Superstar Ethan Stiefel talks Royal New Zealand Ballet

By Rebecca Barry Hill

The new artistic director of New Zealand’s premier ballet company, Ethan Stiefel, tells Rebecca Barry Hill what brought him from New York to guide our stagecraft.

Ethan Stiefel's credentials are intimidating, one of America's top dancers since joining the New York City Ballet at age 16. Photo / Roy Round
Ethan Stiefel's credentials are intimidating, one of America's top dancers since joining the New York City Ballet at age 16. Photo / Roy Round

Toys are perched on a shelf in Ethan Stiefel's Wellington office: a cowboy banana, a headless break-dancer, a tiny Viking. An odd thing to have in your workspace, you might think, if you're one of the world's most recognised dancers.

"When you're just sitting around thinking, it's fun to play with them," he says of the gifts given to him by former students.

There's little that's conventional about this ballet superstar, the 38-year-old, four-month-new artistic director of the Royal New Zealand Ballet. It's a high-profile role that means he will quickly become a familiar face here too, starring on the TV3 documentary series, The Secret Lives Of Dancers, which starts on Tuesday at 7.30pm.

"I have [the toys] there because I like to keep things pretty loose. They're fun and colourful and give personality to what could be potentially a terrifying place for people."

Terrifying doesn't seem the right word, given Stiefel's laid-back American drawl. Regardless of his relaxed attitude and love for Harley Davidsons - he and his fiancée, ballet star Gillian Murphy, like to ride great distances together - Stiefel's credentials are intimidating. During his prime he was considered one of the world greats.

At 16, he was offered a job at the New York City Ballet, where he trained alongside the likes of Nureyev, Baryshnikov and Bujones. By 1995, aged 22, he was a principal dancer in the company. Two years later he left to join the American Ballet Theatre. He has performed leading roles in all of the classic full-length ballets and has toured and performed extensively on the international level, with guest appearances in many of the world's ballet companies, such as London's Royal Ballet, the Australian Ballet and the Zurich Ballet.

On July 7, Stiefel will officially retire as a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre, with a farewell performance in the role of Ali, the slave in Le Corsaire at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City.

His appointment to the position of artistic director at the RNZB naturally drew much excitement. So, too, did the news his American fiancee, Murphy, would also join the company. A principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre, 32-year-old Murphy is one of the world's top ballerinas. The couple's appointments are akin to Shane Warne and Sachin Tendulkar joining the Black Caps.

So why the move? The company's international reputation had much to do with it, but so did the chance to have an adventure and accepting the challenge to take the company to the next level, says Stiefel.

Before he said goodbye to the bright lights of his home country, Stiefel was the dean at the School of Dance at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, where he staged and choreographed a new version of The Nutcracker. It was a fantastic learning experience, he says, marred only by the bureaucracy of working at a university.

"[Coming here] seemed like a nice evolution for my life. I have to say I didn't fully comprehend or have a grip on what New Zealand was or is about but I just got a good feeling when I came to the interview and spent a week here. I guess I'm just the kind of person that keeps things open and even though I knew it was going to be different I look to embrace differences rather than see them as walls."

Stiefel is already talking about his time here in terms of "we" as in "the company". When Stiefel arrived the RNZB was in preparations for the staging of Sleeping Beauty, a mammoth undertaking programmed by the company's former artistic director, Gary Harris. Stiefel helped coach the principal dancers and also commissioned American Ballet Theatre star Stella Abrera to perform in the lead role of Aurora.

The RNZB's next big performance will give Stiefel the chance to make his creative mark. The company kicks off its 2012 season in Auckland on February 29 with a triple bill of New York dance: NYC - Three Short Ballets From The Big Apple.

Stiefel is bringing in some of that city's biggest names to help bring it to life. The show then travels to six other New Zealand centres.

Black Swan star and choreographer Benjamin Millepied created 28 Variations on a Theme by Paganini in 2005, set to a piano score by Brahms. Larry Keigwin has created a new work for the company.

Except for George Balanchine's Who Cares, set to Gershwin, the works have never been seen in New Zealand. They're a reflection of Stiefel's 24-year dance career in New York and a chance for the dancers to show off their versatility.

"I thought it was a good way to provide a little bit background as to who I am and where I'm coming from. There is a bit of nervousness because it is the kick-off for my ideas and programming but I thought it would be a great way to get things started because it's great work, whether it's the choreography or the music."

It'd be unfair to think Stiefel must be charged with creating indigenous New Zealand works, particularly given many of the company's dancers are from around the globe, such as newcomers Lucy Green from Australia and Yang Liu from the National Ballet of China. But Stiefel can boast Kiwi roots. His grandmother was born and raised just out of Christchurch. She married an American naval officer and moved to the US but Stiefel still has aunts living in the South Island.

But as excitement about his appointment fluttered throughout the company, it came with trepidation, the fear of the unknown. Some of the dancers feared for their places.

"I do really want to strive for greatness, but at the same time you've got to be reasonable. I like to keep things loose and I like to keep things light, because it should be fun as well as challenging. Business is hard as it is, you don't need to make it harder."

He has since let two dancers go. Is he a hard task-master? Stiefel says he has a level-headed approach, a "calmness and serenity" that allows him to make tough decisions with clarity. It's the opposite of how you'd describe the flamboyant Harris, who says of himself that he can be blunt to the point of rudeness.

"Yeah, he's quite a character," says Stiefel. "It's fun to have him around because he's such a big personality. I'd like to think I have quite a vibrant personality as well - that's my part as a leader."

And what of the intimidation factor for dancers of living up to Murphy? From the outside looking in, it's easy to envisage a fear of falling in her shadow. Murphy will be the principal dancer in the NYC triple bill performance of Who Cares? She will also play the principal in the upcoming performance of Giselle, Stiefel's next big production with the RNZB's dancer and choreographer, Johan Kobborg.

Stiefel points out that the RNZB has no ranking system, meaning there are no principals or soloists. He hopes the competitive fire has been lit to "raise the game".

"Gillian is one of the top in the world and she's in the prime of her career. She's not here simply for her own ambition. She's here to be generous and to work with everybody as a colleague. So she's a part of the company and wants to contribute not only to her growth as an artist personally, but also what she can give to the RNZB. And you know what? That's actually what I ask of every single dancer in the company. Not just 'how can you make yourself better but how can you make the company as a whole better?' I hope they're excited, because this is an opportunity for them.

"We are in New Zealand and we are far away from many things, but right here in the flesh in the studio you've got one of the best in the business in her prime. That's something to use to inspire, that's not something to get catty and cheap about."

He has concerns about the company's fast turnaround, acknowledging what just about every young Kiwi already thinks - that their own country is a mere stepping stone to opportunity offshore.

"I'm sensitive to the fact that part of my job is to help promote Kiwis and help them progress in their careers but I have to be honest with you, I need those individuals' help ... I need the help of all of the educational and teaching institutions as well as the talented dancers to invest and commit to that because that's not something I can achieve alone."

Stiefel has now been here since September, living five minutes from Wellington's St James Theatre. He makes the blustery walk along the waterfront when he can, stopping in at the city's many cafes.

He is still getting used to the cultural differences, as well as the geographic ones. There's a certain ruggedness - a word not usually thrown around when discussing this particular art form - with the Royal New Zealand Ballet, he says, that comes from touring multiple regions.

"Being on the road a lot, going across the country every two years to so many different places makes us unique in that there is a real kind of rugged quality - and I mean that in the best possible sense. Whereas at the American Ballet Theatre you're used to the red carpet and the luxury of the Metropolitan Opera House and you take that for granted. But my dancers here deliver first-class performances in sometimes less-than-ideal conditions, and that's something that makes me proud."

Finding himself on screen throughout this process has been a confronting experience, he says, despite his body of film and TV work including a documentary, Born To Be Wild, about dance in America. Stiefel is best known for playing the lead in the Center Stage franchise, about the students of a ballet academy. Stiefel plays the academy's best dancer, a rebellious, motorbike-riding, aviator-wearing version of, well, himself. The Secret Lives Of Dancers, however, is unscripted.

"It is a little bit nerve-racking, because you never know what the producers' or editors' point of view is going to be and how they're going to present it. But at the end of the day, I think it will give people further insight into what we do and how much effort and sacrifice as well as fulfilment is involved in being a dancer so that's a good thing.

"It does take a bit of the mystery away but it's great to have people become familiar with dance and see we're elite - but we're not elitist."

The Secret Lives Of Dancers screens on TV3 at 7.30pm on Tuesday.

NYC, three short ballets from the Big Apple, runs from February 29 to March 3 at the Civic Theatre, Auckland. Also performing in Takapuna, Hamilton, Ashburton, Dunedin, Wellington, Napier. February 29-March 30. To book, see here.

- NZ Herald

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