Ethan Stiefel, 41, is the outgoing artistic director of the Royal New Zealand Ballet, a Wisconsin native who has lived in New York most of his life and engaged to once of the world's top dancers, Gillian Murphy. He leaves New Zealand at the end of August.

1.Your dad was a Lutheran minister and you were into ballet: was there a lot of teasing in your childhood?

There was a little bit of teasing, but I was comfortable with who I was and always held my own on the playground. I was a good athlete, as you have to be in order to be a good ballet dancer, and when people saw me play football or baseball or wrestling they saw I was good, so that was one thing. I don't think I cowered at school. I think you often get what you give.

2. What about religion?
My parents are very open and theological about it rather than particularly literal. Dad was also a Texas State Trooper. He did that to make a living, basically. He wasn't really able to sustain the family [on a minister's salary]. He became a prison warden. He doesn't fit the stereotype of that. He was fair but firm but he had a level of understanding and enlightenment that probably served him well in that job. It wasn't Shawshank Redemption or anything but he was shot at and had faeces thrown at him. He's a shining example of a wonderful father.

3.Did New Zealand seem particularly unglamorous after a dancing career in Europe and the US?
It was all good. I mean I guess you could ask how glamorous Portage, Wisconsin seems. It's like New Zealand in some ways. Wisconsin is America's dairy land and people play a lot of football. I love both games now [rugby and American football]. This was the first opportunity for an artistic director role and I was so lucky to get it.


4.You trained alongside Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov - what's the biggest myth about celebrity male dancers?
That the only celebrity male dancers are from Russia.

5.What toll does ballet take on the body?
It depends on the type of career, each person's physical attributes and the roles you take on. I had a career where I danced so many different styles and had the technical and dramatic ability to be cast in the most physically demanding roles. I did literally stretch the limits of my body constantly. I've had four knee surgeries and will have a fifth in the near future. I also have two discs in my back that require constant pain management. I guess that sums it up and I have to say - it was all worth it!

6.You feature strongly in TV3's Secret Lives of Dancers: what's the most secret thing about dancers?
It's not so much secret, but it's what people don't appreciate about dancers which is their level of intelligence. You're in an art form where from a very early age you are practising and pursuing a certain form and you're being told what to do a lot. But at the same time, you have to have a good amount of intelligence and emotional depth to create these characters, as well as being a high performance athlete. You are dealing with artists who are passionate and emotional - that's what feeds a powerful and genuine performance. The navigation of that is fulltime. A lot of my job as artistic director is negotiating personalities within the company and people we bring in from outside.

7.Your work visa runs out here on September 1: What will you do next?
I'm unemployed. Yeah, that's scary in certain ways but I'm looking forward to it as well. I started my professional journey when I was 16 years old and I've had a couple of vacations here and there but I've been mostly working all this time. I've had a continuous trajectory for the past 25 years as a professional and now I can reconnect with my family and with Gillian. I'm doing a bit of choreographing and creating. There's not a lot of jobs. I was really lucky to be given this opportunity because it created a great transition for me to grow and evolve. Women tend to dance a bit longer. More into their 40s. Gillian's got another 10 years if she wants it.

8.How did the long distance relationship with Gillian work?
We've been together for 16 years and engaged for three. Yeah, I guess we'll have time for a wedding now but I think Gillian really likes just being engaged. She's been generous with her time while I was here and would [come to New Zealand] for six months or so but, to be honest, the distance took us by surprise. We'd been separated for several months before but the amount of time, compounded by distance, was hard. We've made it work.

9.How does love and work, work together?
Love and work, works together, if you know how and when to keep them separate.

10.How does your relationship work with your philanthropic sponsor?
I don't have a philanthropic sponsor anymore. That stopped when I stopped dancing. It was a wealthy American woman and her husband who both loved dance. Her husband had passed away so in honour of his love of dancing she underwrote my artistry for 14 years. He loved my work and liked that I was an American dancer.

11.Why is dance important, do you think?
In today's world we're saturated with a lot of things. Connectivity is wonderful but at the same time, we need to disconnect. Which is relevant to what we do - live performances speak to the human spirit.


12.What is the best advice you've ever been given?
I quite often think back on something one of my main teachers, Andrei Kramarevsky, at the School of American Ballet used to say: "Take it easy, but take it." I like it because it is simple, solid and applies to a variety of situations. It also puts a smile on my face.

The Secret Lives of Dancers is due to return to TV3 at the end of this month.