Far hori­zons

Ethan Stiefel has trav­elled a long way to ful­fil his am­bi­tions, writes Deb­o­rah Jones

The Weekend Australian - Review - - In Profile -

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

ETHAN STIEFEL

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

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