“We come here twice a year,” said the older gentleman as he took his seat next to me in the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater. “During the winter for skiing and during the summer for this.” He gestured to the stage, filled with dancers warming up for night two of An International Evening of Dance, as part of the Vail International Dance Festival.
Now in its 25th year, the Vail International Dance Festival has become a staple of the resort town’s summer season, attracting dance enthusiast from Colorado and beyond. Damian Woetzel took over as artistic director in 2007, and has continued to redefine what it means to be an international dance festival in the 21st century. His artistic leadership efforts have focused on arts education, innovation, and progression. And, on Saturday, Aug. 3, the former New York City Ballet (NYCB) principal dancer welled up with emotion as he addressed this mission and the “one-of-a-kind collaborations” that went in to producing this year’s festival.
From sensual tango, to ballet classics, to contemporary movers, Memphis jookin’, and neo-classicism, it was a performance bill jam-packed with a range of dance styles and artists from around the globe. The varying styles made for a nice contrast, as American Ballet Theatre’s striking Isabella Boylston and NYCB corps de ballet dancer Zachary Catazaro danced a poignant “White Swan Pas de Deux” from Swan Lake gave way to a quirky and delightful solo by New York-based, contemporary choreographer Brian Brooks.
The first half also featured NYCB dancers Daniel Ulbricht and Lauren Lovette, venturing outside of their typical repertoire in a pas de deux from Bournonville’s La Sylphide; Ulbricht was impressive in his technical feats and boyish charm, while Lovette displayed beautiful lines and a natural innocence yet didn’t fully embrace the romantic style of Bournonville’s work.
Charles “Lil Buck” Riley brought to the stage a vibrant persona and his signature style of movement (Memphis jookin’), which matched the music seamlessly. Accompanied by Cristina Pato on the gaita and Raman Ramakrishnan on the cell, his second solo, Improvisation, was a wonderful display of artistry and originality, and was a particular standout of the night.
Boston Ballet’s Misa Kuranaga and NYCB rising star Chase Finlay attacked George Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux with gusto; and tango extraordinaire Analia Centurión and Gabriel Missé heated up the stage with a brooding tango.
A personal favorite was an excerpt of Balanchine’s Apollo, which featured NYCB principal dancers Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild. Having danced this ballet and seen it a dozen times, I have a deep connection to it and was not disappointed with Peck and Fairchild’s interpretation of Terpsichore and Apollo. Fairchild had a rawness in his solo that was powerful, and Peck’s movements were expansive and poetic. The ballet fell at the perfect time of the evening, just as the sun was setting and the air was cooling—the dancers’ breath could be seen against the chilly mountain air, adding to the mystic of the ballet.
I conversed with the same couple after the first half, discussing the present-day relevance of a ballet choreographed in 1927. I commented on how the legendary choreographer was so ahead of his time, and the wife confessed she is particularly drawn to the piece. “It makes me feel something,” she said. It was a sentiment that spoke to what Woetzel has continuously commented on, an emotional connection to the audience.
The second half continued to span the spectrum of dance and nationalities. Boylston returned to the stage with Fairchild in Balanchine’s Stars and Stripes. While all of the technical elements were there, Boylston did not appear as confident as she did when dancing the White Swan, which detracted from her performance.
Dance Theatre of Harlem dancers Ashley Murphy and Jehbreal Muhammad Jackson displayed strength and virtuosity in Donald Byrd’s Contested Space, while Sergei Polunin was playful and buoyant in Ben Van Cauwenbergh’s Les Bourgeois. Taiwanese-born Fang-Yi Sheu premiered her solo All Will be Still, a stunning work that highlighted both Sheu’s choreographic capacity and superhuman abilities as a dance artist—the short piece was one of the best of the night.
The performance concluded with Kuranaga and ABT principal dancer Herman Cornejo dancing the “Wedding Pas de Deux” from Don Quixote. The epitome of ballet classicism, this pas de deux is known for its technical difficulty, and Cornejo and Kuranaga made it look easy. Though it was also an odd way to close out the entire production. While the dancers were dynamic in their movement and energy, it would have been more potent to end with an ensemble number.
One surprising element of the evening was the lack of Colorado representation. The state is a hotbed of arts and home to many reputable dance companies, including Santa Fe Aspen Ballet, Colorado Ballet, Wonderbound (formerly Ballet Noueavu Colorado), Cleo Parker Robinson, and many more. It is important to reach locally as well as nationally, or even internationally, when creating this type of platform for art. Therefore, as the festival evolves, one or several of these Rocky Mountain arts institutions should be brought into the equation.
With the country’s changing economic landscape, dancers, dance-makers, and directors are constantly looking for new mediums to bring dance to the general public. This includes mass media, which has sparked a significant amount of debate surrounding the industry’s public image—Dd contributor Matthew Donnell recently wrote a response to this polarizing topic. Therefore, artists must continue to challenge themselves on and off stage, searching for new ways to reach new audiences while inspiring the existing ones. This is where the Vail International Dance Festival is so successful.
In a recent interview with Denver-based 303 Magazine, he spoke fervently about expanding dance’s reach and an
artist’s ability to use his or her craft to impact others and make a difference in the world. Over the past six summers in Vail, he has held true to this mission, seeking out new opportunities to engage with the local community and bring unlikely artistic partnerships together.