Ballet’s Damian Woetzel on Harvard, His Final Performance, and Retirement

Photo: Bruce Weber

It's difficult to believe that City Ballet senior principal Damian Woetzel has been dancing for a quarter of a century. Whether mugging in Fancy Free, leaping through Prodigal Son, or gliding across the floor in Carousel and Double Feature, Woetzel exudes an effortless grace and Everyman charm that makes him seem eternally young. Today marks his last performance before official retirement from the stage, but it won't be the last we see of him — ever since Woetzel graduated from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and started the Vail International Dance Festival two years ago, the dance world has projected great things for his future, perhaps a gig as the next great company director. Woetzel spoke to Vulture about his stint at Harvard, his decision to walk away from the stage, and (most important) what comes next.

When did you start thinking about retirement?
When you become a professional dancer, there's an inevitability that the career is not forever. My dad was a professor, so it was very much at the forefront of our conversations at age 15 — the words, "Well, what will you do when…" were very much heard even then. There's lots of ways to answer that when you're 15 years old, but most people at that point say, "I'll worry about that when I get there." There was a point where the dancing was just all-consuming, and then it was about producing my own groups and performances, and then it was going to Harvard, and now I've run the summer festival in Vail for two years … the decision to retire is such a hard one, and like most things with me, it's been sort of organic.

So going to Harvard wasn't expressly retirement-related…
Not exactly, no. It was definitely an opportunity I seized to make my world larger. I wanted to be able to open up the choices that would be available to me, and it seemed an obvious way to do that. Whether it's having my own foundation or cultural diplomacy or something in education — being able to make interventions in lots of different ways that are not necessarily dance-specific.

How different did you find it from the dance world?
Time management was such an interesting dilemma! I knew exactly how long it took me to do everything in my life, and then suddenly I didn't. I know how long it takes me to get ready to do Tchaikovsky Pas De Deux, how long the rehearsals have to be, whereas writing my first paper analyzing the leadership of the Bay of Pigs? How long was that going to take?

Were you surprised by all the attention your enrollment received?
Well … yes and no. The media attention that came as a result all actually happened after I'd been going for a year, so I was undercover for quite some time. So did I expect it? Not really. And yet, I guess … I had a great class with Adam Thomas from Newsweek on media and public policy, and it made for a good story!

It seems your public is expecting something showstopping from you after retirement…
At this point, the challenge is to exercise discipline and not be hasty. It took me some time to decide where I really wanted to dance, you know? I looked, I listened, I took classes, I asked questions, I read. So I have this opportunity to go back to that fork in the road and do it again, and the Kennedy School certainly gave me endless numbers of roads I may walk down part way or all way.

So what ultimately made now the right time to walk away from dancing? You’re still in such great shape…
I always wanted to be a dancer who walked away from the table feeling good. Looking back, I sort of decided for real a year ago that this would be the right time. It coincided with the Jerome Robbins Festival, which to me meant a lot as a full-circle thing, because Jerry was the reason I joined City Ballet. Celebrating Jerry — it just made good sense to me. I still have some little performances to do in the summer, and if there are interesting projects, it's conceivable I'll dance a little bit more, but the real work as a dancer I think comes to an end June 18. —Rebecca Milzoff