Stiefel chase

On one shaky knee-it's better than two!-Ethan Stiefel hunts for some stage time.

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ARMED AND READY Stiefel hopes to perform Afternoon of a Faun at City Center.

Photograph: Rosalie O’Connor

Not to be crass, but Ethan Stiefel, the American Ballet Theatre principal who starred in the film Center Stage, has had a shitty year. Last fall he was diagnosed with bone spurs on each knee within two weeks of each other; a few months later, it was announced that Ballet Pacifica, the Orange County company where Stiefel served as artistic director, would scrap its season. His resignation as director coincided with knee surgery, which, unfortunately, hasn’t been entirely successful. While his right knee is in fine shape, his left—even after two rounds of cortisone injections—is still experiencing strain. Keep your fingers crossed: Stiefel, 33, is still planning to perform in a pair of Jerome Robbins classics at ABT’s City Center season, Afternoon of a Faun and Fancy Free. At the company’s Broadway headquarters, Stiefel recently discussed his rocky year.

How are you doing?

[Laughs] You know, trying to get it back together one more time. It’s one of those things: My right knee is awesome, fully recovered; and my left knee, although I’ve done everything the same, appears to have some scar tissue. Otherwise, I feel good. I feel in shape, and actually I can do a lot; it’s just about stepping up to that level you need as far as performance level. And what I’m told is that it’s not that uncommon to have the tissue change over time. It just happens that maybe this is connected to a nerve ending, or the way it has built up has created strain on some attachment.

What does it feel like? Is it a sharp pain?


Ethan Stiefel in Swan Lake.

Photograph: Rosalie O’Connor

Yeah. I felt really good for a while when I wasn’t doing too much, and then as I started to increase it, I started to feel a distant, faint pain. That’s not all that uncommon after surgery. It’s hard, because it wasn’t that I’ve had an injury, recovered and then had another one with a couple of years in between surgeries. Basically, right when I came back something else happened. So it’s a little bit heavy. At the same time, I think people forget that I’ve been doing this for the past 17 years, and I certainly haven’t taken the easy road in trying to expose myself to many different forms of dance. In a way it’s great, but at the same time, shifting your body back and forth between styles has definitely taken a toll. At the moment, I’m focused on getting back onstage, and I’m taking the very calm and cool approach. I’m planning to do Faun and Fancy Free, and I was learning the new [Jorma] Elo, which I’d love to do, but with new movement you have to be careful. If I’m dancing pieces that I know, I can function within that realm and be sensible, whereas if it’s something new—and inevitably you get excited about a new creation—I would set myself up to some damage. I’m looking at how I can have a substantial impact on the season as well as be able to get back onstage for myself. City Center’s a major thing, but there’s a lot that comes up afterward all the way through the Met season.


Ethan Stiefel as Oberon in Frederick Ashton’s The Dream.

Photograph: Marty Sohl

Like what?

I’m supposed to be learning Iago for Othello, and then we go on tour to London and Paris. I’m supposed to guest with the Australian Ballet. I’ve never been to Australia, so that’s pretty cool. And then the Met season. I don’t have any huge blowout tours planned, but good steady things I’d like to participate in.

What have you missed most about performing?

It’s been tough because [girlfriend] Gillian [Murphy] is out there onstage and I want to support her and see her performances, which is actually very difficult. I also want to enjoy this period of her career. What I miss is the involvement with my peers. Of course, performing is really the main impetus of why I dance, but it’s also about being around other dancers. When you’re just sitting around and trying to focus on reading or doing nothing, it’s one of those things where to even get in the studio again is a good feeling. Since I was eight, that’s what I know. And you know me—I’m not so narrow about everything.

Have you been going to shows?

Well, when it was time for the Met season, that was six or eight weeks after the surgery; I did go to some shows. Did I go to as many as I may have if I wasn’t injured? Maybe not. In August, I was back into teaching [at Stiefel and Students, his summer program in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts], and it was a perfect place for me to be. I was able to focus quite intensely on what I needed to do—we had studios and teachers and therapists and Pilates equipment—and also there are very few distractions. At the same time, I was able to contribute in a way that wasn’t typical—I could feel like I had some value other than as a dancer. It was good that I had a way to step back into it; it was a month on my terms, without pressure.

The only pressure I felt was the wish that I could show them better what I was saying. Actually, to watch the show we presented [at the Martha’s Vineyard Performing Arts Center] was more frustrating than watching the Met shows.

Why?

There’s a concept behind it of using the students as well as professionals dancers, and for me, to not be involved in the performance aspect was difficult. Over the last couple of years, to be out there with them has been one of the more profound experiences. In a way, they lift the level of what I do as a professional. I’m in costume in the wings and I’m there patting them on the back or trying to help them out—it’s an interesting dynamic. This year, because I wasn’t performing, I had to make a speech in front of the curtain, which is always an interesting deal as well. [Smiles] That was a whole new scene. You gotta do it, but it’s not easy. It’s not easy to go in front of 800 people and say, “I’m not going to be up there tonight.”

When you teach, what is the structure of your class?

To have a progression from beginning to end. There are certain key elements that are focused on at the barre and used in the center, so you’re not just doing things to do things. But when I’m teaching students, I’m also very focused on work ethic and discipline. I’ve been influenced by martial arts—just that respect and honor for the craft. When you walk into the studio, there’s an immediate transformation from the world that you were in. But technically it’s starting from a simple place and adding other elements and working through either musicality or dynamic or movement style through a central idea. At Martha’s Vineyard, we’ve got a lot of good people and it’s also a mix of stuff... [Pauses] Some kids didn’t even know who August Bournonville was, and that’s kind of weird. He’s one of the founding fathers of classical dance! But at the same time, I’m basically saying that it isn’t the only route or one way to do it. Once they get to where they’re in my program, from about 15 to 18, that’s when you want to start opening them up because you also want them to start thinking for themselves.


Ethan Stiefel as Jean de Brienne in Raymonda.

Photograph: Marty Sohl

When did you start thinking for yourself?

Probably too soon. [Laughs] No, for me, a real step was when I was 16, it was July, and the School of American Ballet went to the Holland Dance Festival. Peter Martins said, “I think you should really stay within the City Ballet family,” and I said, “All right.” And then I proceeded to go to the ABT school, and it wasn’t about any company, it was about an experience of training. Now I see that it wasn’t defiance; I was saying, “I love Stanley, but for a little period I have the opportunity to study under my idol, Baryshnikov.” I wanted to pursue something, and I think that reflects why I wanted to live and work in Europe for several years and eventually left New York City Ballet to join ABT. Somehow I’ve been able to make it happen, whatever that is.

Is it correct to say that everything seemed to shatter for you at the same time—Ballet Pacifica and your surgery?

Yeah, it was heavy duty. Certainly dealing with any one of those things on their own would be enough—but I have to maintain that whatever was happening with Ballet Pacifica or my knees, one didn’t affect the other. But yeah, if I’m basically dealing with the frustration of walking away from something that myself and my artistic team threw themselves into wholeheartedly, and then, at the same time hearing, “In two weeks, you’re going to need to have surgery because you’ve danced for six months with this and it hasn’t gotten better,” it’s not just about the incidents on their own. I wanted to create something positive out West. And with my body, I had to ask, What does this mean as far as my career as a dancer? So it really brought up a lot of question marks about the future. But I think all of that has calmed down.

What happened with Ballet Pacifica?

When I was approached about the possibility of directing a company, it was about trying to build a small company of a certain level that would inspire the talent and the abundance of students. The artistic team fought valiantly up until the last moment to make it happen, but you can’t ask the people who have the most to lose to take the biggest risk. As tough as it was, I had to say, “Thank you. All the best.” [Laughs] I think a real opportunity was missed. Not because of my involvement, but because people in the national dance scene were really like, “Wow, I hope this happens.” But the timing wasn’t right—we couldn’t do it all by ourselves. I can only say that we did exactly what we were hired to do and more.

Why did you want to become the artistic director of Ballet Pacifica in the first place?

It was a kind of chamber company and it was struggling. The executive director and the board came to me and presented basic structural mandates as far as the budget was concerned and the number of dancers, and I was hired to fulfill what was presented by the board. I only bring this up because some people—because I’m somewhat of a high-profile person—thought it was my company or idea. I don’t think that they truly understood the dynamic; I was an employee to fulfill the vision. Certainly my area was artistic. I was supposed to prepare everything working within those guidelines, which is exactly what I did.

How big was the company?

Previously it had been between 10 and 12 dancers, but the idea was that the unveiling of the new company would be around 20. Right now I think it’s just a school. Upon my departure, I said, “Why don’t you guys just concentrate on running a school that trains dancers very well?” Basically, by hiring me, they committed to this vision, but it will be some time before they could actually execute that.


Gillian Murphy and Ethan Stiefel in Don Quixote.

Photograph: Rosalie O’Connor

Here’s a scenario: Peter Martins gets another job, leaves NYCB, and you are offered the job as director. Do you accept?

Wow. Right now, going through what I’ve been through—no. I’m looking forward to focusing on my dancing. NYCB is one of the trickiest places to step into as a director, because you need to honor what has been created and work within the guidelines, but at the same time be moving ahead in an experimental spirit. I’m not sure if that can be accomplished. Because when you move into big institutions it’s never just what you want to do. You’re always juggling. [Laughs] Even working in a small, tiny institution like Ballet Pacifica proved that there are so many complex issues. I think whether it’s City Ballet or anywhere, the real struggle is really remaining true to what you’re trying to achieve artistically as you balance other people’s ideas and a company’s prior history. Sometimes that works. But sometimes you have to just turn things on their head and go in a different direction. I don’t have a definitive answer. I just have to say that I’m a little bit once bitten, twice shy at the moment to even think about directing anything but my program at Martha’s Vineyard. [Laughs] The beauty of that situation is that it’s just myself and Tom Melone, who handles the business end. I handle the artistic and we do our thing, we respect each other, and everybody comes together to try and achieve the same goal, which is to educate and mentor. That, for me, is the way to go about it. Once you have a big administration and a board...if you feel you’re going to be beholden to basically execute what they want even if you don’t believe in it, then the joy goes out of it. I haven’t figured it out yet. It’s hard to balance integrity, and when you become a director, to a certain degree, you become a politician. And maybe that’s interesting and maybe it isn’t. For me, I would just prefer to do right by the art form and the dancers and the choreographers.

I don’t think, especially in the world of American dance, that you can have that kind of vision, so it comes down to this: How much are you personally willing to sacrifice your ideals? Because it’s a business.

Does this interview situation bring completely unwanted attention at this point?

No! It’s important for people to understand that you move on. Unless you say that, people could think, He’s pissed off. In general, the real problem is people commenting on things they don’t know about. Usually things aren’t as simple as they appear to be. No one’s going around, at least on my end, pointing fingers or placing blame, and that’s important as well. It’s also important that the reason I got involved or John Gardner and Amanda McKerrow [who ran the school] did is because we saw having a professional company as a real necessity for the region. If someone else can do it and I can help them, or if they want advice, great. That’s the thing as far as clearing the air. I don’t want it misconstrued as something bitter. You can’t not try something for fear of failing or you can’t try to do something to prove anything. If someone didn’t experiment in the studio with movement or their craft, would we ever have anything progressive happening? I think I gave it a shot and I hope someone else does, and if someone else makes it happen? Good. I hope that people don’t choose to stop trying because there’s a region of 18 million people without a company recognized as having a certain level as far as production values, dancers, a school and training.

What did you do when you were recuperating? You cut your hair?

I did that much. And it was even shorter. I was hanging out with my parents, which was nice because running around for a year and a half put a lot of strain on me as a person. Even though it sounds odd—I was an invalid—I enjoyed spending some downtime hanging out with Gillian and the cat and catching up with friends. I spent a lot of time thinking about Ballet Pacifica. I wouldn’t say that I failed, but you like to deliver what you plan; maybe I’m old-fashioned, but there was that to deal with. I didn’t take up cabinetmaking or take a cooking course. It was a healing time, both physically and mentally. I have to think that I’m a stronger, better person in some way.

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