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Dancer reaches a turning point

Onstage, character transformations can be instantaneous. In the ballet ''The Nutcracker," Clara's toy miraculously shape-shifts into the Nutcracker Prince. Now Boston native Damian Woetzel, a longtime star at New York City Ballet, appears to be in mid-transformation himself.

Tonight and Dec. 21, Woetzel, a Boston Ballet School alum, returns to his roots by dancing the role of the Nutcracker Prince in Boston Ballet's production of ''The Nutcracker." Woetzel has also spent the fall at the Kennedy School. He's studying for a master's degree in public administration, one of the rare students accepted to the program without a bachelor's degree.

Woetzel, 38, spoke about ''The Nutcracker" and his expanding horizons in two conversations: by phone from his home in New York, where he's spent two decades with New York City Ballet, and in the capacious and sunny third-floor studio at Boston Ballet.

The dancer has penetrating blue eyes, a chiseled jaw, immaculate dance technique, and -- even in moments of repose -- a tensile watchfulness and elegance. While doing his barre exercises he wore a pair of black warm-up pants, discreetly embroidered with the word ''HARVARD," purchased at the Coop that day.

''The whole idea [of school] was to open up options," says Woetzel, who drives back and forth from New York to a home in Cambridge. ''As a dancer running around the world, I always questioned whether that's what I wanted to do. This gives me a chance to try some other directions."

Woetzel's Kennedy School classes have covered statistics, the ethics of statecraft, the art of communication (with David Gergen), strategic planning, and running for office. What do these topics have to do with dance? Plenty, Woetzel has found.

In the course of the semester, he researched the National Endowment for the Arts and ''the way culture intersects with government," he says. ''I'm gaining an understanding from the other side of the table." As a NYCB star, he already had an insider's view of the dynamics of a thriving arts organization. His studies have broadened his perspective on operating one. ''The reliance on funding is more here than in Europe," he notes.

In some ways, it even resembles political life, he says. ''We're out there with our hands out constantly. It's kind of like being in a perpetual campaign, the director of an arts organization in America, to get to the next step," he says. ''It's a shame in some ways, but in other ways it affirms your commitment because you have to fight for it," he adds. ''That's how you get to do what you want to do."

Woetzel has long wanted to do more than just dance. He has choreographed several works. And he has had experience administering an arts organization. Since 1994, he's been director of the ballet program at New York State Summer School of the Arts.

''Damian clearly has a very special talent and a very driven perspective," says Steve Jarding, one of his Kennedy School professors. ''One of the gifts other than ballet is this wonderful drive toward leaving more on this earth than he's taking away."

Boston Ballet director Mikko Nissinen, a longtime friend of Woetzel, invited him back as ''a guest star to complete the circle," Nissinen says. ''I think it's going to be very inspirational for everyone." As a dancer, Woetzel ''is a great jumper and great turner, but he's so musical and so well rounded that those obvious attributes aren't the ones that stand out for me first." And Nissinen is impressed by Woetzel's ambitions. ''He's very smart to get into it very young," Nissinen observes.

Then again, there's a precedent in Woetzel's family: His father was a professor at Boston College and lectured at Harvard and UCLA. ''He was an international law expert," explains Woetzel. ''This is a real chance for me to go down some paths that were precluded by the ballet career."

Woetzel's wife, retired New York City Ballet star Heather Watts, says that when Woetzel first brought up the idea of studying at the Kennedy School, she knew he would thrive in the classroom, just as he has onstage. ''Damian has an inner work ethic that's just phenomenal, even within the realm of great dancers," she says. ''It's an inner professionalism. He's extraordinary that way."

As for integrating class work with his professional life, Woetzel finds that he's thinking more deeply about the arts and their purpose -- particularly the art he's practiced for most of his life (this is his 31st ''Nutcracker," including several Boston Ballet turns as Fritz in his youth). For art to grow, Woetzel says, innovation has to be a factor.

''These days, there's too much of 'He [New York City Ballet visionary George Balanchine] said this, so it's right,' " Woetzel says. ''Balanchine was so specific about what he wanted. So specific he could change his mind. Like Whitman -- 'Do I contradict myself?' " He laughs at the thought.

Woetzel seems to be taking the long view. ''We say arts education is good for general education, but that's not the point," he says. ''The arts are what great nations are remembered for. They are a mirror."

As the dancer moves away from the barre to practice familiar steps in front of the studio mirror, he reminisces about his past in the old Boston Ballet School building ''on those dark winter nights" when ballet class started every day at 4:15. As a child, and then as a young man, Woetzel needed to dance.

''I wasn't here to make my SATs go up," he says. ''I was here because it was illuminating and inspiring. It was magic."

Damian Woetzel performs in Boston Ballet’s ‘‘The Nutcracker’’ tonight and Dec. 21 at the Opera House. 617-931-2787, 617-695-6955, www.ticketmaster.com.

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