Damian Woetzel & Michael Sandel: Engaging Audiences through Art & Teaching

Damian Woetzel and Tiler Peck at the Guggenheim Museum, photo by Erin Baiano

Last Sunday evening, audience members of the intimate Peter B. Lewis Theater at the Guggenheim Museum learned and performed George Balanchine’s Serenade, with piano accompaniment by Cameron Grant.  Well, that’s not entirely accurate, but former New York City Ballet principal dancer Damian Woetzel started this rare Works & Process event, called “The Art of Teaching: Participation & Perception”, by teaching everyone the ballet’s opening movements.  It was the first of many examples of audience engagement, which was a focal point for Woetzel – coming from the world of performing – and Michael Sandel, a political philosopher, Harvard professor of government, and Rhodes Scholar whose widely popular undergraduate class “Justice” is now part of a public television series.  By presenting their own areas of expertise in an interactive manner, Woetzel and Sandel explored the relationship between performing and teaching.  How does a performer engage the audience?  How is teaching a performing art?  What does it mean for the audience to participate in a work of art?  In addition to insight from Woetzel and Sandel, there were many opinions from audience members, who eagerly crossed the line from spectators to participants during the event.

Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild in an excerpt from Jerome Robbins’ Afternoon of a Faun, photo by Erin Baiano

With assistance and input from current New York City Ballet principal dancers Tiler Peck, Robert Fairchild, and Joaquin De Luz, who performed excerpts from Balanchine’s Serenade and The Nutcracker and Jerome Robbins’ Other Dances, Afternoon of a Faun, and Fancy Free, Woetzel discussed the process of learning a role in a ballet and how the process evolves from studio to stage.  Using Afternoon of a Faun as an example, he explained how the male character in that ballet is in a studio, dancing in front of a mirror and later with a woman.  While that may be easy while rehearsing the ballet in a studio, it becomes challenging to engage the audience while performing the ballet on stage, yet still convey the intimacy of rehearsing alone in a studio (which is what the character is doing).  According to both Woetzel and Fairchild, learning this role is slightly different for each dancer.  After Fairchild, De Luz, and Woetzel portrayed the three sailors from Fancy Free, they discussed the character development that occurred as they performed.  Fairchild said he felt like a guy from Kansas just arriving in NYC for the first time.  The ballet is silent, so the dancers aim to convey their fictional stories to the audience through movement.

Sandel immediately sparked debate upon entering the stage by asking, “What is the relationship between justice and equality?”  More specifically, he was interested in the audience’s opinions on taxing bonuses for bankers.  After hearing from many lively participants, Sandel showed wealth disparities by sharing the average salary of a public school teacher and David Letterman, and the salaries of Chief Justice John Roberts and Judge Judy.  The question seemed to be, what is the value of the contribution to society?  And is it just for an entertainer to make drastically more money than a public servant?

Michael Sandel and Damian Woetzel, photo by Erin Baiano

Damian Woetzel and Tiler Peck in an excerpt from George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker, photo by Erin Baiano

While it might seem as though there was little in common between Sandel’s discussion of justice and equality and Woetzel’s ballet demonstrations, both served as models for audience engagement.  And both were remarkably effective.  Yet, they had a frank discussion about what to do when an audience isn’t engaged.  Woetzel hoped that by learning a small excerpt from Serenade – blocking an imaginary sun with the right hand, bringing the hand to the head as if in pain, slowly opening the feet to first position and “becoming a dancer” – the audience was able to more deeply appreciate Tiler Peck’s polished performance.  Jokingly, he added that when dancers perform, “We know when you cough”, which led to a conversation about how to reinvigorate a bored audience.  How does one do that when performing in front of a darkened theater?  Or when teaching a class of a few thousand?  Sandel suggested that the shuffling of papers and even coughing, which he believes can be involuntary, are signs that he’s lost his audience and has to do something different to gain their attention.  Woetzel pointed out that, while performing with NYCB, he was fortunate to have a few performances that transported him to another place, which hopefully meant that he transported the audience with him, as well.  At other times, pausing to internalize the silence in the theater can indicate if the audience is engaged.  Surely it takes a skilled performer to be able to interpret silence.

Works & Process at the Guggenheim should have more thought-provoking events like this one that are both physically and intellectually engaging.  Who would have thought that a political philosopher and a former professional dancer would join forces to spark enthusiasm, participation, and vibrant debate?

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