Damian Woetzel on Being President of the Juilliard School

Walter Isaacson sits down with Damian Woetzel to discuss how he became president of the prestigious Juilliard School.

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You had an education that was very wide ranging because of your parents it wasn't focused on dance initially.


I mean the whole the whole concept really was just having the opportunity to engage with as many different things and then we'd see where it went.

And I can I can assure you ballet was not the intention.

It was enrichment of a sort.

What I realized is that I liked to be onstage.

And it happened to be a way to get onstage.

So I stuck with it.

And as things went along some things stuck harder than others.

And you know my brother you've met him.

And you were both studying Chinese.

We had Chinese lessons, we had dance and music in different different instruments and lots of different opportunities as I said.

But then you know as you get older you start to realize the ones that really where you were you have a foothold.

But do you think a broad based education and everything in the sciences and the humanities to the arts helps you be more creative?

Oh I think it's essential.

I think that the idea of creativity is all about how things go together.

It's not simply about focus on one thing it's about having the you know about letting go of certitude and engaging and curiosity and saying yes I want to be as good as I can get one thing but it's how it relates to everything else.

That's where the creativity actually comes.

It was around age 15 I think when you had your first breakthrough.


There was a young Apollo was it was created for you.

Explain that to me.

I grew up in Boston and my brother and I as you said have lots of different opportunities and in the story I love to tell about this so you're going to have to indulge me is that you know on one Saturday morning you know on the way to these things he and I in the back of the car looked at each other and I said I'm not going to Chinese anymore.

I just you know it's just not I'm going to spend more time at ballet.

And he said well I'm going to ballet anymore I'm going to spend more time on Chinese.

And he's been a partner in McKinsey in China almost 3 years.

And I went on to be a ballet dancer.

And at that moment which was I think I was 11 at that point, I really felt this is it.

I'm gonna be a dancer.

I'm going to be a dancer I just felt it.

And all the other things fed it in different ways but I started to narrow, right at that moment.

And at 15 as you said I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to make a New York debut at the Joyce Theater downtown on 8th Avenue which had just opened as a house for dance.

And I had a nice reception I guess.

Why do you want to come back to New York?

New York really the epicenter you know and it's an image in my mind of like where the pulse is and you know the New York City Ballet founded by George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein.

New York State Theater of Lincoln Center.

All of that was here.

And that's where I set my eyes on it.

How important was Jerome Robbins to you?

Well increasingly so is is really the truth.

You know I think that as I grew up I started to become more and more aware of what we call the repertory and you know with what and what might be considered classics and what might be considered you know bold and innovative and through it all your heroes start to develop.

First as performers because I think you know when you're when you're engaging in an art form like ballet you know you look at your heroes so you know Msha Baryshnikov you know.

And then what's Misha dancing becomes the question.

Yes I know he does Swan Lake but wow what's that thing with the sailors.

Fancy Free, Jerome Robbins.

I remember seeing photos of Misha doing that piece and I of course I knew something like West Side Story then I was oh wiat same guy wait and that's just you know this is childlike but suddenly I'm here in New York.

And Jerome Robbins is walking around.

You know and it's the the history is the present.

And so I was lucky enough to not only work with Jerry but you know he really in some ways identified me and brought me into the company.

What was your favorite Jerome Robbins performances or roles that you played?

Well you know there's there's two that come to mind instantly when I mention Fancy Free.

It was Jerry's debut as a choreographer in collaboration with Leonard Bernstein and we happened to be talking in their anniversary year their centennial.


Leonard Bernstein's hundredth.

And Jerome Robbins' hundredth as well.

And so they were they worked together were very closely here, right here at Lincoln Center?

Well in those days Lincoln Center wasn't wasn't here yet but Jerry made Fancy Free with Lenny as a collaboration.

And it's an extraordinary story.

You know they are young guys on the cusp of greatness and there they are making this thing.

One of the treasured possessions I have are recordings of how- Leonard Bernstein would make a recording and I picture it happening in some kind of very down at the heels recording studio in Times Square but it were records and he'd send Jerry a record of the latest music of Fancy Free with a piano score to choreograph out on the road because Jerry was like on tour and then so you'd hear this you know piano and then Jerry would take the microphone and talk and he'd say Dear Jerry you know I hope you can understand this and you can understand that and on one of these recordings- this will give you a sense of this extraordinary legacy.

He says I hope you can understand this particular section that is really a mess with the pianos and it's all Aaron Copland's fault and you hear somebody laughing in the background.

And that was Aaron Copland.

Playing two pianos with Leonard Bernstein.

Oh wow.


And so you first did that at City Ballet?

Yeah yeah.

When I first joined New York City Ballet, that was a ballet that Jerry called me to very early and it's a story about three sailors on shore leave.

Later a second version was a Broadway show On the Town.

You may know [singing] New York New York.

But first came fancy free and it was really just that mighty mighty bam they arrived you know countless curtain calls.

And these young guys and Jerry was in it you know as a dancer.

And he did the sailor.

He was you know did a rumba dance and the other sailors like a kid from Kansas who's kind of dreamy.

Another one is a little bit rough and tumble short guy whose got a lot of energy and Jerry would create these characters so Fancy Free.

You said you were tired in 2008- you didn't really retire.

You broadened your apertura again.

It was like going back to your childhood where you became interested in everything arts and society and combining them.

Explain you know what was your thought process there.

Well as I became the dancer I became I was lucky enough to start to widen you know at a certain point and I started being the arts guy in the room in a room of you know many things I would get to go to conferences or you know what have you and talk about the role of the arts in society and in an aspirational way as well as a realistic way.

And it grew out of so many things that I believed in benefited me coming to a place like New York and ending up at Lincoln Center and understanding the history of Lincoln Center and how that's wedded to the history of New York City itself.

So I started engaging about that particularly on the obvious touch points education for instance whereas the arts in education someone like myself benefited so greatly from having a culturally mature age.

Are you worried that were losing arts in the schools?

Of course yeah and I mean I spent a lot of energy and time trying to work on that, talk about that.

Turnaround arts program which I know you've seen in action was created by President Obama's Committee on Arts and Humanities expressly for making sure that arts reach the most challenged school districts in this country.

And tell me you do art strikes with Yo-Yo Ma sometimes Lil' Buck Riley.

What does that mean?

So Yo-Yo and I dreamt up this concept of art strike and it simply was that that idea that you can have a massive impact in a short amount of time if you focus your energy and you have the right collaborative partners essentially.

And kind of the principle of it was that a visiting artist of any kind will often have enough time to do something in a community that they're not ordinarily in.

So we literally said on the way to the airport why not stop at a school.

You know it was kind of like that.

That's an art strike possibility.

So wait you just rush into a school.

Well you know you have to lay a little groundwork.

The idea of a presenter can say you know would you would you take the time while you're here doing your performance of whatever kind it is to do a little bit of community work and we'll partner you with something.

So Yo and I tried this out in L.A.

about I don't know seven or eight years ago.

He had a concert at Disney Hall and before he went to the airport as it were we went to a magical place called Inner City Arts.

And down in Skid Row downtown Los Angeles and it's sort of an oasis for Arts Education students from the general vicinity or they come on buses and they spend time there and they engage in music and dance and visual arts.

And drama.

And it literally is like a garage door goes up and you go in and you're like this is.

This is heaven.

It culminates with you coming here to Juilliard not a typical choice- a dancer taking over Juilliard but everything you've just explained to me seems to be part of a great vision for Juilliard which is connecting it more.

After my quote unquote retirement.

I stopped dancing in 2008.

I was so lucky.

I did, you know, I was directing performances.

I was doing art strikes with Yo-Yo, I was working on arts education.

I ended up working for you at the Aspen Institute, an arts policy program really looking at you know ways that we can really push the arts in society.

And a lot of the same people kind of start to filter into this conversation on all sides whether they're you know we're doing a performance at you know at Lincoln Center or we're talking at an arts education conference or.

Suddenly it's like there's Yo-Yo, there's Lil' Buck and there's you know others.

And I was very intentional about keeping the opportunity to do all these different things.

But then this idea came to me about Juilliard and.

It just was like lightning and just thought well that's where it all can happen.

It can all happen.

It's the it's the cradle if you will.

It's not only the artists the individuals that we can nurture and give all these opportunities to to broaden and narrow and broaden and narrow and to give them the opportunity to develop their voices as artists and as and as citizens of the global world.

Oh my God.

I just thought and it's dance and it's drama and it's music in the same building.

And it's right here.

And that vision I thought of when I moved here that new york is like this and to me that's Julliard.

Now I'm sure you're not going to keep it in the building.

No we're already outside.

We've done our version of art strikes and opened up a garage door the other day on 66 Street and the fire company came and put their truck in front and we had a jazz concert and people were dancing and it was like this is this is you know that utopia that you hope for that people are engaging and they are finding ways that it's a part of their lives.

And it's the role of the artist in my mind not only to perfect their craft but to take what they have and to give it to others in ways that you can't imagine and you can always add more, be collaborative beyond collaborative to say what does this have to do with this.

Let's overlap these things and see what we can make and Juilliard has, you know, this is the place that that can be it.

It creates the artists, it gives them the opportunities and then it sends them out into the world.

Damian thanks for being with us.

Appreciate it.

About This Episode EXPAND

Christiane Amanpour sits down with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and violinist Daniel Hope. Walter Isaacson speaks with Damian Woetzel, president of The Juilliard School.