At the Aspen Ideas Festival’s “Jerome Robbins: American Dance Genius,” Aspen 2008
Damian Woetzel in his New York headquarters, which overlooks Times Square
Carla Körbes, Danill Simkin, and Joaquin De Luz rehearsing with Woetzel for the 2010 Vail International Dance Festival
At the Aspen Institute’s Society of Fellows discussion reception, Aspen 2011
“In the end, all the world’s a stage,” quips Damian Woetzel. Fitting, considering we are in a studio overlooking the bustling Times Square theater district. As the new director of The Aspen Institute’s Arts Program and Harman-Eisner Artist-in-Residence Program, Woetzel may be headquartered in the Big Apple, but his packable office is a mobile movement of sorts. As a former principal dancer of the New York City Ballet (1989–2008), Woetzel certainly understands the art of performance, yet his new role is challenging the way arts can be performed in the arena of political and societal growth. And, due to a magnetic nature, he is quickly redefining his global stage.
On this particular day, dressed casually in a crisp blue button-down shirt and black pants, Woetzel talks excitedly about several new Aspen Institute events. A Harvard Kennedy School grad, his intelligence is as striking as his chiseled profile, and it is readily apparent The Aspen Institute has tapped an ambitious change-maker for the job. His innate sense of collaboration and a covetable Rolodex of international art luminaries may prove key to his success. “I was lucky as a dancer to do an incredible amount of collaborating in various ways,” he says. “I have a thirst for that sort of activity, and this [job] is very similar in that sense. It’s all about finding people you can make something with.”
On this particular week, what he is “making” is manifold: Over the past months, he has helmed a highly successful Chicago “Arts Strike,” which culminated with a closed-door roundtable discussion between the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the new CEO of Chicago’s public schools; an NYC “Leadership in the Arts” conversation with artist Eric Fischl; a Washington, DC, roundtable with George Stevens Jr., founding director of the American Film Institute; and an NYC conversation titled “Arts & Community: Investments in Creative Place Making” with National Endowment for the Arts chairman Rocco Landesman. Not to mention an ongoing partnership with the Asia Society’s Center on US-China Relations, one that champions an ongoing cultural dialogue between the two nations and involves the likes of Yo-Yo Ma, Meryl Streep, and Alice Waters, among others.
“The sky’s the limit in what’s going to be most effective,” he says about his robust roster of programming. “How can this be a catalyst for progress? I’m wary of those moments when everybody agrees. The Aspen Institute brings together these different players, and now we’re going to do it in the arts as well. It’s building off some things I might be doing as an artist, but showing how the policy world might meld with that.”
He also has big plans for Aspen-specific events, including the 2012 Aspen Ideas Festival (AIF) in July. Where once the arts offering of AIF was solely its own singular tract, now it will also be integrated into the festival’s overall programming theme and tracts, whether they are economic, environmental, or political. And it was at this international think tank in 2007 that Woetzel presented “Ballet in America: The State of the Art,” a year after being introduced to the late Dr. Sidney Harman, an Aspen Institute trustee whose collaboration with Michael Eisner resulted in the Institute’s Harman-Eisner Program in the Arts. Founded in 2006, the program has featured such artists-in-residence as Anna Deavere Smith, Tobias Wolff, Chuck Close, and Woetzel. He will also work with the Aspen Writers Foundation to further spur conversation surrounding America’s literary heritage. An avid reader, Woetzel’s passion for the written word is quick to surface. “If there’s anything more in addition to what I already do, I wish I could be a writer,” he says.
When asked what initially inspired him in his new post, he replies, “Ideas Festival is a nexus for progress. It’s where so-and-so meet and something actually happens. The real mission is very much related to my initial experience with Sidney Harman himself, that the arts should be a part of it, that they’re not simply ‘over there’ to be appreciated. How do I integrate that meaningfully into a conversation so the arts aren’t just decorative or frivolous? It should have a meaningful contribution. And that’s what I want to do. I want the arts to be part of it all.”