A curtain call for Damian Woetzel (click to enlarge)
Photo by Evan – Please do not use without permission.
Watching one of my favorite ballet dancers – who I’ve watched for about fifteen years – dance his final performance and take his final bow at the New York State Theater last night was not easy. Writing about it is even more challenging. Damian Woetzel, a member of New York City Ballet since 1985, bid farewell to the company and a sold out theater of fans. The evening was tremendous – emotionally overwhelming and momentous. Being a part of Damian’s final performance was definitely a memorable experience.
Sometimes it is impossible to describe why a particular dancer stands out from the rest. His or her “it” factor cannot always be put into words. This isn’t the case with Damian. His many “it” factors include a winning stage presence, effortless technique (in a recent Playbill article by Astrida Woods he said, “Who wants to go to the ballet and see effort?”), and his ability to embody the American Man, which was particularly noticeable in the program’s opening ballet, Jerome Robbins’ Fancy Free. I wrote about his performance as the “rumba sailor” last January, but watching Damian tonight was even more meaningful because the piece was prefaced by a film clip of him rehearsing the ballet with Robbins. The two men reviewed how Damian should throw his arms overhead at the beginning of his solo, with Robbins talking him through it and occasionally adjusting his arms and back. I can only imagine that soon Damian will coach a rising dancer in this role, as well.
Damian Woetzel in Robbins’ Fancy Free, photo by Paul Kolnik
The Playbill indicated that Balanchine’s “Rubies” from Jewels, second on the program, would feature Teresa Reichlen, Ashley Bouder, and Joaquin De Luz, allowing Damian to have a break after Fancy Free. But the audience was surprised and thrilled to see him suddenly appear in the third part of the ballet along with Yvonne Borree. He looked carefree and delighted as he jogged around the stage to Stravinsky’s Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra. His pas de deux with Yvonne was superb, and her dancing was much stronger and bolder than it has been in the past. Perhaps she felt more secure being partnered by one of the company’s best. The rest of the cast was also excellent. Teresa Reichlen flirted with the audience and truly engaged them in her jazzy solo, while Ashley Bouder and Joaquin De Luz approached their intricate partnering with attack and precision.
Ending a twenty-three year dancing career with Balanchine’s Prodigal Son is a daring task. The principal role is both emotionally and physically draining, not to mention depressing. But in an interview in NYCB’s Spring newsletter, Damian said that the role was “endlessly fulfilling”, and it also happens to be one of his most memorable. Thus, it was a fitting way to close the program. Each movement and gesture was more significant and weighted than usual, and there was a definite sense of finality to his performance. His physicality was astounding, and he beautifully captured the youthfulness of the Prodigal Son. Maria Kowroski was an intriguing Siren, and her pas de deux with Damian was passionate and intense. Watching Damian hobble across the stage at the end of the ballet to Prokofiev’s riveting score, stripped of everything he has, was overwhelmingly painful. He clearly infused the role with every ounce of energy in his body.
An NYCB poster of Damian Woetzel in costume for Prodigal Son, in front of Cathedral of St. John the Divine, photo by Richard Corman
There was endless applause and countless curtain calls at the close of the performance. All of Damian’s partners from the evening’s program presented him with bouquets, along with many other individuals including Christopher Wheeldon, Wendy Whelan, Ethan Stiefel, Susan Stroman, Miranda Weese, Kyra Nichols, Alexandra Ansanelli, and Jenifer Ringer (all of whom have worked with him throughout his career). The entire company eventually joined him on stage to applaud and say farewell. Confetti fell from the ceiling and flowers were thrown from all parts of the audience. Damian graciously acknowledged the orchestra, his fellow dancers, and the admiring spectators. He continually sighed and breathed in this significant moment in his career.
Over the years of watching Damian, I’ve noticed that after bowing in front of the curtain, he does a little shuffle and informal jump as he leaves the stage. It seems to be a signature part of his bow – perhaps a way of thanking the audience and showing how much he’s enjoyed dancing – and is something that I’ve always appreciated in the final moments of a performance. Tonight, he didn’t disappoint. After every single bow, Damian did his little shuffle and jump before disappearing behind the curtain.
Damian Woetzel, smiling among a blur of people, flowers, and confetti
Damian Woetzel’s final bow