Loeb Enterprises | Loeb.NYC
Loeb Enterprises | Loeb.NYC

Loeb NYC Speaker Series: Damian Woetzel’s Big Life

Leigh Adler

On May 30, 2018, Damian Woetzel attended Loeb NYC’s Manhattan offices as the guest speaker for Loeb NYC’s recurring Speaker Series. Woetzel is a world-renowned ballet danseur and recently appointed Juilliard School President.

Ed McCabe, Executive Director at Loeb NYC, moderated a verbal “Pas De Deux” which led us through engaging topics such as; the effect of tech on the arts and arts accessibility, how to maximize creativity and ingenuity, and why New York City is especially fertile ground both for the arts, and for unique companies (like Loeb NYC) which operate in its midst.

This is a blog post about Damian Woetzel’s fascinating life and career, and how what he has learned as a dancer and proponent for arts education, applies to entrepreneurship and startup culture.

Ed McCabe, Damian Woetzel and Michael Loeb at Loeb NYC Speaker Series
Ed McCabe, Damian Woetzel and Michael Loeb at Loeb NYC Speaker Series

Damian Woetzel at Loeb NYC

Damian Woetzel grew up in Newton, MA. His father, Robert Kurt Woetzel, a professor of political science and international law, was born in China to German parents. At the conclusion of World War II, Robert Woetzel migrated to the United States. His experiences spurred an idealism that ensured that his sons, Jonathan and Damian, received a broad and deep cultural education. He wanted his sons to live “big lives”.

Woetzel’s mother, Sheila, brought Damian to an international and humanitarian perspective, building off of her life at UNICEF as a program officer based in four continents over the course of her career.

As young children, Damian Woetzel and his older brother took lessons in flute, guitar, martial arts, Chinese, athletics, and ballet (Woetzel started ballet lessons at 4 years old).

It was a time of in-betweeness both personally and for performing arts in america

This is not the narrative where an infantile wunderkind is introduced to an art-form and is instantaneously revealed to be a prodigy. Woetzel acknowledges he did not love ballet “right off the bat”, but does remember certain pivotal points that kept him on the path, for example, an enjoyment of music and his performance in a production of The Nutcracker as a 6-year-old in Boston, running around backstage and knowing every “nook and cranny like it was home”.

Woetzel shared a memory from the age of 12, sitting in the car with his brother, on their way back from their Sunday morning lessons. Jonathan said he would give up dance and continue learning Chinese. Damian wanted the opposite. These early choices reflected (or predicted) the future trajectory of both brothers’ “big lives”. Jonathan Woetzel earned a Ph.D in Asian studies and has been with McKinsey & Company in Shanghai since 1985.

Woetzel’s focus on ballet first “widened and then narrowed”. Initially, Woetzel learned and absorbed all he could about ballet: history, theory, and practice. Access to information was restricted to books that could be found on the subject, as well as the occasional film. Woetzel thirstily absorbed as much information as he could. The narrowing of focus, to a particular style and genre of dance, came later in New York City.

Big Leaps in the Big Apple

The site of Woetzel’s New York debut was the Joyce Theater, at age 18. He fondly describes the Joyce as “a revolutionary startup at work”. In Chelsea, 1985, the theater’s immediate surroundings were relatively barren, culturally speaking. The success of the Joyce’s creative engine attracted public grant investment and a rejuvenation of restaurants, community, and vibrancy to the area.

Woetzel’s performance reviews were good enough for Damian’s parents to approve his pursuit of ballet as a career path. As Woetzel puts it, this was a “time of in-betweenness”, both personally and for performing arts in America. Institutional titans like Carnegie hall had reached a zenith and were moving into a new phase. Icons like Bernstein and Balanchine passed away. A new type of performance was experiencing its adolescence. Jerome Robbins, one of the creative geniuses behind West Side Story, sponsored Woetzel’s career and created roles for him to perform at the New York City Ballet.

Damian Woetzel at Loeb NYC Speaker Series
Damian Woetzel at Loeb NYC Speaker Series

New York City is culturally speaking “the room where it happens” as Lin Manuel Miranda might agree. It has, Woetzel says, “a special foothold and a gravity that matters. So and so did that on this stage. It’s important”. Artists and giants leave their footprints here and their legacies echo through streets and stages. (See: “Loeb NYC Plants its Flag at SXSW” to find Michael Loeb’s perspective on “legacy”.) The “NYC” part of “Loeb NYC”, was selected because businesses can thrive in this dynamic and vivacious environment. Art dances with technology, technology elevates art.

As contemporary American ballet grew, so did Woetzel’s prowess and profile. Woetzel joined the NYCB in 1985. A principal dancer in his early 20s, a top-tier principal in his mid 20’s and an in-demand entity in his mid-to-late 20’s, he was invited to speak at conferences and attend forums.

Damian Woetzel quote: New York City has a special foothold and a gravity that matters

One such forum was a young leadership conference in China. Woetzel remembers sitting next to another young leader, Gabrielle Giffords, who was then a State Senator (the youngest elected to the Arizona Senate). At the age of 33, Woetzel was considering retirement from ballet and his next step (so to speak). Giffords suggested the Kennedy School Masters program at Harvard. Woetzel followed this lead. Woetzel has subsequently lectured at Harvard Law School, he says if he hadn’t been a danseur he might have been a lawyer.

Woetzel’s Second Act and Juilliard School

Having retired from ballet performance in 2008, Woetzel proceeded to “carve another life”. One of his enterprises has included directing the Vail International Dance Festival (marking its 30th anniversary this year) in Colorado. Woetzel describes the festival as a “creative engine and lab” where musicians and dancers can experiment but are also “exposed” and are not insulated from external review or critique. He has also acted as Director of Arts Programs at the Aspen Institute.

In late 2016, Woetzel received a call asking if he was interested in applying to become the 7th president of Juilliard. In May 2017, the application process culminated in Woetzel being offered the role. Woetzel anticipates that he will be able to combine the threads of his passions and experiences from “arts education to education writ large, the future of arts and arts and humanities”. Woetzel will still be involved with the Vail Festival, and will bring Juilliard there – the two will “feed each other”. Woetzel officially takes the helm in July 2018, and has spent the past year shadowing his admired predecessor, Joseph W. Polisi, who Woetzel describes as a “role model”.

Woetzel’s goal is for Juilliard to be an engine for innovative work (not dissimilar to his description of his early years at The Joyce Theater), for Juilliard to produce students who edge and push each other and for it to be an avant-garde incubator that upholds and advances its global reputation. This (realistic) idealism and expectation for Juilliard’s students echoes Woetzel’s own “live big lives” philosophy.

Loeb NYC CEO and founder, Michael Loeb, is a member of the Juilliard Board and supports Woetzel’s goals and ambitions for that institution. Loeb also believes in ‘giving back’ and actively contributing to NYC’s community and culture. For example, every Halloween, Michael Loeb opens his “haunted house” to the public. Thousands of guests attend at no charge. He was also honored by Build.NYC for his contributions to that organization. Loeb extols the virtuosity and talent of Juilliard students and recognizes the extremely high standard of work that the students perform at.

The “Edge Effect” and Advice for Young Entrepreneurs

Loeb NYC is home to many trailblazers and those with great aspirations. Woetzel is a person of diverse interests and curiosities. He mentions the “Edge Effect”, a concept he learned about from Yo-Yo Ma; “When two ecosystems meet, at the edge where they meet, you have the most diversity, and new life forms”. Incidentally, the floor where Loeb NYC resides was designed by Michael Loeb and Rich Vogel with a “rainforest” theme, because a rainforest represents the highest rate of growth and a diversity of species. The Edge Effect, Woetzel explains, is “where the spring meets the valley.” Where sections overlap and diverse elements are unified, that is where the richest invention is found. New York is one of those “edge” places: The home of hundreds of cultures and a city of contradictions.

In this fascinating video, Yo-Yo Ma explains the Edge Effect and gives the example of the Napa Valley.

Within Loeb NYC the “Edge” exists in many forms, for example, it is evident in the types of companies we are investing in and the industries in which they operate, from beauty to transport and health to the beverage industry, surprising symbiotic relationships and connections are revealed daily. Our staff has a wide range of backgrounds, talents, interests, and training. One thing they have in common is the “Entrepreneurs’ Gene.”

Woetzel’s advice to his students could equally apply to our young entrepreneurs: “Don’t separate the things that interest you” the overlapping of interest is a wellspring of invention. Take risks: “Be thoughtful about the level of risk you want to take… but I’m glad I took risks as a dancer” (Woetzel says he is lucky not to have suffered any major injuries through his career).

Tech and the City

The impact of the internet and technological developments on the arts has been, like on anything else, both positive and negative. Woetzel is interested in the “democratization of education and advancing opportunities for access to culture…to see Baryshnikov when he was young took effort.” Now access to information and digital content means that the gap has narrowed. Despite the screens we surround ourselves with, Woetzel also reminds us of an “appetite for experience” that transcends our virtual culture. In this vein, Vail performances are intentionally new and context specific. You can’t experience them anywhere else.

Before the internet age, one could only learn ballet “in the room” from a teacher, in a sort of oral tradition. Today, technical aids make the art-form more accessible, both to practitioners and to audiences. Woetzel observes technological advancements have “democratized choice on what is considered good”. But the shortening attention spans of the modern audience is an issue. “Taste is a valuable commodity and arbiters of taste are missing.” The glut of available opinions makes it harder to navigate between artistic trash and treasure.

Damian Woetzel quote don't separate the things that interest you

Dance is a beautiful form of communication and expression. Having the ability to be expressive and convey emotion wordlessly takes practice and dedication to achieve. This is a concept Loeb NYC’s marketing teams likely relate to, as we strive to seek ever-more effective methods of communicating messages and connecting with people.

The Loeb NYC Speaker Series has a few quirks and rituals, one of which is that our guests literally leave their mark by writing a message on one of the walls. Woetzel’s message to us is similar to what his parents’ might be… but with a sunny addition: “Happy big lives”.

Damian Woetzel Signature on Loeb NYC wall happy big lives
Damian Woetzel’s signature on a Loeb NYC wall
Leigh Adler