In Profile: Damian Woetzel’s Defining Decade

Patrick Fraser

Ahead of another promising season at the Vail International Dance Festival, the imaginative impresario and artistic director reflects on ten years at the high-altitude helm.

Each summer, around the end of July, a marked change occurs on the Instagram accounts of some of America’s best ballet dancers. Photos of verdant mountains abound; often, they’re the backdrop to a huge stage where grand ballets are rehearsed in the open air. Dancers who’d usually never share a stage come together: an American Ballet Theatre principal with one from its across-Lincoln-Center-Plaza-rival, New York City Ballet; a street-dancer with one in pointe shoes. It all looks like a bucolic dance utopia of sorts, where company loyalties and strict seasonal schedules fall away and exploring movement is the only thing that matters. All these photographs are captioned with the same hashtag: #vaildance.

The Vail International Dance Festival, didn’t just crop up out of nowhere. It started in 1989, after the Bolshoi Ballet of Moscow made an unexpected (and unexpectedly successful) stop in the Colorado mountain town after a few shows in Houston were cancelled; with the support of the town and its most famous residents, President and Mrs. Gerald Ford, that Bolshoi visit grew into an annual summer residency, and the festival was born (this year’s edition runs July 30 through August 13). 

But it’s only in the last 10 years that Vail has truly come into its own as more than a particularly picturesque stop for touring dancers. That decade coincides with the artistic directorship of Damian Woetzel, a former New York City Ballet star who, in his post-dance career, has transformed the festival into the Elysium of dance it is today: an incubator for new choreography and a haven where, if only for a couple of weeks, accomplished performers can expand beyond the usual boundaries of their professional lives. Thanks to Woetzel’s work, Vail is now a destination for audiences and performers alike.

“I remember the first time I danced at Vail, in 1993, President Ford and his wife were the initial people who’d show up at a performance—there they were!” Woetzel recalls.  “And I think that kind of energy has survived and grown. There’s a sense of possibility for the festival to be more than just a series of dance performances. We never want to just do business as usual.”

Damian Woetzel and Lil Buck at Vail International Dance Festival

When Woetzel was asked to take over at Vail in 2006 (two years before his retirement from performing), the invitation, as he puts it, “wasn’t totally out of left field.” He’d already begun studies for a degree in public administration at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and he liked the idea of Vail as “a lab—a way I could be fairly opinionated about what makes a good gig.” Immediately, he realized the limitations of the setting, beautiful though it was. “The Ford Amphitheater did not have wings: just a blank stage with two entrances, which meant you could not do a lot. And I wanted immediately to bring in ballet companies who could do big works that mattered.” He asked veteran scenic designer Robin Wagner to add wings to the stage and the following year, the stage was able to accommodate George Balanchine’s classic Serenade for the first time.

With that framework in place, Woetzel was able to focus on his primary interests: promoting new work and giving up-and-coming dancers chances they mightn’t get elsewhere. Woetzel says he will often ask himself, “What’s the logical next step for this person?” Two dancers who are now Vail regulars exemplify his efforts in that arena: City Ballet principal Tiler Peck, and Memphis jookin’ virtuoso Lil Buck. Peck was Woetzel’s final partner in his ballet career, “and with that grew a sense of responsibility, wanting to make sure everything was there for her,” he explains. At Vail, Woetzel gave a then-teenage Peck the opportunity to dance in Jerome Robbins’s Afternoon of a Faun. “Like, let’s see how this goes, we’ll see how you can go to that next place. For someone so technically gifted, I wanted to watch that happen.” Buck was a more roundabout discovery; Woetzel found him through his wife, the former ballerina Heather Watts, who saw Buck dancing on YouTube. Bringing him to Vail has meant “watching someone who is so available for collaboration—you cannot propose anything he is not up for,” Woetzel marvels. 

Damian Woetzel and Herman Cornejo at Vail International Dance Festival

Thanks to Woetzel’s all-encompassing vision, the miracle of Vail is that performers like Peck and Buck seem a little less rarefied. The festival engages with its audience in ways many established dance companies could learn from. This year, as always, Woetzel will host an “Up Close” evening, in which he coaches dancers and deconstructs their work onstage in front of an audience. The “Dancing in the Streets” events will include an opportunity for festival-goers to try out their moves alongside members of Dance Theatre of Harlem and, at the Vail Farmer’s Market, a tap-dance “shim-sham” features a big public lesson followed by a chance for locals to show off their new skills. Woetzel expects he’ll have a few surprises in store, too; he never fully schedules the lineup until very close to opening night. “I want to make sure I’m available for any possibility,” Woetzel says, summing up his overall attitude toward the festival at the same time. “Right now, if something drops from the sky? I want to be able to fit it in.”

Vail International Dance Festival takes place from July 30 through August 13, 2016, at the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater​; 530 S. Frontage Rd. E.​

Photo Credit: Patrick Fraser (Woetzel with Lil Buck and Ron Myles); Erin Baiano (Woetzel with Herman Cornejo).