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.

Read Transcript EXPAND

WALTER ISAACSON, CONTRIBUTOR: You had an education that was very wide- ranging because of your parents. It wasn’t focused on dance initially.

DAMIAN WOETZEL, PRESIDENT, JUILLIARD SCHOOL: No. I mean the whole concept really was just having the opportunity to engage with as many different things and then we’ll see where it went. And I can assure you, ballet was not the intention. It was enrichment of a sort. What I realized is that I like to be on stage and it happened to be a way to get on stage 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.

ISAACSON: You were both studying Chinese.

WOETZEL: We’re both studying Chinese.

ISAACSON: You’re both jamming —

WOETZEL: Jams and music and different instruments and lots of different opportunities as I said. But then, you know, as you get older, you start to realize the one that really — where you have a foothold.

ISAACSON: But do you think a broad-based education and everything on the sciences of the humanities to the arts helps you be more creative?

WOETZEL: 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 in curiosity and saying ” Yes, I want to, you know, be as good as I can at one thing” but it’s how it relates to everything else. That’s where the creativity actually comes.

ISAACSON: It was around age 15 I think when you had your first break from it, right. There was Young Apollo, was it?


ISAACSON: It was created for you. Explain that to me.

WOETZEL: Well, I grew up in Boston and my brother and I, as you said, have lots of different opportunities. And, you know, 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 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 not going to ballet anymore. I’m going to spend more time on Chinese” and he’s been a partner in McKinsey in China almost 30 years and I went on to be a ballet dancer. And at that moment, which is I think I was 11 at that point, I really felt this is it. I’m going to 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 my — I started to narrow right at that moment. And at 15, as you said, I was lucky enough to have an opportunity to make a New York debut at the Joyce Theater downtown on Eighth Avenue which had just opened as a house for dance. And I had a nice reception, I guess and –

ISAACSON: Why did you want to come back to New York?

WOETZEL: 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, Lincoln Kirstein, New York State Theater, Lincoln Center, all of that was here and that’s where I set my eyes on.

ISAACSON: More important was Jerome Robbins do you come here?

WOETZEL: Well, increasingly so. It’s really the truth, you know. I think that as I grew up, I start to become more and more aware of what we call the repertory and what might be considered classics and what might be considered bold and innovative. And through it all, your heroes start to develop. First as performers. That’s because I think when you’re engaging in an art form like ballet, you look at your heroes so you know, Misha. And then what’s Misha dancing becomes the question. Yes, I know he dance swan-like but what’s that thing with the sailors? Nancy Free, Jerome Robbins. I remember seeing photos of Misha doing that piece and, of course, I knew something like West Side Story. And then it was, “Oh, wait. Same guy? Wait.” And that’s — you know, this is childlike. But suddenly, I’m here in New York and Jerome Robbins is walking around. And the history is the present. And so I was lucky enough to not only work with Jerry but he really in some ways identified me and brought me into the company.

ISAACSON: What was your favorite Jerome Robbins performances or roles that he played?

WOETZEL: Well, there’s two to that come to mind instantly. One I mentioned, 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.

ISAACSON: Right. Leonard Bernstein.

WOETZEL: Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins as well. And so these —

ISAACSON: They worked together very closely here in Lincoln Center?

WOETZEL: Well, in those days, Lincoln Center wasn’t here yet. But Jerry made Fancy Free with Lenny as a collaboration and it’s an extraordinary story. You know they’re 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 records and he sent Jerry a record of the latest music of Fancy Free with this 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 understand that.” And on one of these recordings — so I’ll give you a sense of this extraordinary legacy. He said, “I hope you can understand this particular section. It’s really a mess with the pianos and it’s all Aaron Copeland’s fault” and you hear somebody laughing in the back.

ISAACSON: And that was Aaron Copeland?

WOETZEL: — playing two pianos with Leonard Bernstein.

ISAACSON: Oh, wow. Wow. And so you posted that in City — at City Ballet?

WOETZEL: Yes. Yes. When I first joined New York City Ballet, it 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, New York, New York but first came Fancy Free. And it was really just that mighty, mighty yacht, damn, they arrived. You know, countless curtain calls. And these young guys — and Jerry was in it as a dancer and he did this sailor. He was, you know, did a rumba dance and the other sailors like a kid from Kansas is kind of dreamy. Another one is a little bit Russian tumble short guy who’s got a lot of energy. And Jerry would create these characters. So Fancy Free.

ISAACSON: You said you retired in 2008. You didn’t really retire.


ISAACSON: You broaden your aperture again. It was just like going back to your childhood where you became interested in everything, in society and combining them. Explain, you know, what was your thought process there.

WOETZEL: Well, as I became the dancer I became, I was lucky enough to start to widen at a certain point and I started being the arts guy in the room, in a room of many things. I would get to go to conferences or 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, you know, the obvious touch points, education for instance, where is the arts in education someone like myself benefited so greatly from having that culture.

ISAACSON: Do you worry that we’re losing arts in the schools?

WOETZEL: Of course. Yes. 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. It’s 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.

ISAACSON: And tell me, you do art strikes with Yo-Yo Ma sometimes, Lil Buck Reilly. What does that mean?

WOETZEL: 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. And that’s an art strike possibility.

ISAACSON: So what, you just rushed into a school?

WOETZEL: Well, you know, you have to lay a little groundwork. The idea of a presenter can say, you know, 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-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 down in Skid Row, downtown Los Angeles and it’s sort of an oasis for arts education. Students from the general vicinity are — 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 heaven.

ISAACSON: It culminates with you coming here to Juilliard, not a typical choice. A dancer taking over Juilliard but everything you just explained to me seems to be part of the great vision for Juilliard which is connecting it.

WOETZEL: After my “retirement” and 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 in an arts policy program, really looking at 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 the sides, whether they’re — you know, we’re doing the performance at Lincoln Center or we’re talking at an arts education conference or, you know, Yo-Yo and there’s Lil Buck and there’s — they start to emerge. 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. I just thought, “Well, that’s where it all can happen. It can all happen.” It’s the cradle if you will. It’s not only the artists, individuals that we can nurture and give all these opportunities to broaden and narrow and broaden and narrow and to give them the opportunity to develop their voices as artists and as citizens of the global world. Oh my God, I just thought and it’s dance and it’s a 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 Juilliard.

ISAACSON: And I’m sure you’re not going to keep it in the building.

WOETZEL: No. We’re already outside. We’ve done our version of art strike on open up the garage door the other day on 66th 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, you know, that utopia that you hope for that people are engaging and they’re 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 can be — it creates the artists, it gives them the opportunities and then it sends them out into the world.

ISAACSON: Damien, 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.