Interview: Ethan Stiefel – Royal New Zealand Ballet – Artistic Director

Ethan Stiefel, and Lucy Green, in the studio.<br />© Maarten Holl. (Click image for larger version)
Ethan Stiefel, and Lucy Green, in the studio.
© Maarten Holl. (Click image for larger version)

Update: Royal NZ Ballet – 2013 Season details

Ethan Stiefel formally retired from dancing with ABT this summer, but has been hard at work as Director of RNZB for over a year now. On the eve of company announcements about their 2013 season and the premiere of Giselle, his first commissioned production, Valerie Lawson catches up with him…

For the past two years, the idea of a Bavarian ballet has been brewing in Ethan Stiefel’s mind.

The one-act comedy set in a beer hall, choreographed by Stiefel himself, and danced to the music of Johann Strauss II, will be “spirited, lively, and even a little raucous”, he promises.

“I’m really excited about the designs, how they shaping up, and putting the music together”.

But Bierhalle (working title) has to wait for Stiefel’s 2013 season at the Royal New Zealand Ballet, as “right now”, he says, “my head is full of Giselle.”

Qi Huan and Gillian Murphy in an RNZB <I>Giselle</I> promotional poster.<br />© Ross Brown. (Click image for larger version)
Qi Huan and Gillian Murphy in an RNZB Giselle promotional poster.
© Ross Brown. (Click image for larger version)

With his friend, Johan Kobborg, Stiefel is creating a new production of Giselle, starring Stiefel’s fiancée, Gillian Murphy, and the pressure is on. It premieres in Wellington on November 7.

The two men are sharing Stiefel’s office as they plot the direction of the ballet in all its aspects from deceit to betrayal and the supernatural – but as a distraction from all that angst, Kobborg is tweeting images of the two men in Stiefel’s office, among them a picture of them hiding in rubbish bins and playing a game involving a tiny boxing glove and a black face mask. Looks like they’re enjoying the process?

“Working with Johan has been great fun”, says Stiefel. “It’s been the definition of collaboration. You can’t hope for anything more, really.

Johan Kobborg and Ethan Stiefel discussing the finer points of Giselle's motivation...<br/>From the <a href="">@KOBBORG</a> twitter stream.
Johan Kobborg and Ethan Stiefel discussing the finer points of Giselle’s motivation…
From the @KOBBORG twitter stream.

“But what’s really good is that we come in with our own ideas. For efficiency, one might be leading the choreography for this dance or that, and if it’s not me it’s Johan, but I think what’s pretty cool is that we’re having a discussion about it and incorporating each other’s ideas and thoughts even though we’re the point person for certain things.

“It’s fun to go back over things together, to plan what we want to accomplish the next day, and block out the dances for the next week or two”.

Hilarion will have “a connected-through line in the ballet, not just mime scene, leave, mime scene, leave.

“We’re giving him a little bit more dancing [including an Act I solo] and he’ll be a little bit more present in some of the other scenes, as part of the village…so we can see the wheels turning in the sense of his character development.

“I don’t think he’s a bad guy. He’s in good standing within his community. He’s not sinister or evil by any means. I think he’s just somebody who is very much in love with Giselle”.

Ethan Stiefel in <I>Prodigal Son</I> at ABT.<br />© Roy Round and courtesy of RNZB. (Click image for larger version)
Ethan Stiefel in Prodigal Son at ABT.
© Roy Round and courtesy of RNZB. (Click image for larger version)

It’s only three months since Stiefel gave his farewell performance in New York as an American Ballet Theatre principal but even if there’s any lingering sadness, he is upbeat about the end of his dance career.

Stiefel says he left the stage “in a good place, artistically as well as technically and athletically…I think it really was the right time and I’m someone who was able to say when that time might be. I value that greatly. There are many people who don’t have the opportunity to call that shot”.

Nevertheless, “It’s still there living inside of me. To be a dancer was such a fantastic thing, I feel really privileged that I was able to have the career I had. On the other hand I also see myself as very fortunate and appreciative of the fact that I’m the artistic director of a great company. Not everybody hangs up their shoes and the next day has something to look forward to”.

Ethan Stiefel and Gillian Murphy in ABT's <I>Don Quixote</I>.<br />© Rosalie O'Connor and courtesy of RNZB. (Click image for larger version)
Ethan Stiefel and Gillian Murphy in ABT’s Don Quixote.
© Rosalie O’Connor and courtesy of RNZB. (Click image for larger version)

Just a few days after the farewell, “I was on the plane back to New Zealand to lead the next generation of dancers”.

The RNZB website shows only 30 dancers, including Murphy, but Stiefel says there are now 34 dancers in the company including some from the New Zealand School of Dance. The lucky three company members who will join Murphy in dancing the role of Giselle are Antonia Hewitt, Katherine Grange, and Tonia Looker and the Albrechts will include former Royal Danish Ballet principal, and now freelance guest artist, Andrew Bowman (a New Zealander) and Qi Huan. Also learning the role are Kohei Iwamoto, Jacob Chown and Helio Limar.

Ethan Stiefel.<br />© Rosalie O'Connor. (Click image for larger version)
Ethan Stiefel.
© Rosalie O’Connor. (Click image for larger version)

Stiefel recently held auditions in Wellington, however it seems only one new contract has been offered, to a graduate from the NZ School of Dance.

“Next year we might be able to add one more, but we have to look over the course of five years what our revenue is, our budget.  If we could gain six dancers overnight that would be a beautiful thing but I wouldn’t expect that to happen.  But, say, one to two dancers [a year] if that’s possible. That would be a nice, steady increase but economic times are what they are and whatever we do has to be sustainable. If we have the ability to get to maybe 40 dancers it would be a great thing, step by step”.

Founded by the Danish Royal Ballet principal dancer, Poul Gnatt, the company will celebrate its 60th anniversary next year. In the six decades, the RNBZ has grown from a tiny group of founders to a company of 14, and then more than 20. At first the pioneer company toured New Zealand with just a pianist, Dorothea Franchi. The struggles of those early days are told here:
A short History of RNZB
(from Balletco)

The company performing Russell Kerr and Poul Gnatt's <I>Prismatic Variations</I> at the Lane Walker Rudkin factory in Christchurch in 1969's Spring Tour.<br />Photograph by Christchurch Star ©, courtesy of RNZB and part of a 2002 Balletco piece by Jan Bolwell on the <a href="">History of RNZB</a>
The company performing Russell Kerr and Poul Gnatt’s Prismatic Variations at the Lane Walker Rudkin factory in Christchurch in 1969’s Spring Tour.
Photograph by Christchurch Star ©, courtesy of RNZB and part of a 2002 Balletco piece by Jan Bolwell on the History of RNZB

Among the 60th anniversary celebrations there will be a reunion of former dancers, an acknowledgement of the lineage of the company, going back to Gnatt, a book on the history of the company, written by Wellington critic, Jennifer Shennan, and a triple bill of three new works (part of the 2013 season to be announced late this week).

RNZB also appears to be forging a connection with the Queensland Ballet under the leadership of the artistic director-designate, Li Cunxin. For its 2013 production of Giselle, by Ai-Gul Gaisina, the Queensland Ballet is purchasing the sets from the existing RNBZ production of Giselle, last danced in 2006.

Li Cunxin recently recruited RNZB’s ballet master, Greg Horsman, to become Queensland Ballet’s ballet master next year. Stiefel said he had “upwards of 60 to 70 applicants, now down to three that I’m interviewing, and observing their work. In four to six weeks I’ll be able to announce a new ballet master”.

Qi Huan and Gillian Murphy in an RNZB <I>Giselle</I> promotional poster.<br />© Ross Brown. (Click image for larger version)
Qi Huan and Gillian Murphy in an RNZB Giselle promotional poster.
© Ross Brown. (Click image for larger version)

Stiefel has now lived in Wellington for one year. Apart from the wind (it’s just as bad, if not worse than in Chicago, he says) what is the main aspect of his new home that he notices the most?

“It’s about pace. New York has its own rhythm, drive and pace, unique to New York. It’s the tenacity. Just walking down the street, people walk faster. It’s very, very different here. There’s that more laid-back rhythm – that’s the most distinct thing but also it’s a different environment, a nation of 4.5 million people and a country of two islands”, as opposed to being the centre of a vast continent.

Still, “I don’t feel disconnected” and as for the distance from his homeland, “I’m enjoying that I’m not going to be travelling that much, because over the course of last year and even several years before, I was travelling a lot. I’m cool just to be in one place and focussed”.

About the author

Valerie Lawson

Valerie Lawson is an author and journalist who lives in Sydney, Australia. She is a former arts editor of The Sydney Morning Herald and, from 1990 to 2009, the Herald’s dance writer. Valerie was dance critic for The Australian Financial Review, 1994-2002, and has edited many sections of the Herald including the weekend colour magazine. As a freelance writer, she is a contributor to balletco, The Australian, The Sydney Morning Herald, and Dance Australia. She holds a Teaching Diploma from the Royal Academy of Dance and graduated B. Phil. (Hons.) in Ballet and Contextual Studies, from the University of Durham, 2002.
Valerie is the author of three books, has recently launched her own website, and is now writing a history of dance in Australia.

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