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

Royal New Zealand Ballet  performs Andrew Simmons's Of Days

Royal New Zealand Ballet performs Andrew Simmons's Of Days Photograph: Evan Li

Ethan Stiefel retired from ABT in July 2012, but he hasn't had a break. Even before a bare-chested final farewell,the celebrated principal began a tenure as artistic director of the Royal New Zealand Ballet. In anticipation of the troupe's first tour in years (they'll be at the Joyce Theater February 12 through 16), Stiefel talks about his goals for the company, the struggles of directing and getting some tough love from fiancée Gillian Murphy.

When the Royal New Zealand Ballet rolls into town, its artistic director will be a familiar sight: Ethan Stiefel, the celebrated principal of New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, as well as a star of Center Stage. For the company’s New York debut, Stiefel has curated an intimate program of ballets by Javier De Frutos, Benjamin Millepied and Andrew Simmons. Not all the dancers will be strangers; Gillian Murphy, the breathtaking ABT powerhouse and Stiefel’s fiancée, is a member. Stiefel spoke about the ups and downs of being in charge.

How does it feel to be coming back to New York as an artistic director?
It’s pretty cool. I’m happy. You know, it’s obviously a different role and capacity than audiences there have seen me functioning in, but I think what’s nice about it is I can still be with the home crowd and the home audiences in a different way. So I’m pretty excited, I have to say, and I’m excited for the company as much as for myself because it’s really the first tour of this kind of size and quality as far as coming to New York and the Dorothy Chandler in L.A. that the company has taken on. Everyone on this end seems pretty revved up and working hard—kind of gone off the deep end after the holidays, but it’s all happening.

When was the last time the company performed in New York?
I don’t think the company’s been to New York. And I think it’s seriously been decades since they did a tour. I think the last time was when Gillian saw the company, oddly enough, in either South or North Carolina when she was 12. So it’s kind of wild.

I can’t believe you’re not bringing Bier Halle.
[Laughs] Yeah. The Joyce is a little bit limited in what they can do. [Bier Halle has] a full set, but Minneapolis did ask for it and the cost to bring everything for one show and so on.…  But we’re doing basically a pas de deux—two variations—and I made a little coda just in the last couple of weeks, so it’ll probably go down well back in the Midwest where I come from with all the Germanic and Scandinavian folks.

Tell me about what you’re bringing. Why did you choose this program?
Definitely, at the Joyce you have to consider the theater, which is great, but you’re not able to fly things in and out. You’re limited a little bit as far as scenery and production. But the program shows off one of the great strengths of the dancers in the company, which is they can function in the classical realm all the way to the modern spectrum. So this program starts with Benjamin Millepied’s 28 Variations on a Theme by Paganini, which is a neoclassical/classical, kind of romantic ballet that I don’t think has been done for a while in New York. And I think it’s quite different than what people have seen him creating as of late. So we start with that. Also musically with the Brahms, and then to go into Andrew Simmons’s Of Days; I thought it was important to have a New Zealand choreographer on the program. He’s great and really talented and up-and-coming, and that’s more in the contemporary ballet realm. The ladies are still on pointe and using contemporary compositions. And then going again to the kind of other end of the spectrum with Javier’s work, Banderillero; I don’t think his work has been seen in New York, so I thought it’s great to provide a program that has a structure and arc to it and diversity within the rep, but at the same time to present the company with work by choreographers that they’re familiar with and is unique to us. So basically seeing those two pieces that people wouldn’t have seen before with any other company.

How is Benjamin’s piece different than what he’s made recently?
He made this on the School of American Ballet, and we both know he had a great association with Jerome Robbins. It looks like it was very much influenced by his time with the New York City Ballet and the Balanchine, but in particular the Robbins work in the sense of almost like a Dances at a Gathering, where you have relationships and the human element and the atmosphere and all of that; that you have connections with all the people onstage, even though I wouldn’t call it exactly a story ballet. It’s having that essence of human relationships and connections and that type of flavor. I really like it and obviously it goes back to my time and work with Robbins and City Ballet.

This was one of your first additions to the repertoire as artistic director, right?
Yeah. And that was because the company is actually a young company in many ways. We do have some experienced veterans, but it is a young company and the fact that it was a ballet made on the School of American Ballet is why I wanted it. As far as the narrative aspects, as well as the technical challenges, it’s fresh and vibrant and fits the company very, very well. At the same time, there are some roles that require a bit of maturity. It really does suit our company well, because we have that youth, but also then we do have some experience—like Gillian Murphy or her partner, Qi Huan—which I think lends itself to the ballet well. We’ll present it in a different way from how New York audiences saw it with the School of American Ballet.

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