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Damian Woetzel Leaps Into Future at City Ballet Love-In

This article originally appeared in the Culture section of Bloomberg News on June 20, 2008.
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Damian Woetzel dances in “Prodigal Son (Ballet in Three Scenes)” during his farewell performance with the New York City Ballet at the New York State Theatre at Lincoln Center in New York on June 18, 2008. Woetzel has danced with the NYCB to continual acclaim for 23 years, 19 of them as a principal. Photographer: Paul Kolnik/NYCB via Bloomberg News

June 20 (Bloomberg) — Damian Woetzel has danced with the New York City Ballet to continual acclaim for 23 years, 19 of them as a principal. Wednesday night, at Lincoln Center’s New York State Theater, the 41-year-old gave his farewell performance with the company, thus taking the decisive next step into his future.
Not, however, before both his colleagues and his fans treated him to ovations, bouquets and a shower of confetti that seemed to go on and on, as if doing so would keep the night from ending.

Woetzel belongs to the type best exemplified by Edward Villella — a regular American guy, tough and likable, with craggy good looks and no fancy airs about him. When virtuosity is called for, he makes it look free and easy. When drama is needed, he projects emotions that are intense and true.

A natural for Jerome Robbins’s work, which was what drew him to City Ballet in the first place, Woetzel chose to retire in the company’s season-long celebration of the late choreographer on the 90th anniversary of his birth.
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Dancers, from left, Joaquin de Luz, Tyler Angle, and Damian Woetzel take part in a performance of “Fancy Free” during Woetzel’s farewell performance with the New York City Ballet at the New York State Theatre at Lincoln Center in New York on June 18, 2008. Woetzel has danced with the NYCB to continual acclaim for 23 years, 19 of them as a principal. Photographer: Paul Kolnik/NYCB via Bloomberg News

For his last performance Woetzel appeared in “Fancy Free,” the ballet about three sailors on shore leave in New York that put Robbins on the map in 1944 and remains an audience favorite. He danced the role Robbins himself originated — the guy with a way of seducing girls with his war stories and slinky rumba. His performance — every move seemingly colloquial — was a perfect expression of his blithe naturalness, his sense of humor, his sheer pleasure in dancing.

`Prodigal Son’

Of course he performed a landmark George Balanchine work as well. In the 1929 biblically based “Prodigal Son,” Woetzel plays a rebellious adolescent who learns humility, respect and love only after leaving home for the freedom of a hellish world. Woetzel’s searing encounters with wild drinking, demonic sex and being stripped of everything he owns are capped by his return, bruised, filthy and crawling on his knees into his father’s forgiving embrace. Every scene revealed his ability to make a ballet look newborn, and his pathos in the final passages was the most poignant I’ve ever witnessed.

At the end of the show — which included Balanchine’s “Rubies,” with Woetzel, partnering Yvonne Borree, making a surprise appearance — the packed house stood, clapping and cheering (as they had for “Fancy Free”). One by one, a bevy of principal dancers, some from friendly rival troupes, presented him with lush bouquets.

Glittering Confetti
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Dancer Damian Woetzel, on center stage, bows to the crowd after his farewell performance with the New York City Ballet at the New York State Theatre at Lincoln Center in New York on June 18, 2008. Woetzel has danced with the NYCB to continual acclaim for 23 years, 19 of them as a principal. Photographer: Paul Kolnik/NYCB via Bloomberg News

The rest of his colleagues joined the onstage crowd to applaud him while company director Peter Martins signaled for a shower of glittering confetti to fall from above. Audience members hurled their own floral tributes over the heads of the orchestra, refusing to go home even when the house lights went up.

The hoopla was not simply conventional. Woetzel has earned not just his fans’ admiration but their love. You don’t have to know the man personally to sense his intelligence and integrity; it glows through his dancing.

What’s next? In tandem with the last years of his performing career, Woetzel earned a master’s degree in Public Administration at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government — accepted though he’d never been to college — and won acclaim as the new artistic director of the Vail International Dance Festival.

With the sensibility he’s developed as a dancer combined with the administrative know-how he’s acquiring, Woetzel seems a likely successor to Martins. He’s already indicated to the press that he’d be very interested in the job — when the time comes.

The New York City Ballet continues through June 29 at Lincoln Center, Broadway at 65th St. Information: +1-212-721-6500; http://www.nycballet.org.

© 2008 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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