Raising the bar for arts education.
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