Exclusive: Former NYCB Principal Damian Woetzel Turns to Science


Retiring from the stage can be a tough transition for a dancer, but that doesn’t seem to be the case for Damian Woetzel. The former New York City Ballet principal is taking a kid-in-a-candy-store approach to his post-performance life, sampling a variety of projects and relishing the possibilities of his career’s second act. Even before leaving NYCB last June, Woetzel earned a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and founded the Vail International Dance Festival in Colorado. Now, in addition to producing dance and music events around the world, he’s exploring the arts’ potential to impact realms beyond the concert hall, trying his hand at everything from cultural diplomacy to education.

His latest project, directing the opening-night performance of the World Science Festival, is a case in point. The festival, founded last year by physicist Brian Greene and journalist Tracy Day, aims to show that the sciences are accessible, relevant and even exciting. Enter the arts. “It’s kismet,” Woetzel told us. “It’s the perfect kind of event. I’m looking for this expansive vision which is still grounded in specifics. The things I learned just listening to Brian last year, I’ve found incredibly valuable.”

The festival’s opening performance, which takes place tonight at Lincoln Center, will include violinist Joshua Bell demonstrating string theory, Broadway stars singing songs about science, and the kids of National Dance Institute performing a tribute to naturalist E.O. Wilson.

Flavorpill: How did you happen to get involved with the World Science Festival project?

Damian Woetzel: Last year I met Brian Greene and Tracy Day … and they told me about this wonderful festival and said they were very interested in putting together a nice opening which would feature the performing arts saluting the sciences. We launched into a conversation, and I very quickly realized how intriguing the idea was and how eager a lot of people in the performing arts would be to participate. So I’ve been busily trying to invent ways to illuminate science through the arts.

FP: In what ways do you think the arts are particularly suited to do that?

DW: Some of it is about the inspirational quality, which the arts can do like nothing else. But it’s more about intriguing the mind and giving it the opportunity to think in expansive ways — that’s one of the arts’ primary functions.

FP: Beyond the festival, what’s another example of how you’re using the arts in this way?

DW: I’m kind of operating on a couple different levels. I’m interested in how the arts intersect, whether with politics, education, science, etc., and of course there is always the flourishing of the arts. Different situations demand different approaches. Out in Vail, we started our own little National Dance Institute program and have now gotten it into the public schools where it’s reaching 1,200 kids. This is to use the arts to teach kids about teamwork, problem-solving, and delivering a performance — it’s learning how to learn. One of the most valuable things I’ve taken with me from the stage is that when the curtain goes up you’ve got to do it. When I went back to school that came in a tremendous amount of good stead — when the paper is due you’ve got to do it.

FP: You’d mentioned last year that you were interested in starting a foundation related to cultural diplomacy. Have you made any progress in that area?

DW: It’s probably not the most hospitable environment for starting a foundation right now… but I’ve been doing some individual efforts on my own and through Aspen Institute. [The 2008 Aspen Cultural Diplomacy Forum] was a real meeting of the minds of ways to approach it in the 21st century, by looking at old models and figuring out what are going to be the most effective ways to build bridges and use culture in a way that has a long-lasting positive effect. I’m strongly committed to finding ways to do that.

FP: How does this phase of your life compare to your performing career?

DW: I’m living on such an interesting kind of sampling basis right now … and I’m really enjoying it. It’s a luxury to have my festival in Vail, and on the other hand to be here in New York putting together something like this for a much different purpose. I’m using the time fully — I did imagine I’d have a lot more time. I’m in touch with many of my colleagues, and I’m staging ballets for some of them. I’m not choreographing at this second, but I have several pieces of music proffered to me by various composers. So I’m busily engaging on the dance front, but much of the time it’s about how I can put it to use and finding other ways to look at the same issues.

Photo credit: Rick Friedman via NYT