Face to Face: Damian Woetzel

Raising the bar for arts education.

Damian Woetzel rehearses George Balanchine's Apollo for the 2009 Vail International Dance Festival.

Longtime New York City Ballet principal Damian Woetzel now shines behind the stage as much as he did dancing on it. After performing 75 lead roles over 23 years, the Boston native retired in 2008 and has since become artistic director of the Vail International Dance Festival in Colorado. Running through August 10, this year’s lineup features Pacific Northwest Ballet, Paul Taylor Dance Company, Larry Keigwin and an Alexei Ratmansky world premiere set on Wendy Whelan.

 

While leading the nationally recognized event to new heights each summer, Woetzel has also been working to further arts education in the community. Celebrate the Beat is a weeklong outreach program initiated in 2007 by Woetzel’s wife and former NYCB principal Heather Watts. Children ages 9 to 11 take half-day music and dance classes at a Vail elementary school and end the workshop with a public performance.  Woetzel also produces Dancing in the Streets, a series of free live performances and interactive dance lessons, where Vail community members and festival-goers learn from the pros.

 

 

Dance Teacher: As a member of President Obama’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, what are your hopes for arts education?

Damian Woetzel: To make the arts a more central part of this country’s progress, whether it’s in job creation or education. The committee strives to flip the traditional idea that the arts are in need of support. Instead, we strive to prove that the arts can support our civilization.

 

DT: At a time when school arts programs are being cut back, Celebrate the Beat is expanding. Any tips for

educators who face opposition?

DW: I realize the pressure teachers and principals feel surrounding standardized testing, as scores determine budgets. But when combating budget cuts, I can say to focus on the positives. Explain to school boards how taking an hour to learn dance increases math scores. Fighting to take time away from test preparation requires a great amount of courage, but there is proof that students engaged in the arts are more focused and perform better.

 

DT: What advice do you have for studio owners who wish to create events similar to Dancing in the Streets?

DW: Try to arrange the event so people will feel comfortable and willing to participate. Consider the time of day and location. I use a central area in Vail where people congregate. Get other businesses involved in the planning, so it becomes a cohesive effort. I know it feels risky to keep trying new events or creating new work, but unpredictability piques public interest. There’s always a bit of trial and error.

 

DT: How do you keep an indifferent audience engaged, or help them view a performance as more than just entertainment?

DW: Whether it’s through pre-show discussions or Q&A sessions afterward, supplementing a performance is essential. Add footholds to help unfamiliar audiences hang on to something or reach a higher level of appreciation. Adding something unexpected may awaken new feelings in someone wildly familiar with the program. Like going to a museum with a great artist, you gain a deeper sense of understanding and leave feeling completely different. DT

 

 

photo by Erin Baiano

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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