Ethan Stiefel has travelled a long way to fulfil his ambitions, writes Deborah Jones
WHEN Ethan Stiefel was a little boy he was an exceptionally talented gymnast; so good that his parents were being pressured to let him become part of a serious program. Alan and Mima Stiefel didn’t think that such a great idea for a six-year-old and asked Ethan and his sister to choose some other activity. Ethan wanted to play pee-wee football; his sister started ballet. Soon enough Ethan was taking class too.
That decision was made more than 30 years ago in the small city of Portage, Wisconsin, in the Great Lakes region of the US. It was the start of a series of events that brought Stiefel, one of the most admired dancers of his generation, to Wellington, New Zealand, where the former American Ballet Theatre superstar has just passed his first anniversary as artistic director of NZ’s leading dance company.
Securing Stiefel was a notable coup for the company but was a move he acknowledges may not have looked like ‘‘ the obvious choice, according to many people ... I didn’t know one person here; not one’’, he says — although he knew enough to make the right noises in his first statement after being appointed about looking forward to supporting the All Blacks.
Certainly Wellington is far from Stiefel’s former long-time home and centre of the ballet universe, New York. Yet there were intertwining threads that led to the NZ capital, all of which will come together neatly on November 7 when Royal New Zealand Ballet opens its new production of Giselle, co-choreographed by Stiefel and another international star, Johan Kobborg. If there were to be a film made about this, it would be directed by Robert Altman.
The film would include, of course, the fact Stiefel’s maternal grandmother was born in Christchurch and married an American serviceman. It would touch on Mima’s half-sister, who lives in Sydney. It would make much of the fact Stiefel’s fiancee Gillian Murphy, an ABT star in her prime, has chosen to spend a significant amount of time dancing with RNZB and sees it as an opportunity, not a sacrifice: ‘‘ I love this chapter of our lives. It’s an exciting place to be in terms of the company and the country,’’ she says. ‘‘ The company is really wonderful. There’s great energy and a sense of possibility.’’
Finally there is Kobborg’s overhearing of a phone conversation in 2009. That thread is a beauty and is directly responsible for Stiefel’s application for the RNZB job. We’ll get back to that later. AUSTRALIANS may treat New Zealand as the too-familiar younger brother, but for others it’s most alluring. ‘‘ It’s all framed by how cool it is to live in another place,’’ Stiefel says about his move. A dancer new to the company this year, American Sam Shapiro, 25, puts it this way: ‘‘ Everything in New Zealand is exotic to me.’’
RNZB’s standing as the national company means it has security and status many similarsized companies in Europe and the US do not enjoy. ‘‘ New Zealand places a lot of value on this company; it’s testament to this country,’’ Stiefel says.
When Stiefel put his hand up for the artistic directorship it wasn’t automatic that he’d trump the rest of the field. There was an international search to replace Gary Harris and Stiefel’s application ‘‘ arrived along with everyone else’s. He was not tapped,’’ RNZB general manager Amanda Skoog says. ‘‘ Because you’re a star it doesn’t make you the right person to become an artistic director [but] he is an extremely articulate, intelligent man.
‘‘ He’s very perceptive,’’ Skoog says. ‘‘ He asked me very interesting questions. He’d done his research on the company, how the board works, how we’re funded. He had a lot of questions for us. Because he was so thorough we were able to be secure. He felt he was able to make a difference.’’
Some New Zealanders may have been a little bit unsure of how dramatic that difference would be. Stiefel joined RNZB in September last year and was immediately caught up in filming for the second series of a TV3 reality show called The Secret Lives of Dancers. Using some hyperbole but not misstating the case, the program characterised Stiefel as the straight-from-New York mega-star many of the dancers had idolised since childhood. Would he like them?
‘‘ I think we should be a bit worried,’’ company member Abigail Boyle said frankly. ‘‘ He can bring in his friends and they can take our jobs.’’ Tonia Looker undoubtedly reflected the thoughts of many: ‘‘ Because he’s such a rock star, we thought too little of ourselves [when it was known Stiefel was a contender for the job],’’ she says. ‘‘ We thought, ‘ there’s no way he’d be coming across here.’ ’’
The cameras followed Stiefel — described by the narrator as ‘‘ the new celebrity boss’’ — into the company for his first day at work, watching him receive a traditional Maori welcome including rubbing noses with all the dancers. The program ramped up the tension by offering this grab from Stiefel: ‘‘ Am I here as an agent of change? I would say yes.’’
He arrived when RNZB was in an expansionary mood. It has 32 dancers but 40 dancers would be a more comfortable number given the extensive touring obligations in New Zealand, the desire for it to become better known internationally and the audience’s expectation that some of the big classic works will be staged regularly. In last year’s Sleeping Beauty some dancers had to perform as many as four roles in an evening, which is why the company’s new five-year strategic plan calls for a significant lift in numbers. With something like Sleeping Beauty, ‘‘ We get there because we’re a gutsy company,’’ Skoog says. RNZB presents every main program it does in six to eight cities, and every second year the company splits in two for Tutus on Tour, which takes dance to about 50 cities and towns in the North and South islands.
Sometimes venues are so small the audience sits on the stage and the performance area is set up on the floor. So no, not very New York. That said, ‘‘ They’ve had some pretty tricky pieces. It’s not all populist repertoire, but it does need to be a program that has something for everyone,’’ says operations manager Meredith Dooley. ‘‘ The dressing-rooms might not be perfect, but it’s quite an adventure.’’
Stiefel’s introduction into this adventure appears to have paid dividends. His first program, the all-American triple bill NYC, achieved the unusual success of filling large houses, a situation usually found only with full-length favourites, and a year into his tenure he is looking like a most benign agent of change. Only two dancers did not have their contracts renewed and the feeling is that all have lifted their game. As Stiefel says in the 2002 documentary Born to be Wild: The Leading Men of ABT, ‘‘ You surround yourself with great dancers, it’s ultimately going to take your dancing up another notch.’’ IT’S 11.30am on a Thursday at RNZB’s Wellington headquarters. Dancers are at the barre, company class pianist Nicholas Giles-Palmer is working wonders at the keyboard and Stiefel is directing the traffic. Calm and encouraging, the boss doesn’t voice many corrections. ‘‘ You breathe better when you smile,’’ he says to one dancer; to others he gives quiet suggestions that, when taken on board, seem to do the trick. There’s no voice raising, no harsh comments, the occasional flash of humour. At one point Stiefel asks the group something, wanting an affirmative answer. ‘‘ Yis, yis,’’ he says cheekily, attempting to approximate the NZ accent.
You wouldn’t instantly peg the slender, fair-haired director as a guy who has just retired at the top of his profession, starred as egotistic womaniser Cooper Nielson in the cheesy but deeply enjoyable Center Stage films and is an aficionado of big, fast motorbikes. On a sliding scale of appearance going from, say, actuary at one end and international star of stage and screen on the other, Stiefel tends towards the ‘‘ really good with figures’’ end of the spectrum. But there’s a relaxed charm too. It’s easy to see why, in Born to be Wild, he could say about his school days that ‘‘ people were pretty cool about my dancing. If there was any time where . . . there was some playground argument, I managed to hold my own.’’
The class progresses in complexity and speed, the pianist is exerting almost as much energy as the dancers, and towards the end of the 90-minute session there are bodies flying and pirouetting across the room as these young men and women complete the daily process of tuning their bodies for performance.
When Stiefel describes what he wants to see, the dancers wave their hands around and do funny little foot-stamps in a loose approximation of what their bodies will shortly attempt. It also doesn’t hurt to see how a set of steps might look if executed brilliantly, and Stiefel can help with that. As the class ramps up he elegantly, effortlessly, demonstrates a super-fast combination. No wonder the dancers say he makes them better.
‘‘ He’s a fantastic director. A lot of the dancers, pretty much all of us, have new energy and drive. It’s so refreshing,’’ says Boyle. Qi Huan, who will dance Albrecht to Murphy’s Giselle — her role debut — in November, says ‘‘ of course’’ he has become a better dancer since Stiefel’s arrival. ‘‘ He inspires me so much.’’
Extra spark comes from the fact Murphy, at present in the midst of a seven-month stint in NZ, uses some of her time coaching and mentoring. ‘‘ She’s not officially part of the artistic team, but when you have someone like her, people want to work with her,’’ Stiefel says. Lucy Green, a 21-year-old Australian who trained at the Victorian College of the Arts, was thrilled recently when Murphy mentioned her in an interview as someone who has developed in the past year. Green was recently first-cast lead in RNZB’s production of Cinderella. ‘‘ I’m so glad I’m here,’’ she says. With no rankings she’s not kept in corps roles and she feels Stiefel likes the way she dances.
So did RNZB get a two-for-one deal with Stiefel? Skoog laughs and agrees. ‘‘ We got a two-for-one. That says a lot about the relationship. They made it very easy for us.’’
At 39, Stiefel is only very recently retired. He added a degree of difficulty to his job with RNZB by continuing to do some performances with ABT, bowing out in June, dancing alongside Murphy, 33, in Le Corsaire in front of an ecstatic New York crowd. He was determined to go out at his best rather than ‘‘ erode’’ in front of an audience, as he puts it.
It went pretty well if The New York Times is any guide. Stiefel’s performance ‘‘ was daring, explosive. Pirouettes, jumps and whole phrases started at what seemed to be full power and then amazingly turned up a notch,’’ wrote Brian Seibert. Asked about it several months later, Stiefel smiles when he says with considerable understatement: ‘‘ The idea was to give performances of a certain level.’’
Now he can concentrate entirely on RNZB and his goal of achieving for it higher standards and greater international recognition. The US is an obvious target for the latter. ‘‘ There are very positive discussions about [touring], and I think solid interest,’’ Stiefel says.
Not surprisingly, Murphy has ‘‘ had a couple of conversations’’ with Australian Ballet artistic director David McAllister about the possibility of guesting with the AB, although nothing has been settled. Stiefel was a guest artist for the AB’s Don Quixote in 2007 and had enjoyed it greatly. He is ‘‘ in good and fairly consistent communication with David McAllister — it would be fun to see the company performing there. It would be my hope,’’ Stiefel says. BUT before any of that there is Giselle, which Stiefel is working on in collaboration with Kobborg, who arrived in Wellington in midSeptember to start work on the production. Kobborg has a small number of original works under his belt and a well-regarded staging of La Sylphide, which he has now done for five companies. ‘‘ It’s not that New Zealand is getting a guy with his training wheels on,’’ Stiefel points out. ‘‘ I respect him as a dancer, and also now that he’s going more into staging, restaging and choreographies, I want to help and support him, as he helps and supports me.’’
Still recovering from illness caused by ‘‘ too many different flights from different parts of the world’’ when he speaks to Review, Kobborg describes work on Giselle, which was first performed in 1841, as being akin to that of an editor. He comes from the starting point of having danced in ‘‘ 25 to 28’’ different productions of the ballet. ‘‘ You find out what it is you like about certain productions, what could be better, different, what’s too much. I like to be an editor. To look and see how can I make this better. One has to be respectful of tradition, if it works, so I’m not one for changing for the sake of changing. With this production, Ethan and I feel there are parts of it that are traditional that work just fine, but lots of things that choreographically could be more interesting or could shift the focus a little bit ... It’s dangerous at this early stage to say too much. It will be quite different from what people are used to.’’ Kobborg and Stiefel go way back — to well before Kobborg’s arrival at the Royal Ballet, where he is a principal dancer, and before Stiefel went to ABT from New York City Ballet, where he started his professional life. Kobborg thinks it was about 20 years ago, on the gala circuit when he was with Royal Danish Ballet.
In 2009, as well as being an ABT principal Stiefel was dean of the school of dance at the University of North Carolina School of Arts. He didn’t want to be in academe or administration forever but the university had pursued him strongly and for the moment the job fitted with his desire to develop young talent and to expand his skills. ‘‘ I knew I wanted to be involved in the next generation of dancers, whatever that might have been,’’ he says, which is why he went to North Carolina ‘‘ after some hesitation’’.
His position at UNCSA allowed some creativity, and he was able to invite Kobborg to the school to make a work for the students. At 40, Kobborg, by the way, isn’t prepared to put an end date on his dance career just yet. He says he is cutting down on certain ballets, and acknowledges it is hard to match the pace of his frequent partner and fiancee Alina Cojocaru, a Royal Ballet star who is one of the most feted artists in the world (and nine years his junior). ‘‘ I know I can’t dance forever; I need to find out whether I have talent for choreography and if it interests me,’’ he tells Review.
While in North Carolina Kobborg was
YOU SURROUND YOURSELF WITH GREAT DANCERS, IT’S GOING TO TAKE YOUR DANCING UP ANOTHER NOTCH
staying with Stiefel and — this is Stiefel’s recollection — happened to overhear a conversation at breakfast time. Someone had rung asking Stiefel to provide a reference. The job? Artistic director of RNZB. Stiefel agreed to support the application, but Kobborg suggested he should apply himself.
‘‘ That does ring a bell,’’ says Kobborg, when asked if he remembers how he came to offer this advice. He thinks for some reason he had information about the job on his computer and was aware of RNZB through its having appeared in London several times and been discussed on dance forums. He knew it was a respected outfit.
Kobborg also knew it was time for Stiefel to move into an artistic role rather than an administrative one. ‘‘ Johan was familiar with the company [RNZB], not too in-depth, but familiar,’’ Stiefel says. ‘‘ He felt this was a place I could come and make an impact and make it my own. It has a long and rich tradition but is not beholden [to it] or shackled by it.’’
By September last year Stiefel had his feet under the desk. He and the person who had sought Stiefel’s endorsement for RNZB are ‘‘ very good friends, and he came to make a new piece at the college a year later, so it all worked out’’, Stiefel says.
Stiefel has a three-year contract with RNZB and it seems obvious to ask whether it is his eventual goal to become artistic director of his old company, ABT. Not only is it one of the world’s most highly regarded companies — and the list is a short one — the US is home. It’s where family and most of his friends are.
Refreshingly, Stiefel doesn’t duck the question, and gives a carefully considered answer. ‘‘ I think I bring total commitment and energy to what I’m doing at the time in a very full way. If it’s meant to be [leading ABT], then it will happen. Right now I’ve got a lot of work to do and I’ll give it all I can.
‘‘ There’s something nice about settling somewhere for a while. Coming here, it feels it’s the right fit and the right place at this time. I still have things I need to explore and take on before I was ready to take on the next level, but if they were interested [at ABT] one wouldn’t say no to entertaining that — it’s a great company. But you have to be really exceptional to run it and run it well. I’m really happy here; it’s really a good place to be at the moment.’’
Skoog hopes Stiefel will renew his contract. ‘‘ It would depend on other opportunities out there. I would like to think Ethan would be with us for five years. There are a lot of things we want to work on together. That’s the expectation.’’
There is plenty of expectation about Giselle too. It brings an important role debut for Murphy; the first choreography from the boss, who will make a new work next year to celebrate RNZB’s 60th anniversary; the chance to work with Kobborg on a key work in the repertoire. Plenty of companies wouldn’t mind that conjunction of circumstances. And to round things off, Alan and Mima Stiefel will be there on opening night. Full circle.
Giselle opens in Wellington on November 7. Christchurch, Invercargill, Dunedin, Auckland, Rotorua, Napier and Palmerston North follow.
Deborah Jones travelled to Wellington as a guest of Positively Wellington Tourism.
Royal New Zealand Ballet artistic director Ethan Stiefel at the barre, left; Stiefel and Rachel Rawlins in the Australian Ballet’s
Don Quixote, above
Gillian Murphy as Giselle, Royal New Zealand Ballet