The early Bolshoi Academy at Vail performances were very well received, leading many at the Vail Valley Foundation to believe the event had even more promise. Photo of Galina Stepanenko by Marka Moser.

Today, the annual Vail Dance Festival is recognized the world over as a vitally important cultural event for the dance world, but in the 1980s there was little sign that a small mountain resort town would become an epicenter of dance each year.

In 1989, the legendary Bolshoi Ballet Academy dancers of the Soviet Union were on a performance tour in the United States. The Cold War was in its dying days, lending the tour political significance. When a performance date scheduled for Houston was cancelled, the president of Beaver Creek Resort, Jerry Jones, took the idea of hosting the Bolshoi Tour to a group that included Vail Valley Foundation President and CEO Bob Knous, Vail Valley Foundation Vice President Lissa Macintosh Tyler, Vail Valley Foundation Director of the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater Melody Kenninton and soon-to-be Vail Valley Foundation President and CEO John Garnsey. In late May of 1989, Tyler hopped on a plane to San Diego to find out more and met with manager Mary Ellen Devery to explore the idea of a performance in Vail.

At the time, the nonprofit Vail Valley Foundation had just completed its first of three Alpine World Ski Championships, and was known primarily as an ‘athletics’ organization. However, the Vail Valley Foundation charter called for cultural enrichment of the Vail Valley – and this seemed like a golden opportunity to expand in that direction.

Many credit Knous and Tyler with being the first to understand the long-term value of hosting the famous Bolshoi Academy, but who would fund it? With support from President and Mrs. Gerald R. Ford, and VVF Board Chairman Harry Frampton, Knous rallied a host of patrons that included Oscar Tang, Red & Carolyn Blount, Henry Kravis, and Dick Swig, who ensured the Bolshoi Academy could perform that summer in Vail. Donna and Gil Giordano, Judy and Howard Berkowitz, Marlene and John Boll, Sheika and Pepi Gramshammer, and several others were also instrumental in supporting the early years.

Continue scrolling below to see a timeline and highlights from the Vail Dance Festival’s history.

President Gerald R. Ford speaks at the Vail Dance Festival alongside Ceil Folz, left, President and CEO of the Vail Valley Foundation, and pillar of the early Festival, Donna Giordano, right. Photo by Rex Keep.


The Bolshoi Ballet Academy of Moscow makes its first appearance on the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater stage.

When that auspicious first performance arrived, so did heavy rain. At the time, the Ford Amphitheater was not very well covered – and everyone in the audience was getting drenched in the downpour before the performance even began.

The Vail Valley Foundation’s John Dakin summarized the scene on opening night:

Madame Golovkina peered out into the audience from backstage and wondered why all these crazy Americans were sitting in the rain, waiting for her students to perform.  If this were Russia, all of those people would have been home by now, but this was not Russia and these people weren’t leaving.

“They have come to see us,” Madame Golovkina announced to her students, “and we will perform for them.”

Three sensational sold-out performances later, a special friendship had been formed between the Vail Valley and the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, and Vail was on its way to becoming a dance destination.

Katherine Kersten, at right, with young dancers from the early years of the Vail Dance Festival, then known as the Bolshoi Ballet Academy at Vail.


The Vail Valley Foundation and local patrons help Madame Sophia N. Golovkina officially establish the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Vail. Forty-four American students take part in a four week summer academy for American students. At the conclusion of the course, four American students are invited to travel to Moscow to study for a semester at the Bolshoi Academy.


The Bolshoi Ballet Academy at Vail grows to a three-week residency, culminating in four sold-out performances at the Ford Amphitheater.

Katherine Kersten, School Director for the Milwaukee Ballet, is named Managing Director of the Bolshoi Ballet Academy at Vail.

From left to right: Betty Ford (spouse of President Gerald R. Ford), President Bill Clinton, Madame Sophia Golovkina of the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, Galina Stepanenko, and Sergei Filin, at the 1993 Vail Dance Festival, then known as the International Evenings of Dance at Vail. Photo by Rex Keep.


Kersten, with support from local patrons and sponsorship from Paul Mitchell, helps establish “Paul Mitchell International Evenings of Dance.”

New York City Ballet principal dancer Damian Woetzel performs for the first time in Vail as part of the International Evenings of Dance, alongside principal dancers from the Stuttgart Ballet, Bolshoi Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, and San Francisco Ballet.

1993 also saw the introduction of the International Dance Teachers’ Conference.

A clipping from the New York Times.
A clipping from the New York Times Aug. 16, 1993 edition.



The New York Times and other newsmedia covered the attendance of President Bill Clinton and family, writing on Aug. 16, 1993:

“In just 36 hours here, Mr. Clinton went golfing twice with former President Gerald R. Ford. He jogged. He watched an outdoor performance by dancers from the Bolshoi Ballet Academy. And at a lavish dinner in a tent lighted by candles, he borrowed a tenor sax for a haunting rendition of “My Funny Valentine.” 

Mr. Clinton was having such a good time that he decided to spend an extra night tonight in this resort town, forsaking (for a day, at least) his original destination of Springdale, Ark. …”

“…The influence of Mr. Ford seemed to have been particularly contagious on his thrice-removed successor. The former Republican President and his wife, Betty, who have been on near-permanent vacation here since 1977, helped the Clintons find a condominium (owned by the Firestone family, of rubber riches) near their own and escorted them to the ballet and dinner at the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater.” 

Madame Sophia N. Golovkina instructs a group of bemused students of the very first Bolshoi Ballet Academy at Vail in 1990. Photo courtesy Vail Valley Foundation.


The Festival officially takes the name of The Vail International Dance Festival.


The Vail International Workshop for young dance students is added to the Festival schedule.

The Vail Dance Festival gained a reputation for bringing top dancers from around the world to Vail in the '90s and 2000s. Here, dancers from Shangain Dance Ensemble entertain young audience members, 2001. Photo by Rex Keep.


Kersten helps introduce a choreographic dimension as the Festival begins to commission and premiere new works. The project, named the Choreographers Collection, was developed as a collaborative effort with strong regional American dance companies wherein each year a new work is premiered. New works were created by: Stuttgart Ballet’s Stephen Greenston, Over Here, showcased the world premiere of Trey McIntyre’s Go Out.

Also in 1998, a group of young students attend classes as part in the Festival, including a 16-year-old dancer named David Hallberg. Hallberg later went on to become the first foreign principal dancer to join the historic Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow. Hallberg also went on to become a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre, and in 2021 became the Artistic Director of the Australian Ballet.

The cover of the 2006 Program Book for what was then known as the Vail International Dance Festival.


Katherine Kersten celebrates her fifteenth and final season as Producing Artistic Director.

The Festival celebrates a seminal moment in its history with a double-billing of Jessye Norman singing a collection of Duke Ellington’s Sacred Music with the Trey McIntyre Project, followed by the dramatic world premiere of McIntyre’s Go Out. At the end of this spectacular season, Kersten passes the torch to Damian Woetzel, principal dancer of New York City Ballet.

The Vail Dance Festival's Celebrate the Beat program started in 2007 and has helped develop the arts among local youth. They are shown here performing with the legendary Bill Irwin in 2017. Photo by Erin Baiano


The Festival welcomes Damian Woetzel in his first full season as Artistic Director. Woetzel, a Principal Dancer at the New York City Ballet, had first performed at the Festival in 1993. In his first season as Director, Woetzel expands the possibilities for repertory at the Ford Amphitheater by commissioning a set of stage wings from celebrated Broadway scenic designer Robin Wagner.

Full companies begin appearances at the Festival including Pacific Northwest Ballet who perform alongside celebrated musicians from the Bravo! Vail Music Festival. The UpClose series begins, and a variety of dance forms take the stage including a sold-out appearance by tap superstar Savion Glover. The season culminates with the launch of choreographer Christopher Wheeldon’s groundbreaking new company Morphoses/ The Wheeldon Company, which draws international press attention and ushers in a new era for the Festival. Beyond the performance season, Woetzel’s wife the New York City Ballet star Heather Watts engages the Celebrate the Beat program for dance and music education as a free initiative for local children.

Tyler Angle, Craig Hall, Adrian Danchig-Waring, and Gonzalo Garcia of Morphoses/ The Wheeldon Company in Morphoses 2.0 at the 2008 Vail International Dance Festival. Photo by Erin Baiano.


The 2008 Festival is filled with exciting moments: legendary composer Philip Glass takes the stage on opening night to accompany several dances staged to his own compositions as part of an American Dance Spectacular; the genius of choreographer Jerome Robbins’ is celebrated with a special UpClose performance; and new creations are debuted by Christopher Wheeldon as part of Morphoses’ second season in Vail. The Paul Taylor dance company is welcomed to the Vail Dance Festival Stage for the first time, as are Kirov Ballet’s Igor Zelensky, NYC Ballet’s rising star Tiler Peck, New York’s Keigwin + Company, Buckets and Tap Shoes, and flamenco artist Soledad Barrio.

Tiler Peck, Robert Fairchild, Joaquin de Luz and Sokvannara Sar performing Rock Steady, a world premiere choreographed by Larry Keigwin on 8.7.10 at the Vail International Dance Festival. Photo by Erin Baiano.


Larry Keigwin is invited to be the first Artist-In-Residence at the Vail Dance Festival. He choreographs a crowd-pleasing world premiere, Rock Steady, for Tiler Peck, Robert Fairchild, Joaquin de Luz and Sokvannara Sar. That same season, Alexei Ratmansky’s Fandango created for Wendy Whelan has its world premiere as a Festival commission.

Damian Woetzel, Lil Buck, and Ron Myles rehearse in 2011 at the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater. Photo by Erin Baiano.


NOW: Premieres, an evening dedicated entirely of new works commissioned for the Festival, makes its debut. The Festival also presents the worldwide launch of New York City Ballet MOVES, the touring company of dancers and musicians from New York City Ballet. Other season highlights also include performances from the Mark Morris Dance Group, the Trey McIntyre Project, Ballroom dance featuring international stars, and a return to Vail by Christopher Wheeldon who creates a new work. Memphis Jookin’ star Lil Buck makes his Festival debut as the 2011 Artist-in-Residence.

Wendy Whelan and Tyler Angle in Christopher Wheeldon’s "Five Movements and Three Repeats," at the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater, August 7, 2012. Photo by Erin Baiano.


The 2012 Vail Dance Festival schedule includes: New York City Ballet Moves in a return engagement, a special UpClose focusing on Stravinsky and Balanchine, and the first full company appearance at the Festival by the lengendary Martha Graham Dance Company.

Iconic Keith Haring artwork makes its debut as a key element of Festival merchandise and signage.

Stephen "tWitch" Boss at Dance TV night, hosted by Tricia Swenson and Erik Williams, on August 11, 2012 at the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater, part of the 2012 Vail International Dance Festival. Photo by Erin Baiano.


The Festival celebrates 25 years with a season featuring many new artists, the return of favorites, and five new works. Highlights include an evening with the Pacific Northwest Ballet, Balanchine in Black and White, UpClose: Footwork featuring a wide range of dance styles demonstrating the intricacies of their techniques, a new creation from legendary choreographer Paul Taylor who joins his company at the Festival, and a Ballroom Spectacular followed by Dance TV to close the Festival. Tiler Peck and Robbie Fairchild are the 2013 Artists-in-Residence. The New York Times calls the Vail Dance Festival’s International Evening of Dance “Simply the best gala I have attended in decades.”

Vail Dance Festival Artistic DIrector Damian Woetzel teaches the audience the opening movements of Balanchine's Serenade. Photo by Erin Baiano


The 2014 season opened with the 8150 Urban Dance Challenge as part of the Vail Valley Foundation’s Hot Summer Nights free concert series on July 7. Then, on July 27, the Festival hosted Opening Night, followed by performances from Pennsylvania Ballet, UpClose: Jewels, International Evenings of Dance I & II, NOW: Premieres, Dance for $20.14, Wendy Whelan: Restless Creature, Martha Graham Dance Company, Ballroom Spectacular, and Dance TV. Herman Cornejo is the 2014 Artist-in-Residence.

BalletX Performed on top of Vail Mountain during the 2017 Vail Dance Festival, and had a lot of fun in between performances! Photo by Brian Maloney.


The Community Arts Access Program is established to provide broader access to the arts for those who might otherwise not attend due to economic limitations. Carla Körbes is the 2015 Artist-in-Residence.


The Festival simplifies its name to: “Vail Dance Festival.” Isabella Boylston is the 2016 Artist-in-Residence.

The Vail Dance Festival celebrates its best year yet in terms of ticket sales, revenue, and attendance.

In November Vail Dance Festival goes on tour to New York City with an acclaimed 4 day run at New York City Center for Vail Dance Festival:ReMix NYC.


The Festival simplifies its name to: “Vail Dance Festival”

Michelle Dorrance is the 2017 Artist-in-Residence.

"They Try To Tell Us", Choreography by Michelle Dorrance and Justin Peck August 6, 2018 at NOW: Premieres. Photo by Erin Baiano.


The Vail Dance Festival celebrates 30 years to great fanfare, including a dazzling lineup on Opening Night Saturday, July 28, featuring Festival Artists along with appearances by Alonzo King LINES Ballet and American Ballet Theatre with music by the Breckenridge Festival Orchestra. Live music at the Festival continues to grow. Pulitzer-Prize-winning musician Caroline Shaw arrives as the first Leonard Bernstein Composer-In-Residence and composes a new work for NOW: Premieres, which also includes music performed by Kate Davis, Cameron Grant, Savannah Harris and string quartet Brooklyn Rider, who premiere a new Festival commission by acclaimed composer Gabriela Lena Frank as the score for one of the new dance works.

Jan Hiland, who worked from 2001 as ‘Wardrobe Mistress’ is recognized as the 2018 Vail Valley Volunteer of the Year.

Lauren Lovette onstage at her own world premiere of “If You’re Gonna Build a Body, Start With the Bones” with Unity Phelan, Kennard Henson and musicians Kate Davis, Alexander Foote and Cameron Macintosh at the NOW: Premieres program of the 2019 Vail Dance Festival. Photo by Christopher Duggan.


Highlights include the debut of the Cuban dance company Malpaso Dance; at International Evenings of Dance II the Festival presents a world premiere of Alonzo Kings’ work scored by jazz luminary Jason Moran featuring artists from Alonzo King LINES and New York City Ballet.

Also making their debut in 2019: Jacqueline Green of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Julian Mackay of The Mikhailovsky Dance Company, Catherine Hurlin of American Ballet Theatre, Maria Kochetkova an International Ballerina, Hope Boykin of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Lauren Lovette is the 2019 Artist-in-Residence.


The Vail Dance Festival cancels all in-person performances due to the global pandemic. However, a large and global digital audience takes part in an all-digital version of the event,  helping to lift spirits and keep the artform, and the artists who create it, engaged and enriched. Despite the circumstances, the Festival commissions and two new dances as part of the Digital Festival. The new works are created by Bobbi Jene Smith and by Robbie Fairchild.

2021 NOW: Premieres photo by Christopher Duggan.


The Vail Dance Festival returns to in-person performances, including American Ballet Theatre’s Calvin Royal III as Festival Artist-In-Residence performing in new works choreographed for him by Tiler Peck and by Jamar Roberts. The Festival also featured seven commissioned world premieres. The Festival also welcomes two premiere dance companies: New York City Ballet MOVES, and BalletX.

2022 Now: Premieres photo by Christopher Duggan.


The Vail Dance Festival returns to full-capacity seating at performances, and features twelve performances and more than 55 Festival Events throughout Vail and the surrounding communities, including the return of New York City Ballet MOVES and BalletX, and the addition of Ephrat Asherie Dance, Limón Dance Company, and DanceAspen. The Festival also celebrates the 100th world-premiere dance commission under Artistic Director Damian Woetzel’s leadership. Caili Quan and Roman Mejia are the 2022 Artists-in-Residence.

2023 Now: Premieres photo by Christopher Duggan.


The Vail Dance Festival celebrates 35 years of creativity and collaboration  with 12 performances and numerous special events throughout the Vail Valley. Highlights include the Martha Graham Dance Company, L.A. Dance Project, Music From the Sole, BalletX, DanceAspen, and an all-star cast of Festival artists from New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, the Royal Danish Ballet, Boston Ballet, and many more. The Festival hosts Adji Cissoko of Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet as the 2023 Artist-In-Residence.

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