THE Royal New Zealand Ballet (RNZB) scored a massive cultural coup last year when they secured one of the best ballet dancers in the world as their new Artistic Director.
Ethan Stiefel has been highly regarded in ballet circles and beyond thanks to an illustrious career spanning 23 years, including key roles from the classics through to contemporary works.
But he isn’t finished yet.
The word ‘stiefel’ actually means ‘boot’ in German, which is apt considering his feet have been his livelihood, taking him all over the world to dance on the most renowned stages.
When asked what prompted the American to pack up his life and move half way around the globe, he puts it down to a natural progression.
“When you reach your late 30s as a dancer, you start exploring different directorial options,” Stiefel says.
“The past six months as Artistic Director have been a huge learning curve both professionally and personally.
“But in New Zealand the whole ‘give it a go’ attitude is great, especially when dealing with art and creativity.”
From his new base in Wellington, Stiefel says he’s coping quite well with the Kiwi accent.
“Although some of the locals have said they can only understand 50 percent of what I’m saying,” he jokes.
Partner, world-class ballerina Gillian Murphy, also accompanied Stiefel to New Zealand and is now a principal guest artist with the company.
“We have great mutual respect for each other and Gillian is helping me in my job, leading by example and working side by side with the dancers,” he enthuses.
The couple’s magic is already rubbing off, with rave reviews for the performance of NYC – Three Short Ballets from the Big Apple.
Cinderella and Giselle are to follow later in the year and there is talk the company will tour overseas, possibly to Europe as well as North and South America.
In the last 10 years, movies like the Lord of the Rings have certainly helped put New Zealand on the map, capturing the world’s imagination as a must-see tourist destination and as a creative and artistic hub.
Now that the world is taking more notice of ‘the land of the long white cloud’, Stiefel hopes the RNZB can add to the international appeal as well.
“Ballet as an art form is very subjective, so cross-pollination around the world is extremely important because you can share what you do and it keeps things fresh and percolating.”
As someone who grew up idolising the greats like Mikhail Baryshnikov, Stiefel knows what to look for in his protégés.
“Classical ballet is quite specific. You need the athletic and technical ability and the right aesthetic proportions, but you also need intelligence and a spirit and a voice that translates to the audience,” he says.
As a child, Stiefel himself started lessons because he was sick of waiting in the lobby of the dance school while his sister took classes.
His career highlights include turning professional at 16 with the NYC Ballet, becoming a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre (ABT) and being a guest artist in London and Russia.
Stiefel also enjoys making movies – perhaps his best known role was as the ‘bad boy’ choreographer Cooper Nielsen in the feature film Centre Stage.
After a farewell performance of Le Corsaire with the ABT in July, the 39-year-old is looking to hang up his ballet shoes.
“I’m not saying I won’t dance ever again,” he laughs. “But I’ll be retiring from the highest level.
“There’s a lot to keep me busy though at the Royal New Zealand Ballet.
“This year everyone is rising to the occasion and it’s great to be able to add skills and knowledge to the dancers’ tool belts.
“It’s also very exciting that in 2013 the company will be celebrating its 60th anniversary, so embracing the rich history and traditions of the past is important, while also looking to the future.
“Being involved in the present, I hope that I can help lead the way for the next 60 years,” he grins.
Ethan Stiefel and Lucy Green at the RNZB (Photo by Maarten Holl)