Enterprising Men

What you might not know about some of America’s leading male dancers might surprise you. Rasta Thomas, Desmond Richardson, Damian Woetzel and Julio Bocca have all reached the top of their field earning accolades from audiences and critics alike. What they are achieving offstage is equally interesting and impressive.

The Entrepreneur
Rasta Thomas has always charted his own course in the dance world. Recognized early as a dance prodigy, he took the competition world by storm during his teenage years, winning in Paris, Jackson and Varna. He’s performed with many of the world’s dance companies (recently as a guest artist with American Ballet Theatre in the title role of Lar Lubovitch’s Othello this summer), on Broadway in Movin’ Out and in the Patrick Swayze film One Last Dance.

Although he’s just 26, Thomas is now exploring the next phase of his career. “There’s a hard reality that when you can’t dance anymore, if you don’t prepare, there are only a couple options to fall back on,” he says. “I believe in having options and taking initiative.”

As a result, he has started a group called Bad Boys of Dance, which had its debut at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in July. Thomas’s long-term vision for Bad Boys is to have 30 dancers—all men—and 30 choreographers on board. His goal is to spotlight male dancing. “If we can get the ball rolling, it would be a wonderful opportunity to set a bar for what male dancing can be in America today,” he says.

He’s also launching an online dance competition, called DIVA (Dance International Video Awards, www.divacompetition.com). Capitalizing on the ease of uploading video to the internet, a select group of experts will judge dancers by their online video entries. “This is the perfect opportunity for someone in Cuba or Russia or even someone in America who can’t get to New York to put their video online and reap the benefits,” says Thomas. Winners will earn cash awards and titles.

In March, Thomas married dancer Adrienne Canterna (with whom he danced in the USA International Ballet Competition in 1998), and the couple is expecting a daughter in October. Thomas is considering directing and dancing with CityDance, a full-time company based near his home in the Washington, DC area. “While there are a couple of companies I’d love to guest with and choreographers I’d love to collaborate with, I want to put some attention into building something,” he says. “The dancers I admire—from Baryshnikov to Tetsuya Kumakawa to Nureyev—their legacy finished with directing. They set themselves apart from the pack because they were in charge of what they were going to be performing when the curtain went up.”

The Teacher
Desmond Richardson is one of the dance world’s most talented chameleons. He’s appeared on the Metropolitan Opera House stage with American Ballet Theatre and at Madison Square Garden alongside Michael Jackson. He is
as sure-footed on Broadway as in William Forsythe’s complex contemporary ballet or the role of Beowulf in Julie Taymor’s production of the opera Grendel. His film credits include the upcoming Across the Universe, in which he dances and sings, as well as Chicago.

“My mother always said, ‘Learn as much as you can. Try to be a sponge,’” says Richardson. “I like that idea. Whether it be dance or musical theater or film, it’s all a big learning experience.” He’s committed to passing on the knowledge and experience he is acquiring. “To give back is really important,” he says. “What should I do? Just keep all that with me? I’m going to learn as much as I can while I can and then give it back.”

And while Richardson has extensive teaching experience, he recently embarked on a new challenge, working with a community-based organization called the All Stars Project, Inc. He directed and choreographed nine students, none of whom had formal dance training, in Homeland Security: Bringing Dr. King Up-to-Date.

“We explored feeling secure within oneself post-9/11 and what that feels like to the youth of today,” he says. The experimental work, performed in Broadway’s Castillo Theatre in March, combined two of Richardson’s talents often overshadowed by his virtuoso performances onstage—trying something completely new and sharing his creative gifts. “All Stars, that was totally unfamiliar,” he says. “Here I am working with a student-based group, and I’m able to give them something. To me that’s a very beautiful thing.”

Richardson’s talent extends behind the scenes as well. He founded Complexions Contemporary Ballet with choreographer Dwight Rhoden in 1994. The company tours the world, performing an eclectic mix of choreography. Richardson co-directs the troupe and is its star dancer. Although balancing a schedule of guesting, outside gigs and company responsibilities can be a challenge, he finds that the diversity of his projects enhances his experience with his own dancers. “I find so much inspiration that I can give back to the company,” he says.

The Academic
“It was one of those kismet moments,” says New York City Ballet principal Damian Woetzel of his first day as a student at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. “I remember calling my wife, Heather, and saying, ‘It feels just like when I arrived in Manhattan and stood outside Lincoln Center.’”

Woetzel, who started his professional career at 15, was only one of two students admitted without a bachelor’s degree (the other was the governor of Hong Kong). The program starts with a month-long boot camp of intense math and economics.  “I loved that,” says Woetzel. “It was so wonderfully challenging. By the fall semester, I felt so confident that I signed up for five courses instead of four.”

He enrolled for two consecutive fall semesters at Harvard in 2005 and segued back into company life each year in time for The Nutcracker.

Woetzel plans on retiring from the stage in the next few years and admits that his future may or may not be in the arts. “To my mind, the idea is to be available for all the different challenges that may come my way,” he says.
In the classroom, national security policy fascinated him, but he’s also interested in the role of the arts in society. “I believe that art is absolutely essential, not a frivolous extra,” he says. “I’m interested in pushing that issue and trying to figure out exactly how it’s essential.”

This summer marked his debut as artistic director of the Vail International Dance Festival. For his first season, he booked Christopher Wheeldon’s new company, Morphoses, as well as Pacific Northwest Ballet in three separate programs. Woetzel’s Vail initiatives include extending company stays so that audiences can cultivate a deeper understanding of the troupes and developing a partnership with the Bravo Vail Valley Music Festival to incorporate live music into the performances.

Woetzel turned 40 in May, often a difficult milestone for a dancer. “It’s a great moment for me,” he says. “I’m 40, and I’m graduating with a master’s from Harvard. I’m still dancing, I’m running this wonderful festival in Vail. It feels great to be 40.”

The Director
From a poor childhood on the outskirts of Buenos Aires to a celebrated career as a principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre, Julio Bocca has had an enviable career. But he hasn’t limited himself to classical dance, nor has he rested on his considerable laurels as a performer. Bocca has given Argentinean dancers and artists opportunities and exposure through the company he founded and directs, Ballet Argentino.

Invited by Baryshnikov to join ABT in 1986 after he won the Moscow International Ballet Competition, Bocca, with his passionate, virtuoso performances, quickly became an international star. Four years later, at 23, he started Ballet Argentino in part so that he could have complete freedom to dance what interested him. The company has been wildly successful, performing to crowds of 100,000 in Argentina and touring the world.

If it was Bocca’s astonishing feats that captured audiences’ attention early in his career, it has been the developing artistry of a mature performer that has held it. “In order to be an artist, I believe it is important to have that versatility that allows one to go through different styles and diverse roles,” he says, “giving a unique personal mark to each one.”

Directing has also enriched his dancing. “It helped me a lot to understand human nature better, to know that we are not all the same, nor do we all have the same objectives in life,” he says. “Overall, I also learned to observe and reflect—and to express authority without authoritarianism.” He’s also started a dance school in Buenos Aires complete with a foundation to support it and give scholarships.

In Argentina, the source of Bocca’s rock-star celebrity may be the fact that he has always remembered his roots. The company has long incorporated Argentinean tango into a repertoire that is primarily classical and contemporary ballet. “Bocca Tango” has been one of the company’s most successful productions.

Bocca retired from ABT last summer, and in 2007 is on his “Ultimo Tour,” a multi-national goodbye that will culminate in an open-air theater in Buenos Aires on December 22.

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After 25 Years, Victoria Morgan to Step Down as Cincinnati Ballet's Artistic Director

Last month, Victoria Morgan announced that she will step down as Cincinnati Ballet's artistic director at the conclusion of the 2021-22 season. The organization's board of trustees has formed a committee to conduct a national search for her replacement.

Prior to coming to Cincinnati Ballet in 1997, the Salt Lake City native was a principal dancer with San Francisco Ballet and Ballet West, as well as resident choreographer for the San Francisco Opera. She graduated magna cum laude from University of Utah, where she also earned her MFA, and has judged several international ballet competitions.

Entering her 25th and final season as director, Morgan has accomplished a lot at Cincinnati Ballet, not the least erasing the $800,000 in company debt she inherited at the outset of her tenure. To right the organization's financial ship she had to make tough choices early on—the first task the company's executive committee gave her was to release a third of the company's dancers. In her continuing effort to overhaul how the organization did business, in 2008 she became both the artistic director and CEO and set about building the company's now $14.5 million endowment. For the 2016–17 season, with the arrival of new company president and CEO Scott Altman, Morgan returned to being full-time artistic director and helped lead the realization of the organization's new $31 million home, the Margaret and Michael Valentine Center for Dance.

A champion of female choreographers, Morgan has also choreographed numerous ballets for the company, including world premieres of King Arthur's Camelot and The Nutcracker. She has also helped orchestrate several company collaborations, including 2013's Frampton and Cincinnati Ballet Live and joint productions with BalletMet.

Pointe caught up with Morgan to talk about her recent announcement.

Victoria Morgan is shown from the side standing on stage right, turning to smile at a line of costumed dancers to her left during bows. She wears a patterned green dress with chunky green high heels and holds a red rose in her hand.

Peter Mueller, Courtesy Cincinnati Ballet

Why leave Cincinnati Ballet now?

It's been an amazing run and I have seen it all. I am not sure where I would go from here. I also feel there is a required stimulus and infusion of new ideas and energy that always needs to be a part of a growing, evolving and exciting arts organization.

What made you happiest at Cincinnati Ballet?

The people, from the devotion of patrons and donors to learning from and feeling the pride in work from the staff. It has also been so satisfying for me to choreograph on and watch so many dancers evolve in their dance careers and lives.

Were there things you wanted to do for the company that you weren't able to?

There were other collaborations I wanted us to explore and choreographers I wanted us to work with. It takes quite an investment to make those happen.

Your legacy includes actively creating opportunities for female choreographers. What motivated that?

I started realizing, in a profound way, the gender inequities in our art form. Because I was in a leadership position, I thought I could do something about this and try to get to a 50-50 balance of male and female choreographers. It took a little time to find women to step forward, but it happened. Now there are many more prominent female choreographers, including our resident choreographer Jennifer Archibald, and I am proud of that.

If you could handpick your successor, what qualities would you look for?

Somebody creative, charged up, and who can be visionary. Someone who has had a high-level experience in our art form. A leader who is demanding but also kind and supportive, and who opens doors to find new ideas while still embracing Cincinnati Ballet's philosophies.

What do you feel will be one of the biggest challenges for the new artistic director?

The important cause of DEIA (diversity, equity, inclusion, accessibility). Whoever steps into that position has to have awareness of the culture of today's conversation.

Do you plan to keep choreographing?

I am not being proactive about it, but if the opportunity presents itself, it would be fun.

What's next?

I feel my next calling is bringing movement to the biggest segment of our population, baby boomers. I want to be part of an initiative that makes moving and wellness enjoyable and enlivens people.

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