Tiler Peck, Heather Watts, Herman Cornejo and Damian Woetzel at a Vail International Dance Festival rehearsal, Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater July 26, 2014. (Erin Baiano, Vail International Dance Festival)
When Damian Woetzel became artistic director of the Vail Dance Festival 11 years ago, he had a hope to make it more than just another summer festival. He wanted to form a creative community.
Well-known dancers make the summer festival rounds, carrying their costumes and music, doing their dance, picking up a check and moving on. Woetzel aspired to something more.
“Why come to Vail and dance at 8,000 feet?” he asked.
The reason is the lure of “creative collaboration,” said Woetzel, who retired as a New York City Ballet principal dancer in 2008. It was the promise of something new, something unexpected for the artists and for the audiences, as well.
Woetzel’s hope is now a reality as the festival has a core of regular artists — from soft-shoe vaudevillian Bill Irwin to ballerina Tiler Peck to Memphis street jooker Lil Buck to tap-dancing dynamo Michelle Dorrance.
“This is the collaborative dream getting everybody in one place and informing each other,” Woetzel said. “It feeds the audience, the audience gets to see something unique.”
Audience attendance is up 40 percent in the last six years, reaching more than 22,000 in 2016. “It has become a melting pot for all things dance,” said Mike Imhof, the festival’s chief executive officer.
“Damian’s genius lies in being able to bring together really disparate art forms into a single program,” Imhof said. “He has drawn in a brand-new audience, a younger audience. He offers something for everyone.”
The two-week festival, which begins July 29, has spilled out from the stage into dancing in the street, pop-up performances, free dance bills in the park, workshops for children.
Vail International Dance Festival. Rehearsal at the Vail Mountain School. July 25, 2014. (Erin Baiano, Vail International Dance Festival)
It has even become a destination draw with a significant portion of the audience coming to the Vail Valley expressly for the festival, Imhof said.
In May, The Julliard School, one of the world’s premier performing-arts conservatories for music dance and theater, announced that Woetzel would become its president beginning in July 2018. Looking at his experience at Vail, as well as being director of the Aspen Institute Arts Program, it was a natural fit.
“Damian was a great choice” for Julliard, Imhof said. And while Woetzel will supervise next season and have some continuing role with the festival, Imhof said, “We are going to have to figure out our next chapter.”
Still, Woetzel’s vision reigns, and the permutations in his dance community are kaleidoscopic. One season, Lil Buck, with his undulating street jookin, was paired with ballerina Peck to a new musical piece by Philip Glass. Last year, Dorrance, who as a tap dancer and choreographer is pushing the bounds of the form, was joined by Irwin and singer-songwriter and bassist Kate Davis.
Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre, home to the most classical of ballets, danced with avant-garde BalletX.
The innovations and matchmaking are set to continue this season. The Martha Graham Dance Company will perform “Lamentation Variation,” choreographed by Lil Buck. It is his first commission by a major dance company. Graham’s 1930 “Lamentation” is one of the iconic works of modern dance.
There is also emphasis on women choreographers with a special one-night program. “We wanted to emphatically state that these are women choreographers in our midst,” Woetzel said.
Lauren Lovette, a principal dancer at the New York City Ballet who has just ventured into choreography, will premiere a dance, as will Claudia Schreier, a young contemporary ballet choreographer who debuted a work at Vail last year. Schreier’s first experience at Vail was some 10 years ago as a summer intern at the festival. In another piece of invention, Schreier will work with poet Andrea Gibson on her piece.
Modern-dance choreographer Pam Tanowitz will offer a new work to “Entre’acte” by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw, who is the festival’s first composer-in-residence. Shaw will be working on a new score for next year’s festival.
Dorrance, who is a MacArthur Fellowship recipient, the so-called genius grant, and this year’s artist-in-residence, is also on the “Celebrating Women Choreographers” bill.
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“We’ve had this artist-in-residence for several years, and they are charged with being a catalyst,” Woetzel said. “Michelle is a collaborator beyond expectations … . Michelle is very much the motor.”
The festival — anticipating the centennial anniversaries of Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein, both born in 1918 — is honoring the choreographer and composer. There will be a performance of Robbins’ 1944 “Fancy Free,” his first ballet, danced to a Bernstein score, and an “UpClose” rehearsal-style performance will explore some of Robbins greatest works.
Matthew Neenan, one of the most inventive modern ballet choreographers, will set a new piece to a Bernstein score. “We bow to Robbins and Bernstein,” Woetzel said.
As every year, ballet enthusiasts will be able to see some of the top dancers from many companies — American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, The Royal Ballet and Boston Ballet — on one stage at the two International Evenings of Dance. Among those dancers are ABT’s Misty Copeland and New York City Ballet’s Robert Fairchild, who appeared on Broadway in “An American in Paris,” garnering a Tony nomination.
While Woetzel has been able to assemble that parade of virtuosos, that was never an end in itself. “The goal is to collaborate together and create things that are astounding,” he said. “Who knows what might happen when you are dealing with open hearts and minds. Who knows?”
Lil Buck is a regular at the Vail International Dance Festival. (Provided by Vail International Dance Festival)
Vail Dance Festival Schedule
Sat., July 29, 7:30 p.m., Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater (GRFA)
The kickoff night offers a taste of the two weeks to come, headlined by Michelle Dorrance, a choreographer and dancer who has taken tap to new places and new levels; ballerina Lauren Lovette, a principal at the New York City Ballet, who is doubling later in the festival as a choreographer; and Lil Buck, whose Memphis “jookin,” a willowy and hypnotic street-style dance, has been a staple at the festival; and the L.A. Dance Project performing its Hearts & Arrows. Dorrance is the festival’s resident artist and the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation fellowship.
Sun., July 30, 7:30 p.m., GFRA
L.A. Dance Project
If you want to see where dance is headed, watch the L.A. Dance Project. The company — founded in 2012 by Benjamin Millepied, a former principal dancer at the New York City Ballet and artistic director of the Paris Opera Ballet–blends the avant-garde with classical style. A hallmark of the company is interesting collaborations in music, choreography and place. A recent project had LADP performing for a video-streaming audience from the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas. The high-flying company will arrive in Vail from Arles, France, and then head off to Dubai and Singapore. Millepied did the choreography for the movie, “Black Swan,” in which he also appeared as the prince and met his wife, Natalie Portman.
Mon., July 31, 5:30 p.m., Avon Performance Pavilion
Dancing in the Park: Colorado Ballet
Bring your lawn chairs, blankets and picnic baskets to Nottingham Park for a family-friendly, free performance by the Colorado Ballet. The program will feature excerpts from the company repertoire highlighting the dancers’ artistry and athleticism. Gates open at 4:30 p.m.
The Mexican National Ballet lead a talented roster at last year’s Vail International Dance Festival. (Carlos Quezada, provided by Vail International Dance Festival)
Tues., Aug. 1, 7:30 p.m., GRFA
American Dance Classics: Jerome Robbins’ “Fancy Free” & George Balanchine’s “Serenade”
This is one of the festival’s big nights featuring ballets by two of the 20th century’s greatest choreographers danced by some of the best dancers in ballet.
Robbins’ 1944 “Fancy Free” was based on his observations of sailors on shore leave in Hell’s Kitchen bars during World War II. It is set to music by a 26-year-old Leonard Bernstein, with strains of his score 13 years later for the Broadway musical, “West Side Story.” The sailors are Robert Fairchild and Daniel Ulbricht, both principal dancers with the New York City Ballet, and Marcelo Gomes, a principal with the American Ballet Theatre. Tiler Peck, also a New York City Ballet principal, is a woman whom the sailors try to pick up.
Balanchine is widely considered the greatest choreographer of the century, and “Serenade” was the first ballet he made in America, in 1934 to Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade for Strings.” Despite having just formed a company and without experienced dancers, this ballet became a classic that continues to be danced around the world. It depends heavily on the corps de ballet, which will be provided by the Colorado Ballet.
The Breckenridge Music Festival Orchestra will accompany both ballets.
Wed., Aug. 2, 6:30 p.m., Vail Performing Arts Center Beaver Creek (VPAC)
UpClose: Jerome Robbins
Curious about how a choreographer makes a dance and how dancers dance them? The “UpClose” series has, each season, attempted to answer those questions in a rehearsal-style performance. This year, UpClose will look at the some of Jerome Robbins’ greatest dances — “Fancy Free,” “Dances at a Gathering,” “The Cage” and “Afternoon of a Faun.” It will also look at the collaboration between Robbins and Leonard Bernstein on “Fancy Free” and “West Side Story.”
Damian Woetzel, the festival artistic director, is the evening’s host and guide. Woetzel, a former principal dancer at The New York City Ballet who worked with Robbins, has been known to get up and work a few steps with the dancers.
A pre-show reception and post-performance dinner with the dancers is also being held. (Tickets sold separately.)
Fri., Aug. 4 and Sat., Aug. 5, 7:30 p.m., GFRA
International Dance Evenings
The International Dance Evenings are one of the centerpieces of the festival, a smorgasbord of styles and dancers from Lil Buck’s street “jookin” to classical ballerina Misty Copeland, these performances surprise. The program will include dancers from the American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, Royal Ballet and Boston Ballet, as well as flamenco dancer Elena Heiss. Festival artistic director Damian Woetzel has shown an uncanny knack for selecting styles and dancers, and pairing dance partners. This skill led The New York Times is describe him as “a matchmaker.”
Wendy Whelan performed at last year’s Vail International Dance Festival. (Erin Baiano, provided by Vail International Dance Festival.)
Mon., Aug. 7, 7:30 p.m., GRFA
NOW Premieres: Celebrating Women Choreographers
If there is a heart to the festival, this night is it. Damian Woetzel, the festival’s artistic director, is trying to make a statement in what many have seen as an imbalance in the dance world — particularly in ballet. Two young ballet choreographers, Lauren Lovette and Claudia Schreier will debut pieces. Lovette is a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, and her first work was performed by that company last September. Schreier began as an intern at the Vail festival and has worked her way up in the dance world, creating a dance for the festival last year and being awarded a Virginia B. Toulmin Fellowship for Women Choreographers this spring.
They will be joined by two accomplished female dance makers, modern-dance choreographer Pam Tanowitz and tap genius (really she has a MacArthur Genius grant) Michelle Dorrance.
Tanowitz has her own small, but highly visible company Pam Tanowitz Dance, with a post-modern take on classical dance. The New York Times said of Tanowitz, “at its best, her eccentric choreography has a thrilling, witting unpredictability.”
Woetzel, showing his penchant for combining creative talents, is pairing the choreographers with the likes of poet Andrea Gibson, singer and musician Kate Davis and the eclectic Brooklyn Rider, the festival’s quartet-in-residence.
Tues., Aug. 8, 7:30 p.m., GRFA
Dance for $20.17
Another potpourri of artists and dances with the special draw of $20.17 reserved seating tickets, which are in high demand, and $10.17 lawn tickets. Among the groups performing with be Denver’s modern dance company, Wonderbound, with the hip-hop band, Flobots.
Wed., Aug. 9, 5:30 p.m., Avon Performance Pavilion
Dancing in the Park: Wonderbound (Free Performance)
Wonderbound has shown it can dance to just about anything — indie folk, rock, hip hop, traditional folk music, Baroque chamber music. Nottingham Park gates open at 4:30, bring your lawn chairs, blankets and picnic baskets.
Flobots rappers Jamie Laurie (left) and Stephen Brackett are surrounded by Wonderbound dancers in this image from the new show “Divisions.” The group will perform at this year’s Vail Dance Festival. (Provided by Wonderbound)
Thurs., Aug. 10, 6:30 p.m., VPAC
Dorrance Dance 2017
If when you think of tap dancing what comes to mind are old 1930s movies or the Rockettes or Shirley Temple, you’ll be surprised by Michelle Dorrance. She is no Shirley Temple. One of the most inventive choreographers in tap, Dorrance is trying to take what she has described as a “bastard dance form” to something hip and relevant. Her dances, like the Blues Project, are full length and complex. The New York Times critic Brian Seibert said that she has an “unusual talent of laying bare hidden emotions in the technique of tap.” As for her own dancing, Seibert said, she has a “let-it-all hang-out style — as much about knees and elbows as it is about her speedy feet, a contemporary physicality nothing like that of Fred Astaire” or Shirley Temple.
Fri., Aug. 11, 7:30 p.m., GRFA
Marth Graham Dance Company
While it may not seem so modern, modern dance in many ways began with Martha Graham in 1926. While there were earlier pioneers — Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis — Graham created a dancing technique that has been called the “cornerstone of modern dance.” Then there was her staying power. As a dancer, she performed until she was 76 and continued to choreograph until her death in 1991 at the age of 96. Graham strongly influenced modern-dance choreographers who followed her, such Paul Taylor and Merce Cunningham.
Some of her dances, like the iconic “Lamentation,” reflect the times in which she lived — the Great Depression, the rise of fascism. Graham also probed emotional and sexual themes and love in the dance “Diversion of Angels.”
The Martha Graham Company brings all this to the stage, simultaneously trying to keep true to the steps and spirit of its founder, while testing their technique with new choreographers and new themes. They will dance a new piece “Lamentation Variations” choreographed by Memphis street dancer Lil Buck. It is his first commission by a major dance company.
Sat., Aug. 12, 6:30 p.m., GRFA
What do Bach and Amy Winehouse have in common? BalletX. The Philadelphia-based company dances to both. Founded in 2005, BalletX takes classical ballet techniques, strips away the flowery bits and goes looking for new music and new dances. It has hip takes on classical music and classical takes on hip music. The company has built a repertoire of more than 60 original works from more than 17 different choreographers. Prominent among them are the dances of Matthew Neenan, a BalletX founder and the resident choreographer of the Pennsylvania Ballet. Critics tend to use word like “fresh” and “offbeat” to describe BalletX dances. Last summer at Vail, BalletX performed “The Big Ones,” a Trey McIntyre piece to Amy Winehouse, which The New York Times critic Alastair Macaulay said is “truly weird, but it takes you inside its weirdness so soon and so surely that it shows many different humors: It’s funny, touching, poignant, stirring.”
After the performance, there will be an onstage dance party for all.