Since 1997, Stiefel has been one of ABT's most dynamic, versatile, and popular principal dancers; last year he also became artistic director of the Royal New Zealand Ballet. He's been busy there all this season, but he'll return to ABT on July 2 and 7 for two final performances of Ali in Le Corsaire. By phone from New Zealand, Stiefel humorously said that this will be "a boxer's retirement," since there's always the chance that he'll be back on some stage in some project. But these two performances will be his farewell to ABT.
Now 39, Stiefel's career has been a succession of new beginnings as well as a consistent evolution. Born in Tyrone, Pennsylvania, he began dancing at age eight. At sixteen, he joined New York City Ballet. There, he was immediately prominent in the ballets of Jerome Robbins, Peter Martins, and of course George Balanchine, whose aesthetic has defined the company since he founded it in 1948. After arriving in America in 1933, Balanchine had forged a new male technique that was swift, light, and brilliant. It demanded a range of musical timings and accents, and also comfort with the balletic equivalent of native American slang. All that seemed like second nature to Ethan Stiefel.
"I wanted to see the world, see all the kinds of different places, different people," Stiefel recalled to me in 1998 when I interviewed him for Ballet Review. Following two stints with the Zurich Ballet in Switzerland, Stiefel joined ABT. Right away he was outstanding in ballets that tapped into American lore: Eugene Loring's 1938 Billy the Kid and Twyla Tharp's Known by Heart, where the role Stiefel created let him whipsaw between vaudeville and filling station. And immediately he began a period of adjustment to the nineteenth-century classical ballets that are the bedrock of ABT's repertory. They required different qualities than most of what Stiefel's experience at NYCB had emphasized. For these full-length ballets, he needed a deeper pli_ into the floor, a capacity for bigger and weightier jumps, and the ability to keep his ballerina steady in sustained overhead lifts. Dancing princely heroes in European courts, he needed to walk and gesture with a particular blend of entitlement and graciousness. "I am kind of learning all over again," he said in 1998.
Taking on the nineteenth-century repertory went hand-in-hand with opportunities to bring his interpretations back to the old world. If Henry James or Mark Twain had been alive, they might have written novels with him in mind. He was a regular guest at The Royal Ballet in London during the early 2000s. In February 2001, it definitely felt like history-in-the-making when I saw him dance Balanchine's Apollo in his debut with the Mariinsky Ballet in St. Petersburg, where Balanchine himself was reared. Three years later, Stiefel penetrated further into Russian tradition dancing Solor in the Mariinsky's revival of La Bayadre as it had existed at the turn of the 20th century on that same stage.
Stiefel was an honest dancer who respected the finesse of ballet technique. At the same time, he liked to experiment with pursuing the ultimate logic of a step or a phrase and wasn't afraid to chance an unpredictable outcome. "Taking a little risk has been a part of my philosophy along the way," he says today. Stiefel was fortunate that his technique "has always given me the freedom to push the physicality within my dancing." Off stage as well, Stiefel demonstrated an edge that nominated him poster child for a justification of ballet as something not effete. Growing up, he'd ridden dirt bikes, which as an adult he traded in for motorcycles. He was filmed perched on one in the 2002 PBS-television special "Born to Be Wild." Together with his bike, he availed himself of more crossover opportunities in Nicholas Hytner's movie Center Stage in 2000, as well as its sequel in 2008.
Over the past decade, Stiefel has slowly become interested in stepping out of the performing limelight into the crucial periphery of artistic administration. From 2004 until 2008 he ran a summer dance camp on Martha's Vineyard. In 2008 he began a three year term as dean of the dance department of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. Now he is the second American director in the Royal New Zealand Ballet's six decades of existence.
The 34-member company includes both native "Kiwis" and foreigners. It receives funding from the Ministry of Culture - "it's definitely a relief to have that stability" - but must also solicit private giving. Stiefel's responsibilities mandate full exposure to the scenic wonders of this island archipelago. "On a good day Auckland is sensational!" Stiefel confirmed to me from a tour stop there early in March. With the government stipend comes with an insistence that RNZB be a truly national company, venturing out from home base in Wellington, the country's capital. It performs regularly in different cities around the country, while every two years comes a grand tour where the company dances in as many as forty different locales.
Slowly but surely, Stiefel is putting his imprint on the company. In March he opened a program conceived as a tribute to New York, consisting of works by Balanchine and Benjamin Millepied, as well as a world premiere by Larry Keigwin. He's retaining links to ABT: Gillian Murphy, Stiefel's fianc_e, is a permanent guest artist. Stella Abrera guested as Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty for him last fall.
During his fifteen years at ABT, Stiefel embraced many techniques, styles and ideas about ballet. Today, he describes the way he looked for "the opportunity to inject fresh and creative perspectives into roles that make sense to the roles themselves, as well as who I am as a performer and artist." ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie recalls that Stiefel's "quintessentially American energy defined an example for his colleagues and audience alike." Principal dancer Julie Kent says that the "clarity, strength and dimension of his dancing, as well as his presence, will be greatly missed at ABT. But I am certain that his impact on our art form will continue for many years."
Looking ahead to his final Corsaire, Stiefel envisions "coming to terms with the fact that I am leaving behind" a performing identity "that has basically quantified my existence for so long." At the same time, he is determined "to enjoy it as one last moment to share with so many of the people that got me to where I am." But putting sentiment aside, he'll hit the stage the same way he always has: "I'm just gonna give it all I have."
Joel Lobenthal is senior dance critic of City Arts and an associate editor of Ballet Review.