Director's Notes: American Down Under
International ballet stars labeled “Made in America” are an endangered species. But former American Ballet Theatre principal Ethan Stiefel is one of the rare few. He first made a global name for himself through guest appearances with The Royal Ballet and Mariinsky Ballet, the Center Stage films, his touring troupe Stiefel & Stars and the Kings of the Dance showcases. While still performing, he was recruited to direct California’s Ballet Pacifica, although the company folded less than a year later due to lack of funding. For several summers he led a Stiefel & Students workshop where students could train and perform with prominent dancers. Then, from 2007 to 2011, he ushered in fresh energy as dean of the School of Dance at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, where he says he “learned a lot about administration and education policy,” but realized that his real passion was in the studio teaching and coaching, rather than paper pushing.
Through these leadership positions, Stiefel assimilated the skills to direct a dance company long before he took his final bow. Now retired, he’s putting that experience to work as artistic director of Royal New Zealand Ballet. “What attracted me to the company was its solid mix of classical ballets, contemporary and modern dance works. The dancers are very adept and versatile,” says Stiefel, who adds that his long-time colleague Johan Kobborg first suggested he apply. “What I’ve focused on is elevating the classical technique, while not forgetting that a company in 2013 needs to reach broad audiences with a diverse repertoire.”
RNZB was formed in 1953 by Royal Danish Ballet principal Poul Gnatt. It’s known for its full-length story ballets as well as repertoire by Balanchine and other 20th-century choreographers. The company tours the country extensively, performing in dozens of cities. The Ministry for Culture and Heritage contributes $4 million to the annual budget of $11 million New Zealand (about $8.1 million U.S.), and RNZB has been aggresively fundraising to create more options for productions and touring. Since arriving, Stiefel has increased the number of dancers from 32 to 34.
Recently, the company has gotten buzz from “The Secret Lives of Dancers,” a reality television program about RNZB, produced in New Zealand. Now in its third season, the show documented the exit of former artistic director Gary Harris and segued into Stiefel’s tenure the minute he arrived in September 2011. “I just step off the plane and I’m in a company where I don’t know anybody—and there are cameras everywhere,” says Stiefel with a laugh. Despite the emphasis on soap opera over saut de basques, Stiefel says the show has broadened the company’s audience.
His boldest move so far has been co-producing and co-choreographing a new RNZB Giselle with Kobborg. The company, which rotates its full-lengths in cycles of five to six years, was due for a new Giselle, and Kobborg and Stiefel had bounced around ideas about the ballet for years. They’ve added an aging Albrecht, so that the story is seen as a flashback, and given Hilarion a solo in Act 1. Stiefel’s fiancée, Gillian Murphy, debuted in the title role to great excitement. Adding to the fanfare, Giselle, a feature film about the RNZB production, premiered at the New Zealand International Film Festival in July 2013 with rights offered for a North American release.
Stiefel’s biggest challenge has been getting the company moving in new ways when, for many of the dancers, RNZB is the only company they’ve known. (Around a third of the dancers are from New Zealand, and many of those trained at the New Zealand School of Dance.) He hopes to bring in A-list and emerging choreographers, taking advantage of his connections to artists such as Twyla Tharp and Christopher Wheeldon. He also wants to hire more New Zealand-based choreographers and implement productions using multimedia technology.
So when will marriage fit into his plans? “In a couple of years,” says Stiefel, now 40. “Gillian and I wanted to get our feet on the ground first. Also, I have to wait to see if the board renews my contract next year.”
At A Glance
Royal New Zealand Ballet
Number of dancers: 34
Length of contract: 52 weeks
Starting salary: Company does not release this information
Auditions: Held annually in New Zealand and periodically abroad
Performances per year: 80–90
Weeks on tour: 15 weeks domestic; 3 weeks international
Additional perks: No annual tradition of The Nutcracker
Upcoming U.S. Tour
Los Angeles: Giselle, Jan. 31–Feb. 2
Santa Barbara: Giselle, Feb. 5
Minneapolis: A mixed-rep program, including a pas de deux from Stiefel’s comic ballet Bier Halle, Feb. 8
New York City: A triple bill, including Benjamin Millepied’s 28 Variations on a Theme by Paganini and Of Days by Kiwi choreographer Andrew Simmons, Feb. 12–16
“Equally important to a dancer’s technique, I ask, Does this person have something to say? What is their movement quality? It’s not just about doing six pirouettes with all the in-between steps thrown out the window.”