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He'll keep moving, that's certain

Damian Woetzel may be retiring from New York City Ballet, but he'll be busy at the intersection of culture and politics.

June 15, 2008|Susan Reiter | Special to The Times

NEW YORK — 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.

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