Vail entered an unlikely love affair with dance three decades ago—a fling that began with a little bit of luck and a lot of push from some local movers and shakers, including a former First Lady. Back then, few could have imagined where that relationship would lead.
This summer marks the 30th anniversary of the Vail International Dance Festival. The spectacular scenery of this resort nestled along the I-70 corridor will lure hordes of dance lovers for two weeks of performances by a roster of world-class artists skilled in every imaginable style of dance. And welcoming them all will be Damian Woetzel, an affable retired ballet star who will launch his 12th season as artistic director.
“I’m humbled when I think about the ghosts,” Woetzel said, acknowledging the long line of dancers, choreographers and teachers who had gathered in Vail in the years before he assumed the directorship in 2006. Not that he’s mired in the past. “The Festival has always been about creating possibilities, assembling a variety of artists and then creating fresh opportunities they don’t ordinarily have. Everybody in this field knows there’s a next step—a way of saying, ‘That’s nice. Now, what’s next?’ ”
Just as every professional dancer starts as a nervous novice, the Vail Dance Festival began with hesitant first steps, while perhaps dreaming of bigger things, just like those ballet beginners.
In 1989, an opportunity to take that initial step arrived in a lucky twist of fate. A troupe of students from Moscow’s famed Bolshoi Academy were starting their first American tour in 40 years, when an engagement in Houston was suddenly canceled. Into the void stepped the Vail Valley Foundation created in 1981 to encourage local arts and education and to raise the profile of the resort as more than a popular winter haven for down-hillers. On the board of the VVF were two longtime residents—President Gerald R. Ford and his wife, Betty. In her early years, the former First Lady had run her own dance school and later studied under Martha Graham, so it’s no surprise that she encouraged Vail to rescue the marooned Bolshoi troupe.
That summer, the Russian contingent, led by Sofia Golovkina (an intimidating woman known to all as Madame), made its debut on the stage of the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater. No joke, the crowd went wild. Fireworks and a whooping standing ovation ended the sold-out debut performance. Madame was thrilled, and plans were quickly made for return visits. In addition, negotiations led to the creation of a satellite branch of the Bolshoi Academy in Vail, allowing an invited group of American dance students to experience the disciplines of ballet, Russian style. Three years later, the Academy presence had grown into a festival, with classes and performances stretching over three weeks.
Katherine Kersten, a former dancer and teacher, had been named producing artistic director in ’92, and added a new wrinkle by inviting couples from several world-famous companies to perform the first-ever International Evening of Dance. It was an instant smash and became an annual Vail fixture.
During her 15-year tenure, Kersten brought in national and international companies and solo dancers, attracting audiences and dance critics from across the country. New works by established and up-and-coming choreographers were introduced on the Amphitheater stage (and, later, in the 500-seat Vilar Center, built underground in nearby Beaver Creek). Many of those premieres were crafted in Vail during the Festival—a tradition that Woetzel happily continues.
“We’ll always be emphasizing new works,” he said, pointing to seven such pieces this year, including premieres by tap choreographer Michelle Dorrance and New York City Ballet resident choreographer Justin Peck, who’ll be collaborating with Festival composer-in-residence Caroline Shaw. “That’s my focus—world premieres,” Woetzel stressed. “I’m already working on some for 2019.”
That last remark should come as a relief to fans of the Festival’s director, who made headlines last May (the month he turned 50) with his appointment as president of New York’s famed Juilliard School, a job he’s already begun. Surely, many feared, he couldn’t hold that position and remain in Vail. Not to worry, he reassured.
“I have an anticipation of continuing (at Vail). I’ve always valued my relationship with the Festival.” Referring to his twin titles, Woetzel remarked, “These things can feed off each other, creating a certain energy.” It doesn’t hurt that the Vail events occur during the summer when Juilliard classrooms go dark. That said, Woetzel has opted to step down as director of the Aspen Institute’s Arts Program, which he’d held since 2011. There’s only so much time in a day, after all.
This summer’s Festival sports a typically wide array of styles, from classic ballet (the first Vail visit by American Ballet Theatre, July 29) to contemporary ballet (Alonzo King LINES Ballet, July 31) to Latino (Ballet Hispanico, Aug. 9) to, well, let’s call it cross-over bluesy tap (Michelle Dorrance’s Blues Project, Aug. 10). And, of course, two International Evenings of Dance (Aug. 3 and 4).
Overseeing such an ambitious festival while heading Juilliard, one of the world’s largest and most revered schools for music, dance and theater, might seem a stressful load for even a high-energy guy like Woetzel. A glance at his lengthy résumé, however, reveals a man who has continuously juggled commitments as a performer, educator and arts administrator. It’s his preferred lifestyle, he admitted, pointing by example to his stellar career with New York City Ballet: “I always preferred those nights when I was cast in three ballets.” Spoken like a true multitasker.
2018 Vail Dance Festival
Performances are scheduled for July 28-Aug. 11 at Vail’s Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater and the Vilar Center in Beaver Creek. Tickets are $10-$23 (general admission, Ford lawn-seating); $50-$103 (Ford reserved); $50-$150 (Vilar); vaildance.org, 970-845-8497.
Marc Shulgold spent more than three decades as an arts journalist covering music and dance for the Los Angeles Times and the Rocky Mountain News. These days, he mixes teaching at Denver University’s University College and the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities with feature-writing and reviewing for publications such as Opera News and Opera Magazine.
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