07/03/2008 04:12 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Culture Zohn : Dancing With Damian

It turns out that most of us have dreams about dancing with stars. I am probably the only person in the whole country who has not been watching Dancing with the Stars or So You Think You Can Dance, two very highly rated television shows and I am going to try to rectify that soon. But in the meantime, I have been watching some real dance stars this year, one of whom recently retired though nobody watching this toned, high energy, dynamic leaper and spinner would ever imagine that he was ready to be put out to pasture.

Photo by Bruce Weber for Vanity Fair
2008-07-03-0vf.jpgJust named Aspen artist in residence for '08 as well as being director of the two year old Vail Dance Festival (this year from July 27 to August 9th), Damian Woetzel is the hottest dancer-cum-impresario du jour and the trick will be watching him figure out how to give to everybody who is grappling for a piece of his action. Vail and Aspen, for example, are historically competitive and I was surprised to learn that Damian had managed to already de-mine this particular rivalry.

Paul Kolnik/New York City Ballet

2008-07-03-0nytimes.jpgI saw Damian's last performance a few weeks ago at the NYCB, a love fest of flowers strewn around the stage, scores of fans overwhelming the standing room, former and current colleagues paying hommage and a packed house of celebs on their feet throughout most of the performance of Fancy Free, Rubies and Prodigal Son. Woetzel is so engaging, like Baryshnikov who made dancing look like fun because he was having fun, and someone who is willing to share the spotlight with his fellow dancers, to show them off too. But he is also a passionate advocate for the arts, arts education and an increased valuation on the role of artists in society; that artists could be emissaries, even, and better represent our country abroad than most of the diplomats plying their trade. Woetzel can hold his own with arts leaders and funders, dancers, trustee types--he's a dynamo of muti-tasked energy and enthusiasm, a compelling speaker and thinker.

His trajectory from Boston ballet student to LA ballet student to NY ballet student and then company principal to Harvard MA has been smooth and I have no doubts he will land somewhere very very prominent soon. In the meantime, he is going to alight in Colorado while he figures out his next steps (These are probably figured out, but he's not telling though he says the only time he ever injures himself is when he is NOT dancing!) Last year I saw the fruits of his first season and was incredibly impressed. He pulled together top tier companies, pick-up companies and gave Christopher Wheeldon an open invitation. This year Philip Glass himself is coming out to play a piece he "gave" Damian to choreograph.

But when I read that Damian was conducting a West Side Story workshop during the Aspen Ideas Festival, a multi-ringed circus of media, science, tech, and art stars talking to each other and to groups of conference attendees , I began to hyperventilate. West Side Story is my absolute favorite musical and I listen to the Bernstein music in all forms (this year, Gustavo Dudamel used the suite as his signature opening for his Venezuelan orchestra of young musicians from El Sistema, Kate and Anna McGarrigle do a wonderful piano only rendition, the sound track from the original Broadway cast still shines and I heard Placido Domingo sing some selections at a tribute at the LA Opera this year). And of course Jerome Robbins was my favorite choreographer so the two combined in WSS have never been surpassed for me. I had seen Damian dance in NYCB's version of the musical which originated in Jerome Robbin's Broadway in which dancers actually get to sing earlier this season (he played Riff) so my fantasy life took off big time. Here was finally my chance to dance with a star!

I began to worry about what I was going to wear (the real ballet dancers wear rehearsal clothes that are artfully deconstructed to look funky layered but have a very chic style all their own). I dip in and out of taking ballet class but haven't recently and know that my body, no matter how much I tone it and run up and down the mountains with it will not do what I want it to any more; a plie creaks, a port de bras tweaks my shoulder, a developpe stops about ten inches off the floor.

But I love to dance almost more than anything and I somehow sensed that Damian has the patience for non pros--he seems to navigate between professional colleagues and the elite too with equal aplomb.

2008-07-03-0settingup.jpgWhile the rest of the world fights over Damian, I had him all to myself for about fifteen minutes yesterday afternoon as he prepared for the workshop. I arrived just in time to scoot into the ballet studio slash athletic center at the Doerr Hosier building at the Aspen Meadows where many of the Aspen Ideas events are held. Damian was warming up a You Tube video he wanted to show us of the film version of the dance at the gym from WSS, the combination he had chosen to teach us to dance.

2008-07-03-0women.jpgI was a little bit intimidated to get my groove back with such a master but over sixty other wannabes showed up, mostly women who fancied themselves ex-ballet stars too. It was an exuberant and playful hour of learning the Dance of the Sharks at the gym, a Mambo, but our group did quite well and I think Damian was pleased enough, though demanding that we repeat things over and over as real ballet teachers do, even dividing us into smaller and smaller groups so he could check us out individually.

2008-07-03-0mambo.jpgThe next afternooon in front of a much larger, non-dancing group, Damian showed why he has the makings of a truly gifted leader of the arts or whatever it is he decides to do: for over an hour, he presented himself and Jerome Robbins, the history, the iconography of Robbins dance, what it was like to work with "Jerry", alternating between dancing (from WSS, Dances at a Gathering, Afternoon of a Faun et al) and speaking cogently about what he called the power of dance.


Damian taught us how to hold our hands up in the air for the beginning of Serenade, as if we were "shielding our eyes from the sun". How snapping your fingers while moving can be a prelude to a rumble. To refrain from gestures too large--that a smaller movement is sometimes the more effective one. And yet to know when to "dance full out", when it really counts in performance on stage.

To hide, to push away, to withhold, to give big, to be fearlessly creative: Damian reminded us all that dance is indeed like life.