, cultural education. Ballet was one of those and it grew to overtake the rest. There was something about the dancing that was more potent to me.”
The stage and the excitement of being applauded for his grace and artful movements was addictive. By the time Woetzel was 11, he was so entranced by dance that he would study the pros at every possible opportunity. He even maneuvered his way into local theaters in Boston just to be immersed in the scene.
“The physicality of it, the movements, I liked that. It was an achievement as I got better, being on a stage and performing,” he recalls. “When I turned 11, it became a six-day-a-week commitment. I would go to everything I could, everything that was happening. I would sneak into theaters. I knew my way around the theater in Boston, so I would pretend I knew what I was doing and make my way through where the staff and performers entered the building.”
Also, Woetzel’s own talent began to shine. It became progressively recognized as he grew into his teens and went on to take starring roles in the film rendition of The Nutcracker, Swan Lake and Dinner with Balanchine and then, of course, his 50-plus feature roles in The New York City Ballet’s massive repertoire of performances.
When he retired from the stage in 2008 there was an outpouring of recognition and high-profile sendoffs written up in The New York Times, Vanity Fair and The Telegraph. But he could have never imagined this future during his time as a young boy when the ballet was growing on him, and he with it.
“I remember being in a boys class on Saturday mornings when I was first at Boston Ballet school at age 7, which was very unusual though I didn’t know it at the time. What happened later of course is that there were fewer boys. But there was always that sense of specialness. I knew it wasn’t the most normal thing to do but it was what I got attention for and I became committed to dancing. By the time I was 12, I was convinced that this was my life’s work,” Woetzel says.
After performing with the New York City Ballet for more than 20 years, Woetzel took on the role of director and choreographer, and in addition to his work with the Vail International Dance Festival over the last eight years, he has produced and directed numerous events and performances in New York City and throughout the country, even at the White House, where President Obama appointed him to the President’s Committee on The Arts and Humanities.
Woetzel has worked extensively introducing dance to students, launching mentorships and children’s programs across the country, including Celebrate the Beat, the local nonprofit organization focused on teaching and inspiring Vail Valley students through dance and artistic expression.
Seasoning the next generation of dancers and dance enthusiasts is always a consideration for Woetzel as he formulates each summer’s International Dance Festival, and in looking at the 2014 lineup, there are several performances he believes are ideal for families and young audiences.
“To me the point has to be to have range of appeal, to make the festival an immersive thing. It’s not just what goes on the stage, but also the fact that we have people dancing in the streets. We want kids there interacting with the professionals,” Woetzel says. “There are a couple of very entry-level performances for families new to dance and the lawn is an incredible opportunity to come any night.”
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