NEW YORK (AP) — Confetti and bouquets of flowers rained down on Damian Woetzel in 2008 as he took his final curtain as a star New York City Ballet dancer, dancing the lead role in George Balanchine’s “Prodigal Son.”
And now, nine years later, you could say the prodigal son has returned — to Manhattan’s Lincoln Center, and to just a block or two away from where he danced for so many years. Woetzel has been named the new president of the famed Juilliard School, taking over from longtime president Joseph Polisi. After an interim year during which he will learn the ropes alongside Polisi, Woetzel takes the reins in July 2018.
It’s an unorthodox choice — Woetzel, who currently heads the Aspen Institute Arts Program and also the Vail Dance Festival, has never been in academic administration before. He even skipped college to pursue his dream of dancing (he later earned a master’s degree in public administration at Harvard). But he sees his new position as a chance to bring together two strands of his career: one focusing on performance, the other on examining and promoting the role of the arts in the larger world.
“This brings it all together,” he said in a phone interview late Wednesday from his new perch at Juilliard, where, he said, he was looking forward to “a golden age of creativity.”
“In one place, you have the most extraordinary students and faculty, and opportunities of music, dance and drama,” Woeztel said, noting with delight that as he spoke, he was looking out the window at students waving up to him from the street below. The new job, he said, was an opportunity “to answer that question of, ‘What can we do together that we can’t do by ourselves?’ It’s the art of the possible.”
After retiring from City Ballet, where he was known for his impressive technique and his dramatic intensity, Woetzel launched into a variety of projects as a director, producer and choreographer. He has worked closely with, among many others, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, jazz great Wynton Marsalis and Memphis “jookin'” dancer Lil Buck. He directed the inaugural performance of the White House Dance Series in 2010, and he served for eight years on the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, working on arts education.
Woetzel, who turns 50 next week, attended Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government while he was still dancing. He has been a visiting lecturer at Harvard Law School, and in 2015 received the Harvard Arts Medal.
Bruce Kovner, chairman of Juilliard’s board of trustees, said Woetzel was stepping into a role with “a complicated job description.” But, he said, “Damian has a compelling vision of the role of arts in our society, and that compelling vision is very important to us.” He also called the former dancer an inspirational leader and “an articulate spokesman for the values that animate Juilliard.”
“His life and career have embodied a commitment to artistic excellence,” Kovner added, and also saluted what he called Woetzel’s “extraordinary ability to connect with students and faculty and with the wider world.”
Woetzel noted that he was returning to the same building where he first studied dance as a teenager — Balanchine’s School of American Ballet was housed in the same building.
“It was on the third floor,” he recalled of the first time he entered the building. “I was 15, and it really was already clear to me that this was some enormous creative hub. There were people doing so many different types of art … you know, I came here to become the best dancer I could, to what I considered the center of the universe. It was everything I could have hoped for … and now there’s even more history, more has happened, so there’s only more fuel in the engine.”
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