The Foundation for a Meaningful Life
Kindergarten - Grade 9 in Southborough, MA
Fay Magazine: Fall-Winter 2017

Five Questions for Damian Woetzel ’81

by Erin Ash Sullivan
A conversation with Damian Woetzel, former principal dancer with the New York City Ballet and The Juilliard School’s seventh president. 
In May, The Juilliard School announced that Damian Woetzel ’81 would take the helm as its seventh president beginning July 2018. An internationally renowned dancer who spent 20 years as a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, Damian currently serves as the director of the Aspen Institute Arts Program and the artistic director of the Vail Dance Festival. He holds a Master of Public Administration degree from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, was a visiting lecturer at Harvard Law School, and served on the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities from 2009 to 2017.

Damian recently shared his reflections with Fay Magazine on what helped him determine his path as a dancer, and what it’s like to move from the life of a performer to the world of producing, teaching, and educational outreach. 

How did your experiences at Fay connect with the later choices you made with regards to your educational and career paths?

What was wonderful about my time at Fay is that it allowed me the flexibility to not only experience all that Fay had to offer, but every December I was also allowed to go into Boston and perform with the Boston Ballet in The Nutcracker. As a nine and ten year-old, this kept me involved in an artistic way that really did shape the future.

The teachers understood the value of an experience like that, and as it turned out, it really was valuable. Perhaps they thought that it was enrichment, but it actually led very directly to the road that I would take.

That's something that I think about a lot, about educators having the flexibility to recognize experiences of real value. When we offer children a diversity of educational experiences, it can open the doors to new opportunities, because if children don’t get the chance to peek around the door, they might never know what they’re missing. 

I've often asked myself that "what if" question. If I hadn’t been introduced to dance, or allowed to dance, it would have been very strange because I was a very natural dancer, and it was really suited to me. What if I had lived my whole life without knowing I could do something that I was so suited to? 

What was your role in the creation oF the Turnaround Arts Program? 

Turnaround Arts is a program created by President Obama's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. The committee has been in existence for a few decades, but when I joined in 2009, it was suddenly populated heavily by artists from many disciplines: visual artist Chuck Close, actress Kerry Washington, the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and me, as a dancer. We looked at each other and thought, "We have a tremendous opportunity. How are we going to make use of it?"

We decided to focus on arts education, and specifically on reaching children across the country who might not otherwise have access to the arts. Based on a study we commissioned, we realized that we could show how schools that were in trouble in some way could be aided by having the arts as a turnaround component.

Turnaround Arts is a program run by the Department of Education that gives special dispensations to troubled schools that are in turnaround status. The eight schools that we work with are using the arts as their turnaround strategy, and, happily, our methods have showed extraordinary results. The program has just blossomed, and it reaches tens of thousands of kids now.

I'm still a Turnaround artist. I have two schools that I regularly visit—Orchard Gardens in Roxbury, Massachusetts, and one on the Northern Cheyenne reservation in Lame Deer, Montana. In addition to providing a mentor to each school, the program offers support, whether it's professional development, providing music instruments, a music teacher, or art supplies. It has been an amazing experience and an honor to participate. 

You’re always involved in a new production venture, whether it’s co-founding the New Essential Works Program, serving as artistic director for the Vail International Dance Festival, or producing lil’ Buck@Le Poisson Rouge. What drives you to seek out such diverse producing opportunities?

I'm lucky that I have had many different production opportunities in these last years. I was already doing a lot of different things while I was still dancing, but it has always been my goal to do both projects in the public sector as well as the more traditional kinds of projects that were expected of me.
The idea of how things mix is central to how I look at every opportunity. How does poetry mix with music, for example, or how can we combine dance and visual art? How does dance cross a boundary into education most effectively? How do these things overlap, and how do you get something new out of these mixtures?
I think that's one of the most exciting aspects of my new role at Juilliard. This is the creative person’s dream, with students of music, dance, and drama all under the same roof, all looking to their futures. The opportunity to see how these disciplines
work together for the betterment of all is very close to my heart.

How have your many years as a dancer influenced the decisions you make as a director, producer, and administrator?
When I was a dancer at the New York City Ballet, I loved to dance a lot, meaning that most seasons, you might have seven or eight performances a week, and I liked to do as many as I could. I loved an eight-performance week. I loved doing as much as I possibly could, and I think that's been part of my ethic, to try to really run the machine.
Towards the end of my career as a dancer, I really did know everything that it took to get on stage. I knew how long it would take, and I knew what I needed to do for myself to give the performance that I wanted. But in my new life, it was very different. I didn't know how long it took to do certain things. I didn't have that same level of understanding, and I think that's an interesting process that we all go through as we try new things. Sometimes an idea plus the pressure of time is where you get the great work, and sometimes it's just a little panicky. I try to learn more
about that every time I try something new.
A recent New York Times article mentioned that you are interested in preparing a new generation for the “DIY world,” where they must create their own opportunities. How do you think the role of the artist is changing or needs to change for today’s world?
This is something that I've certainly noticed, though I also think we are not the first generation to do this. I think there have been many historical periods when people have used a range of methods to get performances to the public, but right now especially, I notice that my younger friends are out there making their own opportunities. They're putting together interesting collaborations. They're self-producing. They're using video and technology and the Internet in ways that sometimes work and sometimes don't, but it's always about finding a new venue of sorts and redefining what “venue” even means. I love that we’re rethinking these ideas. What makes a performance? Is it enough simply to say that you’re the audience and we’re the performers, and you have to watch us or listen to us?
To my mind, these are opportunities for the artists of the future to engage in the world of ideas, and I think a lot about what that means. Who are the elders who can inform this process?  
I also love the idea of finding ways to make that creative crossover across disciplines happen. I love finding a way to give artists that platform, with the goal of creating generation after generation of philosophically sound artists: artists who are not simply excellent, but who are also a part of their time, making art, and not just performing.


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