Dancer Damien Woetzel on how to make art a relevant, productive part of any place

In the ballet world, Damian Woetzel is a rock star. A one-time New York City Ballet principal, he retired in 2008, his last performance marked by a burst of critical praise, a shower of blooms and an ovation that lasted ten minutes. Since then, he's been busy. It's impossible to list all his projects, awards and enthusiasms, but here's a sample: Woetzel serves on the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities, is director of Arts Programs for the Aspen Institute, co-founded the Jerome Robbins Essential Works Program, worked with Yo-Yo Ma on Silk Road Connect, a program in New York City schools that focuses on "passion driven education"; directed an arts salute to Stephen Hawking at Lincoln Center for the World Science Festival; and helps bring music to wounded veterans through Arthur Bloom's MusiCorps program at Walter Reed Army Medical Center -- not by bringing in artists to perform, but by getting the vets themselves involved in the intense work of music making.

"Arthur is incredibly perceptive," Woetzel says. "He went to visit the vets and noticed that in the afternoons they didn't have much to do; their tests were all in the morning. He thought some of these guys might like to play music. It's a great tool for rehabilitation even of injuries to digits or brain injuries. Most important to the guys was the work. They didn't want this to be an enlightening thing. It was about rehearsal, and it re-energized them. When I brought Yo-Yo Ma to play with them, they wanted to know, How long will he play with us? How long will we get to work?" See also: Henry Awards have yet to come up with a winning system

In his long list of accomplishments, perhaps the most important for dance-loving Coloradans is that Woetzel took over the directorship of the Vail International Dance Festival in 2007.

"I have a long history with the festival," he says in an interview. "I performed in the first gala evening that gave birth to the festival in 1993. Over the years, I returned. I brought groups I put together. I watched the festival in its incarnation and growth. I knew the festival. I understood the venues. It became a question of how I'd want to change it, make it grow -- and those are all the things I've been thinking about over the last years.

"There were a couple of things to keep the festival moving forward, some of them structural. There were things like the main stage didn't have wings so it was difficult to put on full-scale works. We had to change that very quickly so we could bring in major companies. I strive to create new opportunities in terms of partnerships and new works being presented and things you haven't seen anywhere else. Also to help you see old things in ways you haven't seen them before. Balanchine's Serenade -- to see it with the mountains behind and the moon rising adds an element that doesn't exist anywhere else.

"Most every night of the season there are collaborations and unexpected pairings that represent what the festival is all about. Opening night has the feeling of a gala, an introduction. This year, we have Pennsylvania Ballet for the first time doing Balanchine's Rubies -- in that, we'll have some special guest artists: Vail artist in residence Herman Cornejo and New York City Ballet dancer Tiler Peck, both making their debut in the ballet itself. We're kind of reframing the whole experience. Dancers work with partners they've met in Vail, rehearse, and go out on stage together," he continues.

"The new works evening August 4 -- it's called Now for a reason, and features works created by well-known choreographers for the festival. We go all the way to dance TV -- getting the talent from the TV shows like Dancing with the Stars and putting together that whole other genre. Tiler is a quintuple threat," he notes. "She can do anything: dance on TV, Balanchine's Rubies. She's doing a piece by Jose Limon -- this is her introduction to Limon. She appears with the Martha Graham Dance Company. That kind of range is essential. When you're dealing with the great artists of the world, you want them to have these opportunities. Musicians, too, are doing work that's new for them, work where music becomes an essential element, not just accompaniment."

Beyond his interest in new and innovative projects, what's particularly refreshing about Woetzel's leadership is the fact that, even though he works regularly with some of the world's finest artists and most brilliant minds -- he has co-taught a law class at Harvard and staged events involving such luminaries as Meryl Streep, Alice Waters, Matt Damon, Vanessa Redgrave, Julie Taymore and Howard Gardner, who formulated the theory of multiple intelligences -- his view of dance, music and art is profoundly open and democratic.

"I investigate and celebrate what dance is today," Woetzel says. "I want it to be a relevant part of our world. It's not an artifact." This year's Vail program, named "Dance for 2014," features everything from ballet to Memphis jookin', he points out, and every seat is priced at $20.14. "It's intended to break down barriers. A lot of that audience are first-timers, and we give them the opportunity to sample, so you'll see a real mix of dance. That principle extends into the free events we do in town and the participatory events."

For a session called Dancing in the Streets, the artists create a dance experience that involves members of the public -- essentially, anyone who wants to dance, regardless of experience. "Participation is relevant," says Woetzel. "Dance should mean something to you."

In a larger arena, Woetzel practices educational diplomacy: "trying to be relevant for the right reason," he explains. "In schools giving students a full education, not to create great artists but about the right to have full expression and imagination and creativity, along with an acknowledgement that everybody learns differently. You try and you fail and you try again. All those skills are useful in the workplace, too.

"It's the same thing in a city. Where a city is only focused on one aspect, it becomes a city without a soul, not a city people want to live in. Our work is not to say you have to have an opera house. It's how do we make art a relevant, important and productive part of any place."

For more information about the festival, which starts Sunday, July 27 and runs through August 9, go to the Vail International Dance Festival website.

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