President Woetzel’s 2021 Commencement Remarks

Monday, Jul 12, 2021
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June 18, 2021 | 2021 Commencement Remarks

June 18, 2021

Graduates, it is your day. Your day has come. And yet, it is just the beginning.

This time, graduates, this time has been a testament to the fact that even as you are traversing history, you are making it. And that history has been filled with moments, and will be filled with moments, but you must also play the long game that will sustain you and give you purpose going forward.

Over the course of this most extended of school years, you've created and recreated your path and response to so many things beyond your individual control, but responded you have. And as I look out at you, your gowns and your caps - without your masks - you carry with you the responsibility and the possibility for the future. I am so inspired by all the ways that you've responded and all the things that you've done.

The practice that you've been engaging in – the practice of making and of creating despite circumstances –­ that's your practice; that's your path and that's the path of an artist. It's an active and continual process. And as life threw impasse after impasse at you, I watched you all go back again and again to the drawing board, finding new possibilities every turn. You're in the business of creating, and don't forget it. You have to continuously put those tools to use from now on.

The challenge of our time is that as you work to meet all these moments, you're also asked to envision your future. Now the secret to that, it's the practice you already know, mixed with the discipline and the bravery to imagine a direction for yourself. Where do you want to be in 5, in 10, in 15 years? We understand as artists the importance of the performance. We also know we have to earn our place every day. The curtain comes down, you do your notes, and you think through your successes and your failures so that you might take hold more fully the next night, and the next night, and the next night after that. That's the practice.

But at this moment, as you look back on so many performances at Julliard, turn to the horizon. Your future is now fortified by your education, by the many experiences you've shared, by your mentors whose words will be with you always, and by your own determination in the face of adversity. You are ready for your next steps, graduates. You are ready to dream, and I want to encourage you to not limit that dream.

Thirteen years ago today, I graduated from my first career over there at the New York State Theater. I gave my last performance after almost 20 years as a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet: June 18th, 2008. I got a note from a friend that day. I stuck it on my dressing room mirror. It said, "Good luck at your graduation." Looking back, I could never have imagined I would be standing here with you today. The specifics could never have been possible to grasp, but in hindsight, I can see the direction. I can see where I was going. So I say to you, find your direction, consider it, get in the water, start paddling and keep paddling. Find your direction and recalibrate as needed. My friend - our friend - Yo-Yo Ma is a believer in making a life map, dividing up your life in five year segments. So I suggest sometime later today, later this weekend maybe, when you have finally have a quiet moment, do that. Map from the beginning, and then go forward and picture, and picture, and picture.

Looking at our honorary degree recipients today, we see the result of dreams. And I can tell you that each one of them is also thinking they could never have imagined they'd be sitting here today. We honor them for the audacity of their dreams and the determination of their characters, for their achievements, for their unfailing generosity, for their humility, for their grace, for their voices, for their perseverance, for their excellence, for their contributions, for all that they have given and all that they continue to give. They are a wealth of knowledge and experience to be drawn on.

And now you, you also possess hard won knowledge and experience waiting to be drawn on, and it will always be there for you. It could be so easy to dwell on the adversity of the last year and fixate on the moments lost and the “what should have been’s.” But we know from history how other generations have carried forward their challenging experiences making them the basis for progress, the opportunity to achieve. Let's do that. Be in charge of your own progress.

You are in charge of your own progress. Now is the time to recognize that it's within you to make your own futures. And for that future to soar after all the work, technical mastery and problem solving, it's time to imagine. Your ideas are waiting for you in your own minds. Nurture them, look at them, be critical of them so that you might improve them, and grow your own respect for them. "Be serious about them," as our friend, Wynton Marsalis might say, "Be serious." They are your new reality. They are your new foundation to spring from.

I want to take an opportunity right now to thank your foundations that exist: your families and your loved ones watching today on live stream around the world, or over on 62nd street. Your care and belief has made this journey possible for these graduates.

And to the faculty, the unmatchable, peerless faculty of the Julliard School, and to the staff of the school: your commitment to these students has always been extraordinary and in this period we are emerging from, it has become legendary.

Graduates, your next steps may not be easy, but that practice of showing up in the face of difficulties is one you have mastered, and it will prepare you to take each moment going forward with the gravity it deserves.

I have for you only a few more words of advice: Be open, be curious, be positive, be kind, be reliable, be brave, be vulnerable, be strong, be empathetic, be inclusive, be true, be truthful, be civil, be persistent, be on time, be in touch, be your own wildest dream. Your legacy is yet unimaginable by us, but it is by you, graduates.

Congratulations on your graduation, Class of 2021.