Ethan Stiefel, the Royal New Zealand Ballet's widely esteemed new artistic director, makes quite a statement with the programming for his first season downunder. It is New York, New York all the way.

The NYC of the season's title (subtitled Three Short Ballets from the Big Apple) stands for not just New York City but also New, Young and Classic - all American, of course.

A brand new commissioned piece comes from dynamic New York choreographer Larry Keigwin, artistic director of Keigwin + Company, which he founded in 2003, known for his upbeat and unique creative voice. Final Dress is a racy and stylish observation that follows Keigwin's ongoing fascination with animal behaviour and human nature, and how they play out in dance.

Within a few bars of Adam Crystal's distinctive score, even in rehearsal, there is a clear sense of the stage as territory and arena, and of the predatory nature of dancers' jockeying for position.


Keigwin claims he was only superficially aware of the television programme exposing the RNZB's dancers' "secret lives", including their tense anticipation of position - or not - under a new regime, though viewers of both television programme and dance work may well find one informs the other, and draw comparisons between the two.

Keigwin's 20-minute work is in four movements, the first and fourth "propulsive", the second with a ritualistic and tribal rhythm, the third a rich and luscious pas de deux.

"It all focuses on the dancers being themselves in the studio, in preparation for a show - and their anticipating show time and anticipating relationship," he says. "I've got the feeling it's going to be pretty sexy."

With just five weeks to make the piece, Keigwin spent the first fortnight playing and improvising with the company, to get to know them and their individual potentials, then moved into group activities like giving the dancers assignments to create sections of movement on themes like "lady like" or "promiscuous".

"It is a very collaborative work," he says, "and the dancers were just great. And very open to my process."

He then began to shape the work , to build on what the dancers were building. "I see myself as an editor," he says, "a designer. It is actually composing. Life in a dance company is animalistic. It is a world ruled by survival of the fittest, by Darwinian natural selection. And dancers are creatives with this kinaesthetic talent - like animals, who like to move like animals. None of us are far from that."

International dance star and Stiefel's fiancee, Gillian Murphy, takes a lead in George Balanchine's classic Who Cares?

Murphy will be a frequent guest with the New Zealand company while Stiefel remains at its helm, but will still appear in the American Ballet Theatre's annual and most prestigious seasons at the Metropolitan Opera House. Stiefel will have his swan song performance there, in July this year.

"We have danced together a number of times, and it was indescribable, incredible to dance with him," Murphy says. "And I will really miss just seeing him dance."

But she claims equal excitement about her partner's vision for the RNZB, the energy here from the company for a new direction, and of her being part of all that. "I will have the best of both worlds," she says.

Balanchine has not been danced by the RNZB for well over a decade. Murphy describes Who Cares? as "really fun with a very New York atmosphere, a backdrop classically of New York's skyline and set to Gershwin".

"It is a fun ballet," she says, "jazzy and sexy but technically very challenging because there are some tricky moments, but it all has to look effortless, playful, flirtatious and easy. The speed and clarity that Balanchine requires make it a very big challenge - but it is always very exciting to dance his work."

Third item on Stiefel's programme is the exuberant and youthful 28 Variations on a Theme by Paganini, to Brahms' piano score and originally choreographed, in 2005, by Benjamin Millepied for students of the dance school of the American Ballet Theatre. Millepied also choreographed the dance action in the feature film Black Swan.

"I wanted to introduce myself, to give an insight from where I was coming," Stiefel says of the lineup. "It is my opening statement. Ballet is a subjective art form, and much depends on style and taste. I bring a different energy, different ways to approach things, ways of making improvements on things that are already working well but which can get better.

"The works I chose because they present appropriate challenges to the company and are pieces that make the company look good while presenting fresh ideas and a fresh direction. The majority of our dancers have never performed Balanchine. Balanchine is Balanchine! His work is not just for performance. It teaches so much.

"The RNZB is a youthful company and the Millepied work fits well with that sensibility and with two or three casts will give most of the company an opportunity to dance.

"And Larry Keigwin's work is a collaboration with the people in front of him. He's made a piece that is purely RNZB - which gives the dancers their own voice."

What: NYC with the Royal NZ Ballet
Where and when: The Civic, Auckland, February 29, March 1-3; Bruce Mason Centre, Takapuna, March 6-7; Founders Theatre, Hamilton, March 10-11