Fancy-and finally-free

Damian Woetzel dances off into the sunset.

THE LIGHTEST TOUCH Woetzel performs Robbins’s A Suite of Dances.

THE LIGHTEST TOUCH Woetzel performs Robbins’s A Suite of Dances. Photograph: Kyle Froman

As generations shift, dancers at New York City Ballet are parting ways (Miranda Weese, Kyra Nichols and Nikolaj Hbbe are some of the most recent heartbreaking examples). The latest to go is Damian Woetzel, who hasn’t just danced at New York City Ballet for the past 23 years—he’s been an essential part of its fabric. On Wednesday 18, Woetzel, who earned a master’s degree in public administration from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard in 2007, retires from the company in a special program featuringFancy Free and Prodigal Son—two ballets as timeless as he is. Woetzel, 40 and proudly wearing an Obama T-shirt, spoke over coffee near Lincoln Center.

You graduated from the Kennedy School last June. Did you make a conscious decision to spend one more year dancing?
Absolutely. I’m not stopping at City Ballet to do something else. I was always very adamant about finishing on my terms—the way I wanted the career to feel and in the shape I wanted to be in. So the Kennedy School was a gift, and who knows? Maybe it helped, maybe it extended my dancing a little, because I didn’t crash around doing quite as many gigs. But I feel really good and it feels right, and it didn’t really have anything to do with when school ended. During my first fall in Cambridge, I remember thinking, Maybe it will coincide. Maybe I’ll graduate and retire, but that wasn’t appropriate. By that point, I was in another new ballet for Chris Wheeldon—Eventide—and I kept going.

Did the current Jerome Robbins Celebration have anything to do with your choice to stop?
The Jerry connection was so strong; it really helped me to make my decision. The last time I had to make a career decision, I was 17. I could have gone to Ballet Theatre or National Ballet of Canada. There were options. But as I became exposed to the Robbins repertoire, I realized that there was a living genius in the house. There was no way to avoid the fact that in 1984, which is the year we’re talking about, Mr. Balanchine had just barely passed from the scene. And yet there was already that feeling of the pressure to move forward and the obligations of the past and all that we’ve gone through in the last years. But in contrast to that, you had Jerome Robbins standing right there: The idea of working with someone like that changed everything. He saw me dance at the school and made it clear to me that I would get into NYCB. That worked. So cut forward—the idea of this Robbins Festival has been in planning for some time, obviously, and I thought it would be an appropriate time. It’s very full circle.

How well did you know Robbins’s work early on?
An infinitesimal amount compared to what I know now. I knew the big ballets. I’d seen Fancy Free. I’d seen Opus 19/The Dreamer, and I knew West Side Story the movie, and I knew enough to know what was there. I also met him through mutual friends, and I got a sense of the man and of the opportunity to spend time in whatever capacity it was going to be. There were no guarantees, so that really meant a lot to me to have that chance, to see how it would work out. Over the years, I knew Jerry in the studio and a little bit out. We were in a book group together through friends. We all tried to read Ulysses. [Laughs] It was great, a whole different life. But then you walk in the studio and it’s something else entirely, and the seriousness and the dedication and the idea that there’s only so much air to breathe. To me, that’s Jerry Robbins in the room. This was the seriousness of intent that colored everything that he was there for. It was for real. And I got lucky.

Can you remember the first time you worked with him in the studio?
Sure. It was kind of a rush of activity in the first year. I remember the first time I was in the studio with him. He invited me to watch a rehearsal of Fancy Free; he didn’t say anything like, “I want you to learn this,” but he said, “Come watch this ballet. This is something you’ll probably do at some point.” I was still in the school, I came and sat in the main hall and he was rehearsing J.P Frohlich, Kip Houston and Joe Duell, and I watched him take it apart in certain places and let other things go by and, again, the room was alive with the seriousness of his intent. Shortly thereafter I get into the company and he was doing a new ballet, In Memory Of…. I don’t really know how this happened, but he put me into it right away. It was premiering in ten days and there was one slot left in a four-boy part on-the-side kind of thing, and I was going to be in it; the day of the premiere, which was the spring gala, there were three demi parts. One guy didn’t make it in that day, so I learned it and went out for the premiere. That was with Peter Boal and Jeff Edwards. That was the second thing I did in the company within the first week. It was a great and an inspiring start and, in the way of youth probably, I didn’t know quite how great it was. [Laughs] I was so excited. I think I may have measured impact in minutes at that point—I remember thinking, The other part, I would have been on for three minutes, but in this was I was on for nine minutes. It was the chance to do what I’d been hoping to do for so long, and I always tell that to my kids that I teach or to my adults that I teach or coach as well: Remember all those rides to ballet and what you really wanted and don’t get too far away from it.

You were thrown on the stage in other parts, too, right?
I thrive in emergency situations, and my first show of Dances at a Gathering was an emergency. Ib Andersen was out so Robbie [La Fosse] moved from brick to brown and I got to go into brick. That same season, 1986, I did Interplay. It the part he made for himself. That was a special thing, which I got to enjoy in Fancy Free as well—working on his own part, which was incredible and daunting and inspiring and thrilling. There’s a burden involved that is probably slightly different, and it’s all those issues that make it so rich.

Was he hard on you?
Oh, at times. In those first few years, in an alternating way—it depended. I would probably say. “Rightly so.” He could be very rough and demanding at times and that was part of his engagement, to demand that much. It’s been written how he separated the people in West Side and did all these things to get the most out of it. That was the point. There’s a rhythm to it, I suppose, and at a certain point it became a different relationship in the room where there was trust, I guess.

Do you know all of what you’re performing on your farewell program?
I will definitely do Fancy Free and I will definitely do Prodigal Son. Jerry was great and that’s the thing about Jerry in Prodigal, and with other Balanchine ballets—he was a great coach, and I’m talking about ballets from Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux to Prodigal. He came backstage after a Tchaikovsky Pas and gave me some great notes about how I went from the pas de deux into the variation—really wonderful theatrical stuff that is so valuable. Prodigal we didn’t work on so strong, but he came back a few times after performances and gave me the note choisie—or the one that counts.

Which was?
You cry. They don’t. [Laughs] And simple stuff, too. Part of it, you could interpret as a complaint: “This doesn’t quite work,” and then the second part of it was the analysis was, “So let’s do this.” He vocalized it from a theatrical point of view. There’s nobody better. The way theater people talk about Jerry, like Mike Nichols or whoever, it’s just that other thing. It’s not necessarily logical. It’s just that special something. He talked about a lot of things with me. Costuming. It mattered! He was greatly inspiring in that way, and I certainly carry what I can with me. It’s interesting what you hang on to and what you forget, and that’s the thing about an oral tradition like dance, the markings aren’t in the score exactly—and it was different for everybody. What he told me for Other Dances, I’m quite sure, was different from what he was telling Robbie [La Fosse], and we were alternating.

Because you’re different people?
Yeah. And there’s that wonderful thing that is the nature of dance: Look at the Nicholas Brothers. How were they different? And yet they were exactly in sync. And you wouldn’t want to make one dance like the other.

Did his coaching change your approach to dance?
Oh yeah. Jerry homed in on mood in different ways, one of them being precision regarding the music. It was very important to him how a step fit the music, but not in a facile, pedantic way. It was how one was dancing to the music and not so much on the music. Unless of course what was required was exact precision—for example, in certain beats of the rhumba solo in Fancy Free. In Other Dances, as the pas de deux begins, it was of paramount importance that one not walk on the beat of the music, but rather to be slightly slower than the rhythm. This is tricky; it’s much easier to just walk on the beat, so Jerry would watch and react by saying, “Easy, easy…okay, get there, get there…no easy, easy…” Very funny, yet deadly serious actually. Waiting to hear a note and dancing to it is one way to look at it. Jerry worked a lot on this reticence in the first solo of Dances with me. My motor runs pretty fast, and in my eagerness to move I can get ahead of it or be simply too on top of the music, sometimes I need to slow it all down! In the years since Jerry’s death my wife, Heather [Watts, a former NYCB principal], has thankfully reminded me when necessary of the different musicality to be used in ballets such as Faun and Dances—increasing my options has made dancing a progression for me. What is it Wilde said—“Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative”? I have loved taking risks and discovering new things in roles over the years. Giving a consistent performance is an unavoidable but limiting goal, which I have tried to avoid…consistently.

There’s such a natural quality to your dancing: How did you learn to turn with such ease?
It was in January of 1979: 6:30pm on an already dark winter night in Boston. I was waiting for my ride after class, and Jimmy Capp, the ballet master for the Boston Ballet, was waiting to run a late rehearsal and he noticed me waiting. He decided to occupy his and my time by trying to teach me how to do pirouettes. He gave me a simple combination which I still give students today, which combines jumping with turning, all in the same simple rhythm. Suffice it to say it worked! I went from doing a bad double turn to being able to do four turns by the time I got picked up! I remember that as a door opening, a realization that I was good at this.

You are obviously leaving the company feeling good.
I feel so lucky that the things that I’ve chosen to dance and the way the last season went—the last seasons, all of them, really. I’m lucky to have this last opportunity, which you can’t predict. I remember when I was 20 talking to Ib [Andersen] about it, and he said, “How long are you going to dance like that?” Because I danced pretty hard. And I was like, “I don’t know, maybe 30?” And he said, “25.” I was very lucky. Everything that’s gone wrong for me physically in my career has had nothing to do with dancing. That’s the funny part. I guess I was phenomenally lucky that I was introduced to dancing because I’m suited to it. It would be very weird if you had this natural ability for something and you never discovered it. It must happen all the time. I hurt my neck surfing and I was out with a perforated appendix. I had a little disc thing—that was from tap dancing like a maniac, it wasn’t from ballet dancing. I had to learn how to tap all in one day, essentially.

Boys have to be so tough to pursue a career in ballet—did you have problems when you started out?
Oh, there was a strange equilibrium between perception, like among one’s peers—junior high, for instance, which I call “the mean years”—and the kind of charm ballet seemed to hold for those who were older, who would like to, let’s say, write about it. So there was this weird kind of meeting where periodically, usually around December 5th or 6th during Nutcracker season, there’d be a small piece about young Damian Woetzel who was doing Fritz and which would engender the expected reaction. [Laughs] There were certainly moments that were less than thrilling, but I realize there was something to be said for having to choose to do it. I wanted to do it and there was an obstacle in that it wasn’t necessarily the most popular thing to do and that, I think, can make you a little bit more committed. That is an interesting catalyst to commitment. I always remember certain kids from my childhood who I had a hard time with in eighth grade, saying in tenth grade, “Hey, are you still doing those plays? That’s so great.” [Laughs] I’m a big believer in evolution. It’s all about progression, not getting stuck and about having aspirations, which can lead you to do more and not just be satisfied. I was always that way about my dancing, and that’s how I am about whatever it is I tend to pursue. I look far ahead. I remember at the Kennedy School, it was the difference between mission and vision. Fulfilling your mission is one thing; vision is another, and having a commitment to something leads you to do better work. In the next part of my life, that’s what I’m hoping for. Looking for those kinds of visions where things don’t exist quite yet.

What are some of your plans in and out of the art world?
It’s important to me to take the time needed to decide where to focus in the second part of my life. There is no rush, and I am going to work in several different areas as I move forward. I will continue to direct my summer festival in Vail [Colorado] and to produce and direct dance performances and events in New York City and elsewhere, keeping me directly hands-on in the dance world. Getting to sponsor people I believe in has been very important to me, and I will to continue to do that. In other areas, in the fall I will be finishing my work as a member of Harvard Task Force on the Arts, which has been a wonderful way to focus on the value and efficacy of the arts in education. I intend to do some consulting for arts groups and for other nonprofits, putting to use my experience on both sides of the curtain as well my M.P.A. from Kennedy School. I’m also thinking a lot about cultural diplomacy and ways I can engage in promoting efforts in this essential and neglected part of our country’s foreign policy—to that end, I am considering starting my own foundation to sponsor work in educational ventures and performance exchanges. I have been a supporter of Senator Obama’s candidacy in an informal way for the last year, and I will do whatever I can as we head into the fall election. I believe as a citizen in his message of hope and responsibility, and I feel his intelligence, 21st-century outlook and respectful knowledge of history is what is required at our helm.

And finally, what will you miss the most about dancing?
The dancing.

Damian Woetzel gives his farewell performance at the New York State Theater on Wed 18.