At Vail’s Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater, there’s no curtain to lift or draw. That means pre-show warm-up rituals dancers usually conduct in the privacy of that heavy veil are on display.
“That’s so Colorado,” one audience member quipped as she arrived at her seat for the Vail International Dance Festival. Onstage dancers are practicing wearing fleece jackets over their tutus, just another sign you’re in the Rocky Mountains.
You can see everything in the curtainless space. Damian Woetzel, Vail International Dance Festival Artistic Director, chatting with dancers as they warm-up. There are plies, releves, tendus, and pirouettes. One dancer is multitasking, pressing the arch of her foot, outfitted with a light pink satin pointe shoe, up and down while she talks on her cellphone.
This highly visible warm-up is a longstanding and unique tradition at the Vail International Dance Festival, now celebrating its silver anniversary through August 10.
The pre-show warm-up onstage was mirrored on the lawn where 11-year-old Brighton Swenson sat stretching. The Denver resident has studied ballet for about a year. “I just like being able to move around,” said Swenson attending the festival for the first time with her mother Kristi and younger sister Jude.
The Swenson sisters weren’t around when, in 1989, President Gerald R. Ford and First Lady Betty Ford took the first steps that would become the festival.
Upon the Ford’s invitation, a North American satellite of the Bolshoi Ballet Academy was established in Vail by Russian native Sophia Golovkina in 1990. That cultural exchange has morphed into annual festival performances with dancers from around the globe. There’s development of new work, street dances, classes, as well as community engagement and participation in arts education programs.
“For this festival, we embrace all that is brilliant in dance,” states the festival welcome letter co-written by Woetzel, a former New York City Ballet Principal dancer, and Vail Valley Foundation president Ceil Folz.
Vail has become known within the dance world for pairing dancers from different companies – often those who have never danced together – to perform classic pieces. Such was the case at its opening celebration, which included excerpts of Don Quixote. Choreographed by Marius Petipa, the father of classical ballet, and premiered in 1869 at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre, the re-staging for Vail was performed by San Francisco Ballet’s Maria Kochetkova and Jeffrey Cirio of Boston Ballet.
“In many ways we begin where we began,” Woetzel said in his opening remarks before Sunday’s sold-out opening night crowd, referencing Vail’s Russian ballet roots.
The amphitheater, brings the great outdoors right inside the semi-covered space. Instead of an upstage wall you’ll find pine trees, purple hyacinth, ferns and other plants in its place. Given the open nature, a few chirping birds serve as additional musical accompaniment to the live orchestra.
“It’s a beautiful landscape for a stage,” remarked one patron as she took her seat.
Windham returned to the stage where he first performed at age 10 in a community production of Annie. “Dancing in the festival is a dream come true and I can’t believe it actually happened,” said Windham, now 26 and named one of “25 to Watch” by Dance Magazine. He trained at the Vail Valley Academy of Dance and first saw live dance at the festival as a child.
Meanwhile, Riley, perfected a dance style know as Jookin’ on the streets of his native Memphis, Tenn. He has since gained props for his YouTube collaboration with Yo-Yo Ma, and is currently a featured performer in Cirque di Soleil’s Michael Jackson ONE in Las Vegas.
“It’s really epic and amazing,” said Riley, remarking on the invitation to perform opening night. A company member of New Styles Krew, Riley is slated to debut a world premiere that he deemed a “jaw dropper” on Aug. 5.
Upcoming festival highlights include four additional world premieres; one by Modern dance legend Paul Taylor, a ballroom dance showcase with performers from around the world, and another with winners and favorites from popular television dance competitions.
Arts District is a collaboration of KUNC, RMPBS, and KUVO.