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 it like living there?
That’s another case where you come into it eyes wide open. You’re moving to New Zealand, and you know it’s going to be different. You know it’s geographically situated where it is. It’s a nation of 4 million people, but then again until I got here and had been living and working here, I didn’t really know it until I was inside of it. It’s been great. In many ways, the remoteness has offered time to reflect and to just comfortably explore ideas. I do have to admit—which was a surprise to me, having traveled so much before—that being separated from Gillian and my family and friends is on a whole other level. That has not been easy. It’s amplified by the fact that I didn’t know one single person in the nation. [Laughs] And that’s also connected to the idea that I want to be someone who’s personable and connected to my dancers professionally and to a certain extent personally, but at the same time, I’m not one of them. They don’t always want the artistic director coming to a party when actually they want to probably talk about this or that.

They probably want to talk about the artistic director.
Exactly! So I have to say there weren’t only some professional adjustments, but also the personal adjustment of being here. That was a real shock because, as I said, I spent two months in Japan, months at the Royal Ballet—it seems like that should translate into the same thing, but actually it is a whole other level of being isolated. Not being close to your friends and family when you are in a position that—not to sound clichéd—can be lonely when you’re making those decisions. Gillian has been amazing in supporting me, but I can’t say that it hasn’t taken its toll from time to time. That’s something that we continue to try and strike the balance with. Because she has an amazing career, and she’s at the peak of it.

Are you thinking of staying on?
What I can say is that I’m open to the discussion, and that we’re going to have that discussion. My main objective, and has been here from day one, is to make the most out of the opportunity that’s been presented and to go step by step in the way that I didn’t think ever—really, it never crossed my mind that I’d be living and working in New Zealand. It came to me and that opportunity was presented and so now I’m here doing that. So in the same sense, I’d like to look ahead a little bit. But at the same time, I just have to be focused on what I’m doing right now, and make sure that I’m doing the best job that I can, to let the work speak for itself. What I could say is that I don’t think that this is where I’ll spend the rest of my life. That much I do know.

Right. I never considered how lonely it must be. It’s also kind of hard to make friends when you’re older.
Yeah, it’s true. And we’re the only ballet company. So also look at the extreme of being in New York, where you’re just surrounded by a larger pool. There are very talented artists and vibrant, creative people in Wellington and New Zealand, but you’ve got to recalibrate to a nation of 4 million and yeah, it takes a lot of time and energy to be an artistic director and to be a dancer. Being a dancer, you can be friends with the other dancers, and in this case now, I create the appropriate separation. But one that doesn’t become aloof.

I understand that you don’t want to be in New Zealand for the rest of your life. But how do you like being an artistic director in general?
I absolutely love it, but day to day, it can vacillate greatly. Am I comfortable with being respected, but not always liked? Maybe I’m a softy; I’m still finding my way. I would like to say that I think I do many things very well that are required by an artistic director, but at the same time I understand why Alexei Ratmansky, after having directed the Bolshoi, said, you know what? I can go and do my choreography and work in the studio with dancers and not have all of those things that come with being an A.D. as far as the administration and decision-making are concerned. There certainly are days where I see that as something that’s very attractive. I don’t have doubts about my own abilities and whether or not I’m good at this, but is it something that I will do for the rest of my life? I don’t know. The thing I’m grateful for is that people have given me the chance to find out through the experience. Because for ten years I was like, This is what I want to do. And I still want to do it, but it’s just a question of timing and fit. I hope you know I’m not saying this to be vague, it’s just that I can only find the truth in what I’m meant to do by not obsessing, but churning it over thoughtfully.

How has Gillian helped you?
As I quoted Gerald Freedman, I’ll quote Gillian. She said, “You do something and you feel bad, because you know something you’ve done has made someone else feel bad, but you absolutely know you have to do it.” It’s my responsibility, and I’m certainly up for it, you know what I mean? I do have a real clarity of what I want to achieve and how to go about things. So I don’t mean to doubt in the sense of, Oh I don’t know what to do. But it’s just that when I speak to Gillian.… One day she said to me, “Well Ethan, here’s the deal: It’s not about being liked, it is about being respected.” And my response to her was, “You know what? I think you’d make a good A.D. someday.” [Laughs] I’ve always maintained, man, she is much smarter than I am. There’s no doubt about it. There’s no way I’d have been able to be a dean or an A.D. without her support. And I certainly look forward to being able to support her in whatever she wants to do.

I think I need Gillian in my life, too.
She’s brutally honest, man. You know that.

Oh yes. It’s just rough to know that you’re making someone’s life miserable by what you write or, in your case, do. You have to do it, but it’s still a misery.
Yeah. But I think that’s the thing about professional responsibility: That’s what you’ve got to maintain, and even when you have that pain of the decision, you do have to say this is a professional responsibility. If anyone could say anything about me, it’s that I am pro.
Royal New Zealand Ballet is at the Joyce Theater through Feb 16.

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