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Community Enterprise

Damian Woetzel looks forward to leading the Juilliard School as its new president.
By Dona D. Vaughn 

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© Richard Termine

ON JULY 1, 2018, Damian Woetzel became the seventh president of the Juilliard School. Woetzel, fifty-one, is best known for his work at New York City Ballet, where he bowed in 1985 and was a principal dancer from 1989 until his retirement in 2008. OPERA NEWS spoke with Juilliard’s new leader about his path and his plans for the future.

OPERA NEWS: When did you first think about becoming president of Juilliard?

DAMIAN WOETZEL: As a board member of Sing for Hope, I often collaborate with cofounder Camille Zamora on building the organization and discussing what the arts can do in a larger context. It was Camille who first mentioned the Juilliard position to me, about two years ago. My initial reaction was, “No, I don’t think that will happen,” but afterward it was always in the back of my mind. I knew that being the president of this great conservatory could bring together everything I’ve worked and hoped for. This is a place about dance, music, drama and vocal arts. It’s about education and all its subsets. When I received the call asking if I’d be interested in discussing the presidency of Juilliard, it took no time for me to say yes.

ON: Tell us about your start in the arts.

DW: I began taking ballet at the age of four and grew up in Boston attending the Boston Ballet. I also was in productions with Opera Company of Boston. I remember auditioning for Sarah Caldwell, who was looking for “a special imp” to be in Falstaff. There was a ladder involved, and there was a mask to be created especially for the imp’s face. I wanted to be that imp, climb the ladder, wear the mask and disappear into the character. 

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Rehearsing in Boston, 2005
© Dominic Chavez/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
 

ON: You got the role, and you became a dancer.

DW: My life as a dancer was an incredible experience. One afternoon during a coaching with Arthur Mitchell, he said that I must remember to let my cheekbone hit the light as I crossed the stage. “Bingo,” I thought, and I never forgot. There is a way to meet the light, and onstage there are those who absorb the light and those who reflect it. My dancing career was a very long one, through many stages and through periodic resets. It was not a direct, linear road. The things I’m doing now at Juilliard are what I call nonlinear adventures. There is a sense of destination, but you don’t know how you’re going to get there.

ON: Give us an example of one of these nonlinear adventures.

DW: Lil Buck, a great street dancer, stopped by Juilliard before he left town not long ago. He essentially took over the lobby with a jazz drummer and the Silk Road Ensemble musicians, who happened to be in residency. Lil Buck and the ensemble musicians performed for our students, who jumped in and performed with them. We had Jon Batiste here, and I led him through the lobby with many students joining in singing and dancing. I remember saying to one young student from the dance department, “Don’t miss your chance, or you’re going to regret it. Don’t miss your shot!” She jumped right in. It was about creating an experience that is about creating a community.

ON: What prepared you for this position?

DW: Preparation began in Auburndale, Massachusetts, at the barre doing pliés on my first day of dance class. It continued through dancing with New York City Ballet, working with Sing for Hope, being a member of President Obama’s Committee on Arts and Humanities, and my twelve years at Vail International Dance Festival [including the current season]. All positions have been opportunities for growth in leadership. Seven years as director of the Aspen Institute Arts Program has been an opening of possibilities and a steady widening of rings.

ON: Will you continue to teach?

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At the Aspen Institute, 2017
© Dan Bayer/Property of the Aspen Institute
 

DW: It is important for me to maintain my role not only as an administrative leader, but also as an artistic leader. I’ll teach, direct and be active in visceral ways. I intend to take on some of the Arts in Society work I’ve done at the Aspen Institute. I have always valued self-education, which is why I applied to Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and, with the encouragement of my wife, Heather Watts, got into the MPA program.

ON: What does Juilliard represent for the future of the arts?

DW: I would identify inclusivity and collaborative ventures. What is it that we can do together that we can’t do by ourselves? There are challenges to make what we offer here accessible and affordable for everyone. College debt that causes the exclusion of talented students is unacceptable to me. I want people to have the opportunity to thrive in the arts. spacer 

Dona D. Vaughn  is artistic director of Opera Maine and artistic director of opera theater at Manhattan School of Music. 



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