When it comes to reflecting on the pandemic, Damian Woetzel prefers to acknowledge the darkness but dwell on the bright side.
Sure, a whole season of live performances of the Vail Dance Festival was canceled and, yes, dancers and choreographers lost work, the local economy took a hit and Colorado audiences missed out on their annual jolt of world-class art under the stars at Vail’s comfy Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater.
But, at the same time, the community and company rallied together and discovered different sides of themselves. A quickly-organized Vail Dance Festival Artist Relief Fund pulled in a fast $192,000 and distributed it to 64 recipients via $3,000 grants.
And the art didn’t exactly stop. After months of maneuvering around the latest news on the spread of the coronavirus, event organizers decided to move operations online last summer, creating an eight-day lineup that did its best to replicate the feeling of the fest’s outdoor energy.
The webcasts drew about 108,000 viewers, “which is considerably more than might have come to Vail,” notes Woetzel, who has been artistic director since 2006.
If you go
The Vail Dance Festival returns in-person July 30-Aug. 9. Major performances are at the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater, but the fest offers concurrent programming throughout the region. More info and tickets: vaildance.org.
That created a marketing opportunity, too. Audiences clicked in from 18 nations, “from Argentina to Hong Kong, Ireland to Mexico,” boosting the fest’s reputation around the globe.
Woetzel attributes the 2020 edition’s success to the fact that the festival stuck to its core mission, which is to get dancers from various disciplines away from their daily moves and bring them together for collaborations. The fest is a unique mash-up of artists from ballet, contemporary, folk, tap, ballroom, hip-hop and other forms.
“Even with this, we tried to keep the principal of providing opportunities for dancers, choreographers and musicians to do things differently,” he said.
At the Vail Fest, there is no hierarchy. The fine art and the street art and the made-for-TV art are equal. The choreographers aren’t bosses, they are collaborators. The composers and musicians don’t serve as support staff, they are drivers of the new product that gets created every summer.
For 2021, with the action back on real stages, there will be plenty of fresh work. Seven dance pieces are set to premiere, along with four new commissioned scores. That’s a lot to pack into 11 days, but as Woetzel notes, there is some catching up to do.
That includes bringing back American Ballet Theatre star Calvin Royal III as the fest’s official artist-In-residence. The job usually rotates annually but Royal is getting a second go due to last year’s limited event. He will take the lead in two new works choreographed specifically for him, one by Alvin Alley Dance Theater’s Jamar Roberts.
Other notable premiers include a who’s who of Vail fest regulars. Pulitzer Prize-winning composer-in-residence Caroline Shaw is writing music that choreographer Justin Peck will use to create movement expressly for Tiler Peck. Both Pecks are fixtures at New York City Ballet.
Another team of songwriters is creating music to be performed by violinist Johnny Gandelsman, who will accompany dancers live on stage. It’s a high-powered lineup with Rhiannon Giddens writing for tap dancer Michelle Dorrance; Tyshawn Sorey writing for Jamar Roberts; and Christina Courtin writing for jookin star Lil Buck and ballet dancer Lauren Lovette.
A few other bits of news for this year: BalletX, Philadelphia’s flashy contemporary ballet troupe, returns as company-in-residence; New York City Ballet MOVES, the forward-moving offshoot of the legendary company, comes back after an absence; and Denver’s own Cleo Parker Robinson Dance will present a new piece created by founder Cleo Parker Robinson.
That’s a lot of names, but each brings their considerable reputation to Vail, where anything can happen between them. Woetzel likes to call the fest its own “Brigadoon,” after the iconic 1954 movie musical where a magical town full of song and dance briefly comes to life every hundred years. “Everybody descends on this mountain town and makes things for a couple of weeks.
Then we disappear,” he said.
That’s a bit of a stretch. The dance fest and its collaborators start working months ahead of time exchanging ideas for new pieces, assembling rosters and figuring out the logistics of where people will stay and what they will perform.
Still, magic does happen. Stroll through town or the amphitheater grounds during early August and it’s not uncommon to see an impromptu rehearsal featuring top-of-the-field artists. Vail collaborators tend to stick with the program, retuning year after year, so they get comfortable experimenting with each other in “the spirit of what can we do together that we can’t do apart,” Woetzel said.
Or sometimes, they meet for the first time and quickly realize their ideas overlap. “People literally meet on the way up the mountain from the airport,” Woetzel said. “I’ve had phone calls from cars where they say that ‘Do you think we could do this?’ or ‘We’ve just been talking and we think we want to make something here.’ “
This year’s making starts July 30 with a sentimental, all-star program where many of the season’s dancers will take turns on stage. The night culminates with a New York City Ballet MOVES’ presentation of Jerome Robbins’ “Dances at a Gathering.”
“Symbolically and artistically, that will be a call to order,” said Woetzel. “It will say: Here we are.”
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