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For Woetzel, a fitting last hurrah

June 21, 2008|Tobi Tobias | Bloomberg News

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 a decisive next step into his future.

Not, however, before his colleagues and fans treated him to ovations, bouquets and a shower of confetti.

Woetzel belongs to the type best exemplified by Edward Villella -- 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' work, Woetzel chose to retire in the company's season-long celebration of the late choreographer on the 90th anniversary of his birth.

For his last performance, Woetzel appeared in "Fancy Free," a ballet about three sailors on shore leave in New York, which put Robbins on the map in 1944 and remains an audience favorite. Woetzel danced the role Robbins 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.

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. The character'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 Woetzel's 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 cheering. One by one, a bevy of principal dancers, some from friendly rival troupes, presented him with lush bouquets.

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.

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