"I threw hats, gloves and everything into the ring," an elated Woetzel said by phone from the Juilliard School on Wednesday afternoon. He said that when he learned of the opening some months ago, he realized "it brings together so many strands of my life and what I'm trying to do, from performance and educational work to the idea of 'citizen artist' and ideas about creativity."
The Juilliard School, founded in 1905 and housed at New York's Lincoln Center, is one of the country's most prestigious performing arts schools, offering degrees in dance, drama and music. The current president, Joseph W. Polisi, is stepping down in June 2018 after 34 years, said board chairman Bruce Kovner, who added that Woetzel will be the first dancer as president. In addition to Woetzel's background as an artist and leader, with a master's in public administration from Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, what sets him apart is "a very optimistic, open and inclusive sense of the future of music, dance, theater and other arts," Kovner said.
"We want someone who can inspire the students as well as command the faculty," Kovner added, citing Woetzel's work bringing the arts into Chicago public schools and his collaborations among many festivals and venues. "Someone who is seeking out ways in which the artist can connect to all of the public, instead of being on a narrow island, and Damian is very good at that."
In his 23 years at the New York City Ballet, before retiring in 2008, Woetzel was an elegant, brilliant technician and an especially musical and witty interpreter of works by George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins and others. Robbins, among many other choreographers, created roles for Woetzel, such as in "Ives, Songs." Working with such musically astute eminences at the New York City Ballet is good preparation for leadership of Juilliard's renowned orchestral and instrumental music programs, Woetzel said.
"Music is like my sister," he said. "City Ballet was the company of music, in a very real sense. … We didn't tell the conductor what to do, and we had a respect for the music first."
Woetzel said he will remain director of the Aspen Institute Arts Program until June 2018. He will continue to head the Vail Dance Festival this summer and next, and after that, "we'll see what's possible." For the past two years, Woetzel has curated a performance series at the Kennedy Center in Washington titled DEMO, which brings together performing artists from varied disciplines; his work on that series will continue, both Woetzel and the center confirmed.
Woetzel has strong emotional ties to Juilliard, stemming from his teenage years as a dance student. At 15, he moved to New York from his native Boston, and showed up on the Juilliard building's third floor every day for classes at the School of American Ballet, the training arm of the New York City Ballet, when it was housed there. (In 1990, SAB moved to another building on the Lincoln Center campus.) He especially savors his memories of Juilliard's "common areas, the cafeteria and the sheer glorious hubbub of it all, with the musicians and actors and us SAB-ers, and everyone was part of this creative engine."
That artistic buzz still excites him. A few months ago, Woetzel met with actor-clown-comedian Bill Irwin at Juilliard, when Irwin was guest-teaching a drama class there. The two artists met by the school's main staircase to sketch out Irwin's performance in Woetzel's DEMO series at the Kennedy Center last month.
"I found myself watching that glorious hubbub again," said Woetzel. "Next thing we knew, Bill was on the stairs quasi-rehearsing, and the place was humming, and here we were, a former dancer and a clown, and all the students around us. And that is just magic to me."