The Royal New Zealand Ballet is up on its toes in anticipation with the appointment of an internationally feted dance star as its new artistic director.
Ethan Stiefel, a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre and Dean of the School of Dance at the University of North Carolina School of Arts, will take up his new position next September.
"This is a huge coup for the company," says Amanda Skoog, general manager of the RNZB. "Ethan is one of the most talented dancers performing in the world, but on top of that he is a fantastic teacher. I have no doubt he will not only be an inspiring mentor but will lead the RNZB to a new level of recognition and excellence."
The company's dancers are excited - and just a little nervous at the prospect of change. All of them have joined the company during the reign of current artistic director Gary Harris and are wondering who might shine - or not - in the new regime.
There were 56 applications for the job from all over the world, says Skoog, "most of them pretty good and 25 of them excellent - which does say something about the company and the opportunity."
"I have always heard good things about the company," says Stiefel, of his interest in what is a comparatively small enterprise at the bottom of the world.
"The RNZB is recognised for the quality of its work. It is artistically flexible and versatile, has excellent support on various levels and I felt it was a place where I could really make a positive impact in a profound way."
Before finally accepting the appointment, Stiefel spent a week in Wellington.
"We were hugely impressed," says Skoog. "He spent two and a half hours with the dancers, visited the NZ School of Dance because that is a major pool for our new talent. He had a look at our budget and in five minutes he'd got it - we need a bigger percentage of income from box office - and he asked a lot of strategic questions of our board."
Skoog's wish list was for a proven leader, a role model for the company's young dancers, international credibility, an interest in New Zealand culture, skills in relating to important groups outside the company, such as the freelance dance community, the NZ School of Dance and sponsors, and for energy, passion and talent. He also rides a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
"We were not looking for a star," she adds, "because we don't have that star sort of mentality in New Zealand. But Ethan Stiefel ticked all the other boxes." He can even claim some blood ties to New Zealand. His grandmother was born and raised in Christchurch and he has relatives in Invercargill and Manapouri.
Another bonus is that he has not yet hung up his own dancing shoes and is open to performing here if the appropriate situation arose. His partner on stage and in life, Gillian Murphy, also a principal dancer at ABT, will join him in New Zealand when her own schedule allows and it would be another coup if she joined the RNZB ranks.
Among Stiefel's priorities for his new job is to use his extensive knowledge and connections to engage and present new artists, choreographers and repertoire that has yet to be seen in New Zealand. He also wants to increase the company's offshore touring and seek a greater presence in the American market.
Stiefel was born in Pennsylvania 37 years ago and began his dance training, aged eight, in Madison, Wisconsin. His early teachers included Paul Sutherland and Ted Kivitt. He continued his studies at Marcia Dale Weary's Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, then was awarded a full scholarship at the School of American Ballet where he studied under Stanley Williams, and with Mikhail Baryshnikov at his School of Classical Ballet.
He began his performing career at age 16 with the New York City Ballet where he quickly rose to the rank of principal dancer. He was also a principal dancer with the Zurich Ballet and joined American Ballet Theatre as a principal dancer in 1997. He has performed as a guest dancer for some of the world's most prestigious companies, including the Kirov Ballet, the Royal Ballet, the Australian Ballet and the New York City Ballet. He also starred in the hit movies Centre Stage and Centre Stage 2: Turn It Up.
Since 2007 he has combined his performing career with that of Dean of the UNCSA School of Dance, where he proved his talents as a teacher and administrator.
His work ethic is simple - he is known to give every project 500 per cent. His dance philosophy is intelligent and thoughtful. "I am known as a classical ballet dancer and have danced nearly all the great roles, but I have been successful in many different styles and approaches within the industry," he says. "This mixture ... informs my work and general approach."