Vail Dance Festival Retakes The Stage Among The Mountains

Courtesy Vail Dance/Erin Baiano
BalletX dancers Francesca Forcella and Gary Jeter perform Jorma Elo’s Gran Partita at the Dancing in thePark program of the 2015 Vail International Dance Festival.

Vail Dance Festival Artistic Director Damian Woetzel is over pivoting. No, not the dance move. The phrase. 

“When this is all over, we're going to ban the word pivot,” he said. “Which is not a good thing in dance because we do pivot. But it's enough now.”

After over a year of pivots, twists and turns to adapt to the coronavirus pandemic, Woetzel is ready to welcome dancers and audiences again in person for this year’s edition of the Vail Dance Festival, which runs from July 30 to August 9. 

“Since March of 2020, I think we've planned maybe seven festivals,” Woetzel said, counting off the various iterations of changes, from in-person to last year’s virtual edition to this year’s in-person but outdoors program. 

“Even right down to today where we're looking at what we're going to do, how we're going to do it to maintain the maximum amount of safety for everybody, for the artists, for the audiences, for the ability to collaborate, which is really the heart of this festival,” he said. “We're in the business of making solutions though. How do we work together safely?”

Once Woetzel and his fellow organizers decided to move back towards an in-person event, his job as artistic director kicked into high gear. Woetzel, a former principal dancer with New York City Ballet who began dancing in Vail in the ‘90s, became the festival’s artistic director in 2007. 

He compares his job as artistic director to that of a matchmaker, pairing together two dancers or a choreographer with a composer to create new works and opportunities. Some of the projects that had their seeds planted in Vail have gone on to sprout elsewhere in stages across the country and beyond. 

“I look at artists and I think what might be the next thing, what might be a new choreographer who's worked small-scale, but, oh, let's see if we can get a big group of people for that person that then give them the chance to try something like that,” he said.

Woetzel’s matchmaking led him to select Calvin Royal III as the festival’s artist-in-residence, where he will perform new works by choreographers Tiler Peck and Jamar Roberts in addition to classics by George Balanchine and Merce Cunningham. 

He has also enlisted Justin Peck, the resident choreographer of New York City Ballet and of Spielberg's upcoming remake of “West Side Story, for a new work and programmed dozens of other dancers to show off different styles, steps and routines both new and familiar. 

It’s such a stacked line-up that Woetzel said he has a hard time choosing any favorites, but he recommends audiences check out the two Up-Close events if they’re unsure of what to see.

“They're usually in our indoor theater, but we're not using that this year in deference to the time we're in, we're going to be outside the whole time,” he said. “They really peel back the curtain in a way, and we're already peeled back here — we don't even have a curtain at the amphitheater. But this is another level of learning about what's going on.” 

Woetzel said it’s a rare opportunity for the audience to see the rehearsal process and talk with the dancers, and it only happens at places like the Vail Dance Festival. 

“As we get ready to launch into season 2021, we're going to have a big backlog of information and excitement to actually get back on stage, to do some things that are really about reunion, about that idea that we are back together and taking full advantage of that,” Woetzel said. 

“One of the things that I carry with me is something my friend and collaborator Yo-Yo Ma talks about: what is the point of art?” Woetzel said. “It's not simply to do it for the sake of yourself, but it's that it lives with somebody else. So we've been waiting to do that and cannot wait to get out on stage and begin that communication again in person.”