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Flash Review, 6-27: Forever Fancy-Full
Damian Woetzel says 'So long'

By Gus Solomons jr
Copyright 2008 Gus Solomons jr

NEW YORK -- Damian Woetzel has always been an energetic performer and a fierce technician. At his farewell performance on June 18, he said goodbye to the New York City Ballet, his dancing home since 1985, by dancing his heart out all evening. And he leaves the stage -- at a relatively young 41 -- at the peak of his powers. The packed house at the New York State Theater showed him the love and respect he's earned from his legion of fans; they showered the stage with flowers at the 20-minute final curtain call. His colleagues paraded from the wings one by one with bouquets and hugs for him. Among the well wishers were wizened Eliot Feld and American Ballet Theatre stars Ethan Stiefel and Angel Corella, who dashed across the plaza from the Met Opera House, where they're currently dancing the ABT season.

Bon voyage: New York City Ballet's Joaquin De Luz, Tyler Angle, and Damian Woetzel in Jerome Robbins's "Fancy Free." Paul Kolnik photo ©Paul Kolnik and courtesy New York City Ballet.

The evening opened appropriately with Jerome Robbins's 1944 ballet "Fancy Free." Woetzel was a favorite of the choreographer. To Leonard Bernstein's seminal music, three happy-go-lucky sailors on shore leave in New York compete at flicking wadded up gum wrappers, knock back beers at the local bar, and roughhouse while searching for dates. Robbins choreographed every detail of comic byplay, making the ballet nearly dancer-proof -- a likely reason for its enduring popularity. But Joaquin De Luz, Tyler Angle, and Woetzel as the happy-go-lucky mates transcended the already masterful steps with flawless timing and genuine camaraderie.

Woetzel, in the last of the three sailors' variations, had his work cut out for him after De Luz's split-leaping solo that ended with a bang in an impossibly tricky one-footed balance, and Angle's mellow, all-American lyricism. Woetzel attacked the intricate slapping, clapping rhythmic riffs of his variation effortlessly and with immaculate clarity. His eloquently confident performance earned the first standing ovation of the evening.

The giddy evening continued with Balanchine's 1967 "Rubies," set to Stravinsky's sprightly "Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra." It featured leggy Teresa Reichlen as the solo woman -- whose high-flying attitudes nearly kicked the back of her head -- and Ashley Bouder and De Luz in the pas de deux of the second movement. Karinska's vibrant red costumes trimmed with jewels show off the women's sky-high extensions. For this special occasion, the solo couple was replaced by three: Gonzalo Garcia and Megan Fairchild danced the Presto section in the first movement, and unannounced, Woetzel squired Yvonne Bouree in the final movement, giving us a taste of his expert partnering and classical stylishness.

Happy Trails: New York City Ballet's Damian Woetzel in his final performance of George Balanchine's "Prodigal Son." Paul Kolnik photo ©Paul Kolnik and courtesy New York City Ballet.

The final ballet, Balanchine's 1929 classic "Prodigal Son" to music by Sergei Prokofiev, highlighted Woetzel's dramatic prowess. He exploded though the jumps and multiple turns of his first solo with vibrancy, even though he'd already danced two ballets. After his character leaves home, hard dancing is replaced by dance acting. The young rebel is tempted by The Siren (danced with stature but less than the expected fierceness by Maria Kowroski), and taunted by a band of nine bald-pate Drinking Companions who ultimately strip him of his garb, leaving him in only a loincloth.

The Prodigal's cathartic solo abandons ballet vocabulary entirely in favor of emotionally redolent "interpretive" movement, rivaling in dramatic power the work of Balanchine's contemporary Martha Graham. And the last scene, where he painfully drags himself home to the welcoming arms of his forgiving Father (the regal Ask la Cour), illustrated Woetzel's expressive range as a dancer.

It was a fitting finale to a long and brilliant stage career and an auspicious commencement to his next one. In 2007, Woetzel earned a degree in Public Administration from Harvard's John F. Kennedy School, which could empower him to serve dance in new, equally important ways. It might even lead him back to his home company -- when the time comes -- as its next ballet master in chief.

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