As Damian Woetzel tells it, his story begins with he and his brother having a lot of options. And that’s a big part of his outlook both personally and professionally: “To have as many possibilities as you can – no matter what you’re doing.
“My brother, Jonathon, and I had all sorts of lessons,” Woetzel says, reflectively. “Some of them, like judo, were with a bunch of kids. Others were more focused such as all types of private music lessons, which we had for a number of years. My father had grown up in Shanghai, so from a very young age, my brother and I also began learning Chinese.
“I was taken to my first ballet class when I was four years old. It was, literally, just one of many things to which I was exposed.”
The mentoring and education that Woetzel enjoyed at such an early age has carried over to his professional life two-fold. He was a world-renowned Principal Dancer with the New York City Ballet from 1985 to 2008, holds a master’s degree in Public Administration from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, is on the President’s Committee of Arts and Humanities and is the artistic director of the Vail International Dance Festival, just to name a few of Woetzel’s noted roles.
You might say that Woetzel is a man for all seasons.
Woetzel began taking ballet lessons once a week and, at age seven, performed in The Nutcracker production at the Boston Ballet. “Occasionally, I’d be in something else, a big production that needed kids,” he says. “Like Swan Lake. I’d be holding an umbrella or something. But, being on stage, maybe once a year, kept me interested. I learned to be comfortable on stage and to be in theatre and I liked that.”
On the other hand, through his father’s work as a Professor of International Law at several universities and who was a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions at Santa Barbara, Woetzel was exposed to another side of life, as well.
“My father had a long-term dream and had formed the Foundation for the Establishment of an International Criminal Court. So I went to conferences with ambassadors and diplomats and heard about the struggles, even at that time, going on to fight anti-terrorism,” explains Woetzel.
When Woetzel was 11, his interest in ballet became a priority. “I don’t think there was any intention of me becoming a dancer. It was just one of a few different things to try,” Woetzel shares. “I began having a little more interest in ballet and, suddenly, it started to snowball. It seemed I had a natural talent that had not really been apparent in my having a lesson just once a week.
“So everything else I was doing, for instance, like learning to play the flute, just drifted away. I wasn’t interested in it anymore. I said that I wanted to go to more ballet classes. By the time I was 12, I can honestly say, I knew that I was going to be a dancer – and everything else was secondary.”
One Saturday morning, as they were being driven to a ballet lesson, the brothers came to a decision. They agreed that Jonathan would no longer take ballet lessons and that Damian would no longer study Chinese.
“My brother has lived in China for 30 years, as a director for McKinsey and Company,” says Woetzel with a laugh. “So you never know, in those moments, when things are to happen.”
And, for Woetzel, things began to happen very quickly. He graduated from high school in Los Angeles at age 15. At that moment, he says, he had to make a decision. Woetzel knew that he wanted to be a dancer and soon became a member of the Los Angeles Ballet and, with the company, made his first appearance in New York.
“Because I was only 15, I had to convince the family that I wasn’t going to go to college, reveals Woetzel. “So I moved to New York and went to the American School of Ballet before joining the New York City Ballet on my 18th birthday. That was my life. That was it! I rose thought the ranks of the New York City Ballet.”
Woetzel had also been asked to join the American Ballet Theatre (ABT) and felt very lucky to have that option. “I chose the New York City Ballet, very clearly, because of the repertory – Balanchine’s works and, also, the choreography of Jerome Robbins who at the time, was working with the ballet company,” Woetzel says. “I felt that working with Robbins was being a part of the progression of dance. Dance is a young field. Balanchine dominated the 29th Century and, to me, really dominates the world of ballet over all. And that classical tradition is rooted at ABT. But I preferred to make sure that I had the both the Balanchine and Robbins trajectory, so that’s why I chose the City Ballet.”
After a few years of focusing intensely on his career, Woetzel began thinking about where, as an artist, he could fit in internationally. So, he got involved with different ventures, including the “Young Leader’s Forum,” which centered on U.S.-China relations on a cross section of fields and, naturally, Woetzel was the designated “arts person.”
“That experience bore a lot of fruit,“ Woetzel relates. “By chance, I met an incredible woman, Gabby Giffords, a State Senator from Arizona on a bus between events, who suggested that I look into a program at Harvard at the Kennedy School. ‘It’s a master’s program,’ she said. And after a little laughter, I said, ‘Well, I didn’t go to college, that’s going to be a trick.’ And she said, ’Well, it’s a mid-career program; you don’t know what might happen. There are people who have unorthodox stories, and your life suits you to this.’”
He knew it was a long shot, but when Woetzel returned home, he made arrangements to visit Harvard, took the obligatory tests and, eventually, was accepted to the two-year program. He was still dancing at City Ballet, but juggled his time to complete the degree.
If you look at the way Woetzel directs the Vail International Dance Festival, you will notice how he pays homage to the history of the past, but focuses on what he has learned, as well. He wants to have the masterpieces of Balanchine on display, where you can see the pinnacle of progress in the 20th Century – as well as the 19th Century works of Bournonville.
“I want to make sure that these works are carried on but, frankly, through the lens of the 21st century. I’m not interest in it being done in an archaic way,” says Woetzel.
“There’s always a responsibility,” continues Woetzel. “I’m always thinking about what my next step will be and what I’m hoping for. If it’s a dancer or choreographer that I bring to the festival, I think about whether I should just have people do something that they know or have them take a risk, a chance to take the environment in Vail and do something that’s appropriate and rewarding.
“When I talk to a musician, I say, ‘I know you know the piece, but what else can we do? What else can we try? Let’s do something that we know. And let’s do something that’s a risk.’ There are hard-core people, in the audience, who see classical companies all over the world. There are others, like young people who pick up dance from television shows or other ways. And, to me, what’s most important is that dance not live in isolation but that it have a life within the arts and world as a whole. So, I’m interested in musicians and composers of the day. I’m interested in looking at things from other times that reflect that. I like streamlined, not fussy, relevant work.”
It’s no surprise that Woetzel’s knowledge and enthusiasm about dance carries over to his work with the arts programs and classrooms he visits. He’s always trying to meet the activity and level of excitement that is current in a student’s world.
“When you go into a classroom, the kids look at you, and if you’re not present, they’re not going to relate to you. You don’t speak to their lives. So, you have to make something memorable,” explains Woetzel.
“So, let’s say, with Lil Buck, for instance, we have his performance of Camille Saint-Saens, The Swan. He can work with the kids on that dance. And I know that I can teach the kids Balanchine’s Serenade, Woetzel continues. “It doesn’t matter whether or not these kids are dancers. Everybody can dance. So, we do what I call, Iron Chef it. We see the ‘ingredients’ and think, ‘Okay, what can we make?’ And we make today. We make something that’s their statement. So, we’re there, in the moment.
“Being that ‘arts person’, in the beginning, has led me to a lot of things that have taken up my post-stage career. I think about what more I can do and what opportunities there are for artists. I think about arts organizations for cities and school districts.
“And that’s been a steady kind of drumbeat, for me, since that first experience.”