Q&A: Ethan Stiefel talks about his debut as artistic director of the Royal New Zealand Ballet

Ethan Stiefel, artistic director of the Royal New Zealand Ballet, unveils his company at the Joyce Theater

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What is Gillian performing?
She’ll be in about five performances of 28 Variations, and she’s also scheduled to dance a couple of the Andrew Simmons. I think it will be cool for New York audiences to see her in that realm. Not that they haven’t seen her in contemporary ballet before, but doing work by a choreographer they haven’t seen before is cool.

Can you tell me more about Of Days?
I would describe it as being a very expansive piece, but that has a lot of subtlety, finesse and emotion underneath it. It’s very fluid, but at the same time it touches on dynamics that require a lot of, as I said, subtlety of execution and finesse. And it’s just a really beautiful piece; it’s very clean, it’s uncluttered. It gives us another take on ballet in the context of our whole program. Andrew Simmons was a dancer in the Royal New Zealand Ballet, and now he’s based in Dresden and he’s doing choreography some, but he’s worked with the company before. This was a piece that I’d commissioned last year, so I also liked the fact that the Millepied as well as the Simmons basically were pieces of repertoire that came into the company’s programming under my tenure.

What is the deal with Javier De Frutos? His piece is inspired by Spanish bullfights.
He’s Venezuelan, and he’s based in London; he’s done a lot of work with Rambert. He’s actually done a lot of work with the National Theater recently and musical-theater productions as well. He’s been working with the company on and off; I’d say every couple of years for the past ten, he’s come to New Zealand to stage a work, so the dancers inherently adapt to his work and perform it well. His work has a real modern flavor to it and musically, it’s quite different: It’s set to the drumming of Chinese percussionist Yim Hok-Man. So I’d say not only as far as the vocabulary, but musically the program—hopefully—will be quite interesting.

You weren’t looking for this job. It landed on your lap, and you decided to apply because it looked interesting.
At that time I’d told the [North Carolina] School of the Arts [where Stiefel was formerly the dean of the school of dance] that working in academia wasn’t going to be what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Johan Kobborg mentioned that the company was looking for an artistic director. Because they had come periodically to London, I was aware of their reputation. I knew with my dancing that I only had a couple of years left—or had planned on that. I was just fortunate that I could call the shot as to when my last performance would be. I think it’s really just about growth and experience, both professionally and personally, to come and live and work in a different country and to be doing something that you’re passionate about and you love. I didn’t think that I’d ever be working in New Zealand, but I thought either way it would be good experience and a good place for me to learn. Fortunately, they offered me the job.

How have you grown since taking over the RNZB?
It was an interesting transition. I was still dancing basically for the first year that I was directing here. So to segue from being a dancer to a director—a director that I would like to think always has the dancers first and foremost. But essentially I’m not one of the group or one of the boys, because I’m doing the casting. I’m making the decisions that can be popular or not. Not everybody’s going to be happy all of the time, and I think that was something that was very important for me to confront. I’ve had to find that balance of being accessible and generous and nurturing and caring, but also being able to make difficult decisions.

You also really started to choreograph there. Was that something that drew you to New Zealand also? Being able to create under the radar?
Yeah. That was one of the real attractions. Within the first year I put on the production of Giselle with Johan and then last year I did Bier Halle. I think having those things out there led to people reaching out to me in terms of the television series with Starz network; I’ve been taken on as the choreographer [for the forthcoming Flesh and Bone]; it’s been really invigorating and inspiring for me. You know, 10 or 15 years ago, I would have been quoted in interviews saying that I didn’t feel choreography was what I was into, but then you know, five or six, seven years ago thoughts came to mind and I became inspired and really compelled. Again, the fact that I’m able to do it because I’m passionate about it and not out of necessity and have a platform to do it is a chance that not everybody gets. And I’d done a little bit—a Nutcracker at School of the Arts. I think it’s been a good, steady progression as far as taking on new things creatively.

What’s important to you as a choreographer?
Well, it’s one of those things. I haven’t been forced to do it. The company didn’t say, “We need a director who choreographs.” It’s just that about six years ago, I started thinking about how to revisit and reenvision full-length classics that could maintain the classical idiom, which I think is beautiful. How to keep presenting that in a fresh way that’s honoring the tradition, but is relevant to today? That’s very important to me. What are the stories? It can be an abstract ballet; Bier Halle came to mind because I had an idea that was spurred by the music of Johann Strauss II and his brother Josef. I just listened to that and thought, This is actually a ballet that maybe would evoke the spirit of the Robbins one-act ballets or even the Ashton one-act ballets that I loved to dance so much. There are not a lot of people doing that. There is a lot of expanding and pushing the edge physically with funky and contemporary stuff, and I want to do that as well, but first and foremost I stuck with things that I felt could develop the craft, but also have a very literal, dramatic point of view. Where it’s not necessarily a story, but, again, just going back to the atmosphere, the environment and evoking, as I said, the sensibilities you might find in Fancy Free or Dances at a Gathering, Gaîté Parisienne, The Dream, A Month in the Country. As with most choreographers, I just love music and every now and then as I listen, I have pictures or images or ideas that naturally come into my head. That’s when I thought, Maybe you do actually want to explore this, because it is jumping into your head; it’s not like I’m forcing myself to sit down and say, Oh, okay, I need to create this. I love it. I also love the collaboration, the interaction with the dancers, the give-and-take and to bring in ideas and see where it goes.

You used to make music, didn’t you?
Yeah I used to mix—back in the day, I was pretty heavy into the Caribbean, Jamaican dancehall soca. I’ve always been really into music and finding the different layers. and I also have quite eclectic taste. Maybe that will come out in my choreography as well, because I don’t think I just want to reenvision existing full-lengths or do one-act story ballets. I would like to get in there and do some stuff that’s funky as well as doing something like Bier Halle, which is simply for people to enjoy. People are like, “What is the meaning?” But sometimes it’s just to celebrate the human spirit and the joy that dance brings and to present some really good dancing within a narrative context.

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