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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Where do you want to take the Royal New Zealand Ballet? How much longer do you have on your contract?
My contract officially ends September 1, so oddly enough we’re in that window when I’m going to be meeting with the chair of the board to discuss the future. Getting back to what would I like to do with the Royal New Zealand Ballet, I think what’s happened within the first couple years—the fact that we’ve done a lot of new work. I’ve commissioned a lot of new work from those living and working in New Zealand, but also from the outside and obviously myself. I think that what makes the company interesting and attractive is not only in how they dance and the caliber of the dancing, but the repertoire being something that is unique to the company so that we’re not just mimicking another company. We can certainly incorporate and be influenced by other great companies, but to have something that is special to our own because at the end of the day it has to make sense for who we are. Otherwise I don’t think the performances will be credible.

But what do you want the company to be?
I arrived at a company that had a great foundation and platform for me to work off of. But I do have to say that I have spent a lot of time and energy coaching and teaching the repertoire, just to get our classical-ballet technique a little bit more polished, a little bit more refined and a little bit more exciting. That’s why I feel we are in a good place to bring a Giselle to the U.S. [in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara] because our production has a lot of new choreography and new ideas, but we also have maintained the iconic passages, especially the second-act duet. We have to be able to stand our own ground and be able to present it on a level that one would expect. I’ve spent a lot of time focused on that, but also just on the culture—to be honest with you—of how to go about work. To be motivated, to be focused, to be positive and in a way, to also be a little bit gritty and have a real can-do attitude.

Do you have 32 dancers?
At the moment, we have actually 36. Each year basically, budget permitting, I look to increase the company by about one or two dancers since 2011. Now in 2014, including Gillian, we will be 36 dancers; that allows us the opportunity to have a better workload. In this company, everybody might be doing two or three different roles. Having a few more people to be able to mount full-length classics with the right scale and grandeur for our company is one thing; at the same time, we’re able to provide a little bit of relief. We tour a lot. It can be a grind to be on the road for five weeks, three times a year. You want to be able to have a company that’s performing at its highest level and with that said, you also want to be aware of burnout and injuries and all of that. It’s one of the things that was in the strategic plan: just to softly increase the number of dancers.

How different is being an artistic director from running a school?
You have to look at them as two different things. I mean there are definitely parts that cross over as far as my general approach, or what I would like to see as the culture of a school or a company, but when I’m dealing with professional dancers, I look at it more as a dialogue. With students, you have that dialogue, and it should be there, but at the same time you’re more telling them what to do, and they feel like they’re just following. And I didn’t subscribe to that 100 percent when I was a dean, but in a professional company, I function on a level of respect. Rather than teaching self-responsibility, I want to see the dancers execute that on their own. I’m here to guide and direct, but at the same time it’s important as an artist that you take your own initiative and become self-responsible. That equals a more intelligent dancer—not just intelligent in basic ways of how to pace yourself, but also artistically stimulated and intelligent—knowing they have a director that’s going to give them clear guidance, but also to want to hear and see how they’re going to take it and make it their own.

What mistakes have you made as an artistic director? What have you learned?
That’s the thing—I would go back to something Gerald Freedman, the dean of the school of drama who is legend in the theater world and certainly at School of the Arts said. I think you have to be very clear, and you have to be relatively confident in your vision, but accept input. What Gerald Freedman said to me, which resonates now, is that mistakes are going to happen, but the main thing is not whether or not you make mistakes or you fail, but it’s actually failing forward. I always keep that in the back of my mind—that it’s not always about being perfect or right, but it’s a process that you have to remain flexible with. I am pragmatic because I do want to do the right thing and be sensitive to the dancers and be as equitable as I can. But at the same time, I can’t make the mistake of being too nice because I do have the job of and the expectation that we present a standard. I don’t know of any huge blunders, but I would say that there are things that I encounter day to day where you make a decision, and then you think about it and you go, Oh, actually maybe there’s a different way to do it. The most important thing I’ve learned is to be confident in something when you believe in it, but at the same time if you have made a mistake it’s just important to be able to acknowledge that mistake. But would there be things where I’m like, in casting, maybe this person ultimately would have been better…things like that? Yeah. There are things that happen with that, but as I said, learn from it and fail forward. 

Before you talked about how you can’t just be buddies with the dancers if you’re the one in charge. Did you have that realization going in?
Yeah, I did. I came into it with my eyes wide open. I thought, Man, you’re going to have a struggle: As a dancer—and as one who had been successful—you get quite used to being wanted, being celebrated.… I’m still working on when I can be Ethan Stiefel the person and Ethan Stiefel the artistic director. So I was prepared for that. My main point is that until I was in it, I couldn’t really know how to function within it, because I also have to read the situation and the people that are in front of me. So it’s a constant kind of navigation of personalities, energies and dynamics; you just balance that to try and get everything in the right place as far as presenting the best possible product and results. But also to have the right positive, professional and motivated culture in the day–to-day approach.

Do you teach company class, or do you have ballet masters who do that?
I have ballet masters and guest teachers that come in, which is really good. But for me, one of the reasons why I thought I wasn’t going to be able to be long-term in North Carolina was that I wasn’t in the studio as much as I would have liked. I receive great reward and fulfillment from helping others, and my main objective is that we are a bit better the next day than we were the day before. So I teach at least once a week. I’d say once or twice a week I teach company class because that, for me, is the foundation of everything—as far as the spirit or the technical nitty-gritty. I also like to get in there and coach soloist and principal roles, as well as spend a lot of time with the corps de ballet and the group work. It’s important. It’s a way of communicating with the dancers, not just talking to them; basically, it’s laying out the vision through the work in the studio and letting that speak for itself.

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