New York City Ballet: The Triple Threat

Classic Arts Features   New York City Ballet: The Triple Threat
After a 23-year career at NYCB, Principal Dancer Damian Woetzel is taking his final bows on June 18.

Woetzel will most certainly be remembered as one of the top male virtuosos of his generation. He has been an audience favorite for over two decades, thanks to consistently brilliant performances, a winning stage presence, and effortless pyrotechnics. "I always want it to look easy on stage," Woetzel says. "Who wants to go to the ballet and see effort? But, as an artist, I want to live on the edge."

Woetzel is at home in NYCB's popular repertory, where he always brings fresh nuances to works he has performed countless times. Who can resist his brash bravura in Stars and Stripes, his spirited jog around the stage in Rubies, and his corkscrew pirouettes and breezy leaps as a swaggering cowboy in Western Symphony? He digs deep to come up with a searing portrayal in Prodigal Son, and in pure classical style, he can breathe poetry and life into cavaliers and proud princes: in Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, George Balanchine's The Nutcracker: while the ballerinas he partners soar in his confident hands.

Woetzel was born in 1967 in Newton, Massachusetts, into an intellectual family. His father was a professor at Harvard University, and his mother served as a senior officer for UNICEF. Woetzel started taking ballet classes at a local school when he was four. When ballet became his calling, he says, "Heated and frank discussions took place with my parents regarding my career choice." But Woetzel prevailed, and after his family moved to Southern California, he joined the Los Angeles Ballet at age 15, making his New York debut at the Joyce Theater in John Clifford's Young Apollo.

Lightning struck when Woetzel saw NYCB's repertory: in particular, the work of Jerome Robbins. "My choice was very clear," he says. "I wanted to join City Ballet because I loved Jerome Robbins' work." He enrolled in the School of American Ballet in December 1984 and studied with Stanley Williams and Andrei Kramarevsky. Six months later he joined NYCB, and in 1989 he was promoted first to soloist and then to principal.

Christopher Wheeldon, NYCB's Resident Choreographer from 2001 to 2008, says of Woetzel, "He is that rare phenomenon, the balletic 'triple threat' who is capable of technical virtuosity, is a caring and sensitive partner, and, on top of that, is a consummate artist. Damian is one of the few dancers who capture that true essence of the 'American Man' that recalls the Edward Villella and Jacques d'Amboise era." Christopher created five ballets on Damian, most notably Carousel (A Dance) in 2002 and An American in Paris in 2005.

Principal Dancer Jenifer Ringer, who has danced with Woetzel in ballets such as Coppelia, Fancy Free, and Donizetti Variations, says, "Damian is a dream partner. His intelligence, integrity, and relaxed demeanor on stage make the pas de deux look streamlined and effortless. He is never caught off guard; he is constantly thinking and aware of what is happening in the pas de deux, and at the same time he is giving an incredible performance."

In Carousel (A Dance), the young soloist Tiler Peck practically flies through the air as Woetzel whirls her around. Tiler, who has danced several ballets with Woetzel, says, "I feel very safe and comfortable with him because I know he is going to be there, so I go for everything. I could be falling sideways, and I know he would catch me."

Despite his affinity for the stage, Woetzel was always looking to expand his horizons. "I always knew I wanted to do more than just dance," he says. Teaching is one outlet; Woetzel ran the New York State Summer School for the Arts from 1994 to 2007. "As director," says Damian, "I made sure that certain talented young Company dancers taught, because nothing teaches you more about dancing than trying to teach dancing."

Peter Martins, the Company's Ballet Master in Chief, allowed him to pursue other interests. "I'm grateful Peter gave me the freedom to pursue the career I wanted to have," Woetzel says. "I needed to do it my way."

Three years ago, Woetzel was ready to retire when he remembered a conversation with former NYCB Principal Dancer Violette Verdy in which she warned him not to leave the stage too soon: "Oh, Damian, you have so many years not to dance." So instead of quitting, he applied to the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. For two years he shuttled between New York and Boston, juggling his commitments with NYCB and his class schedule at Harvard. In June 2007 Woetzel earned his Master's in Public Administration and that summer marked his first as the director of the Vail International Dance Festival.

Woetzel is returning to Vail this summer. Afterwards, he intends to spend some time gardening on his Connecticut farm and pondering what he wants to do next. "The challenge for me is to find 'that something' I can be as passionate about and as good at as dancing."

Astrida Woods is a frequent contributor to dance and theater publications.

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