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A last waltz for Damian Woetzel

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FOR HALF an hour on a late May afternoon, Damian Woetzel had the New York State Theater stage to himself. Although odd noises emerged from the wings as stagehands went about their business, Woetzel, in a T-shirt and stretch pants, focused intently on the Chopin selections being played by pianist Cameron Grant as the dancer rehearsed three solos choreographed by Jerome Robbins, two of them from 1969's "Dances at a Gathering." Woetzel alternated between the reflective, understated quality required by the opening of "Dances" and the buoyant turns and seamless phrasing of a turbulent solo that comes late in the ballet. For the first, he consulted with the pianist about a particular moment, wanting the music to be "a tiny bit slower, just to let the thought establish."

Finished with the Robbins, he strolled into the wings singing a few bars of "Honey Bun" before shifting gears to work on a recent ballet created for him, Christopher Wheeldon's "An American in Paris." He got in the mood by bellowing "Gotta dance!" with Gene Kelly flair before working through his sections of the ballet, in which his role is a distillation of Kelly in the 1951 film, encountering an array of Parisian archetypes as well as a romantic adventure or two.

As Woetzel took to the air and unspooled multiple smooth, mesmerizing pirouettes, one had to be reminded that this versatile, prodigiously gifted dancer was preparing to give his final performances in each of these roles. He hardly came across as a dancer winding down his performing career after 23 years with New York City Ballet. Yet the company's current season at the State Theater has been serving as a farewell tour through just some of his numerous roles, leading up to his farewell performance Wednesday.

But Woetzel, 41, has already broadened his horizons considerably -- you might even call him the avatar of a new generation of dancers determined not to find themselves at a loss when their bodies can no longer be their meal tickets. Even his garb when he settled in later for an interview on the theater's expansive promenade indicated the range of his interests. He wore an Obama T-shirt, and the jacket over that was from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He's an active supporter of the Democratic candidate and also a Harvard graduate, having received a master's in public administration from the Kennedy School last year.

Summer in Vail

HE WON'T exactly be taking a rest after Wednesday, since he's deep in preparations for this summer's Vail (Colo.) International Dance Festival, where he's in his second year as artistic director. As he showed off the elegant brochures for the July 27 to Aug. 9 event, he seemed just as proud of the fact that all the printing this year is on recycled paper as he was of the impressive programming, which includes Pacific Northwest Ballet and the Paul Taylor Dance Company.

"The retirement timing is always a tricky thing for a dancer. I think it's different for everyone," Woetzel said. "How you say goodbye to the thing you have really focused on that much is a tough one. I've always intended to leave in good shape, to exit on a high note."

A bout of appendicitis a few years ago -- one of the few times he was forced to miss part of a season -- prompted some initial thinking about when to stop.

"When I saw that City Ballet was having a Robbins festival this spring, I thought this would be a good time. That makes sense -- like coming full circle. And I'm having an enormous amount of fun. It's exactly the way I hoped I'd feel when I left."

He is coming "full circle" because it was the active presence of Robbins that inspired him to join NYCB in 1985.

A precociously gifted dancer who had already performed with John Clifford's Los Angeles Ballet at age 15, Woetzel had come to New York to study at the School of American Ballet, City Ballet's official academy, and received offers of a contract from American Ballet Theatre, then under Mikhail Baryshnikov's direction, and from Erik Bruhn, who ran the National Ballet of Canada.

"While I was at the school, Jerry invited me to watch a rehearsal of 'Fancy Free.' It was the ultimate 'up-close' experience, seeing Jerry rehearse that ballet. I felt, 'Wow, this is the place for me, the kind of work I want to do, the variety of repertoire.' " The role of a sailor on leave who dances a snaky rumba -- the part Robbins himself danced in 1944 -- is one Woetzel has long performed with engaging verve and wit, and the ballet is on Wednesday's program.

L.A. years; early stardom

IT WAS when he was 15 that his family moved to L.A., where his father, a professor of international law at Boston College, had taken a position as a visiting professor at USC. Woetzel, who had trained at the Boston Ballet School since he was 7, knew he was seriously committed to a ballet career by age 12. Uprooted and unsure what opportunities L.A. offered, he soon found himself dancing lead roles with Clifford's company while completing his senior year (at age 16) at Hollywood High.

Clifford, a former NYCB principal, opened up the world of Balanchine to the youthful dancer, who also absorbed more traditional Russian training from Irina Kosmovska, a former Ballets Russes dancer whose classes he took. As a principal with the Clifford troupe, he performed Balanchine's exuberant "Tarantella" as well as classical standards.

Clifford also created roles on the young prodigy. Reviewing one of them, "The Young Apollo," then Los Angeles Times dance critic Martin Bernheimer called him "an incipient superstar" and wrote: "This young Apollo would seem to be blessed with just about everything: innate stage presence, elegance, a solid classical technique, dazzling athletic prowess, a deceiving aura of innocence, a sense of style."

"Those were formative years in L.A. That's when I learned so much of what I've relied on," Woetzel said. But the company was on shaky financial footing, and New York had always beckoned. It was Rudolf Nureyev, who encountered the youngster when he came through L.A. performing "Don Quixote," who pointed him toward the School of American Ballet, saying, "You should go to New York and study with Stanley Williams. He'll clean you up."

A revered teacher of male dancers, Williams (who died in 1997) taught a class "that was on another plane from anything I knew. It was another level of expertise, restraint and sophistication," Woetzel said. After just six months at the school, he joined City Ballet, and Robbins immediately created small but telling roles for him in two ballets. Major roles were soon coming his way; his trajectory was steady and rapid, and by 1989 he was a principal dancer.

He soared through nearly all the demanding Balanchine male roles, among them "Theme and Variations," "Rubies" and "Donizetti Variations." His distinctly all-American expansiveness and engaging sense of humor, meanwhile, were given ample play in "Western Symphony" and "Stars and Stripes."

He developed more nuance and dramatic incisiveness through the many Robbins roles he performed. Choreographers creating new works for City Ballet -- including Eliot Feld, Twyla Tharp and Susan Stroman -- further extended his range.

"Damian was the dancer we all aspired to be when I got in the company: the virtuoso who was thrilling everyone with his technique," says Wheeldon, who danced with the troupe from 1993 to 2000 before focusing on choreography and has featured Woetzel in five of his ballets. "Over the years, I started to realize that he was so much more than pirouettes and big jumps. He's very focused. It's all about the work and making sure that he's doing the very best that he can to serve himself as a dancer and also to serve the ballets."

Busy as he was, Woetzel's inquisitive disposition also led him toward outside interests. He is a charter member of the Young Leaders Forum, a program of the National Committee on United States-China Relations. And a few years ago, when fellow forum member Gabrielle Giffords -- now a Democratic congresswoman from Arizona -- suggested he look into the Kennedy School program, Woetzel went online and "next thing it took on a life of its own."

Despite not having an undergraduate degree, he took the GREs and made his case. "Because it's a leadership program specifically for mid-career people, there was room to move past those obstacles."

"Damian comes from a very educated family," notes Heather Watts, the former City Ballet principal dancer to whom Woetzel has been married since 1999. "There's that part of you that always wonders, 'What if I'd gone the other route?' He has bridged both of those worlds. He answered that need by going back to school and applying himself on a level that's unbelievable."

Head-to-toe training

HE TOOK classes -- such as microeconomics, statistics and strategic planning -- during two fall semesters, returning to dance from January through July. In one course, he studied the National Endowment for the Arts and the way politics and culture intersect. And he didn't just exercise his mind. "Every morning in Boston, I was running to ballet class," he said.

These days, he maintains ties to his alma mater by serving on the Harvard Arts Task Force, formed by the university's president to discuss how the arts fit into education. It's a topic that intrigues him, as do broader issues of cultural diplomacy.

"I'd like to have some influence on that realm, through both performance and education," he said. "I'm going to do some consulting for nonprofits and arts agencies. These are areas I'm interested in that didn't come directly out of Harvard, but certainly I started looking at things in a different manner. There are a lot of possibilities I'm looking at for the future, but I'm very insistent on not limiting myself. Especially right away. I want to take my time, explore lots of different things."

He still had a few weeks to say goodbye to several touchstone roles, to acknowledge the huge ovations that have greeted him this season and to seize that final opportunity to explore the intimate world of "Dances at a Gathering," a ballet he worked on intensively with Robbins.

"How he wanted me to do it changed at different times. I always try to channel those memories and activate them. There are subtleties I appreciate in the roles themselves -- they're cumulative. I know things now I didn't know then.

"Yet the curtain goes up and it's all gone. I just try to live in those moments."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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