Ethan Stiefel, American Repertory Ballet’s Artistic Director: “The Work Will Speak for Itself”
On Saturday, March 25, American Repertory Ballet (ARB) will return to New York City with a thrilling program entitled Movin’ + Groovin’ at Hunter College’s Kaye Playhouse. This will be the company’s first New York engagement under the leadership of internationally acclaimed ballet star, Ethan Stiefel, an innovative, bold, and multifaceted artist who has excelled not only as a classical and modern dancer but also as a choreographer, educator, performing arts leader, and actor. I am grateful that he took the time during a stunning rehearsal of the program to speak with me about the upcoming performance in NYC, his amazing career, and his inspiring vision for ARB. For additional information about Ethan Stiefel and ARB, please click on the links at the end of this interview.
You’ve been Artistic Director of American Repertory Ballet since July 2021. What led you here?
I worked with the company in 2019. They did a small piece of mine that I set to Beethoven’s Egmont Overture. Then Julie, the executive director, said: “We’re going through a transition, would you be interested in directing the company?” At the time my son had just been born, I was teaching and working at American Ballet Theatre in the studio, and I thought that the position was not something for me for the moment because I felt very fulfilled and enjoyed the work I was doing in New York. Then the pandemic happened, and I suppose, on any number of levels, in many different ways, it was a contemplative, reflective time, also a beautiful time because I was there with my wife and my son. I got a call again from Julie asking for another piece for the company and one thing led to the next. They had put the Artistic Director search on hold for two years. So, for me this was really born out of a place of: Do I have something more to offer in terms of being a director or leader on the professional level? And it was also just to be positive and constructive for the art form and in general.
Ethan Stiefel – Photo: Harald Schrader
What is your vision for ARB?
In deference to some other places where you might need to uphold a legacy or follow a certain path, American Repertory Ballet didn’t have that, so my focus and vision formed from the thought that maybe we can shape ARB in a way that is different in terms of our repertoire and culturally. Just the vibe, the energy, how we go about things to be positive and constructive… a lot of hard work and, I would say, healthy ambition. It was also to create something that is its own entity and has a distinctive repertoire as well as extremely talented and unique artists, and that isn’t doing the same things that others are doing. Not simply to be different, but because this is where I and the organization feel we can contribute to our locale and communities in broader terms of the art form. We’ve placed emphasis on new work, a lot of homegrown talent, but at the same time, there is a real commitment to classicism and classical ballet, seeing how these stories can be done in ways that are new or relevant or revisited. I’m a progressive purist. I feel that classical ballet has so much to offer, and a lot that comes with it is very inspiring, encouraging, and engaging. So, let’s build a culture around it that has an importance not just in the quality of the work we’re doing but also in how we do it.
Leandro Olcese in Ja’ Malik’s Moving to Bach – Photo Rosalie O’Connor – ARB
Please tell us about the upcoming “Movin’ + Groovin’” program.
I’m excited about this program for a number of reasons: first, for the company. When the company performed in New York last, I was in the audience watching; it was the Beethoven piece I told you about. The choreographers of Movin’ + Groovin’, Ja’ Malik, Claire Davison and Caili Quan come from various backgrounds and experiences in terms of their careers and what informs their movement. This is one of my favorite programs in general with the variance in the music from Bach to Fleetwood Mac, and the diversity and the vocabulary, all made on the home team, on our dancers. The program offers one aspect of the vision in terms of the new and the unique. Then again, we just mounted Giselle and made a new Midsummer Night’s Dream, so there’s the classical ballet aspect. The two parts of the vision are running parallel, speaking to each other, and giving us our own identity
Was ballet your first love?
I really have a passion for it and live and breathe the art. I think of it as something extraordinary. At the age of eight or nine, though, I didn’t think that. I got into it because of my sister. We were growing up in the Midwest, on the frozen tundra of Wisconsin, and we were both really into gymnastics, both talented, but my sister wanted to start taking ballet lessons, and being older she had seniority in terms of scheduling, so I followed her. I think it didn’t hurt that I was a male in the state of Wisconsin back in 1980; there weren’t a lot of men in ballet.
Did some people make fun of you because of it?
Not necessarily, but I mean that’s just something that can come with the territory. I’ve experienced it at different times, even if it’s innocent, when people don’t really know or understand what you do. But the cool thing is that many times after you introduce people to it and explain that it’s an actual job not a hobby, they do end up having an admiration. I enjoyed it and had fun performing from the start, and I was greatly encouraged. My sister was as well. She became a professional dancer and danced for ten years in Europe. So, I have her to thank. Then I got a full scholarship to the School of American Ballet in Manhattan. Now, all of a sudden, I’m at Lincoln Center taking class with a whole other level of students and the many people who would come through there as professionals, from Nureyev to Baryshnikov. I understood finally: Oh, this is what is possible! I hadn’t really seen it. I mean, there was a professional ballet company, which was very good, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but I didn’t get it at that time. I was inspired just to be immersed in all that is New York and Lincoln Center, surrounded by people I read about and saw photos of; suddenly, they were there coming to life in front of me. When I was sixteen, Peter Martins offered me a place in the company, the New York City Ballet. So that’s how the career started.
Ethan Stiefel in ABT’s Swan Lake Act III – Photo: Rosalie O’Connor
I loved New York City Ballet and danced there for six years. It was a great place to grow up. I also saw American Ballet Theatre, they toured and I always wanted to do that as well as Swan Lake, Giselle, ballets of that nature. ABT was always in the back my head. At the same time, I had an interest in living and working in Europe. It’s very different, not just living there but the repertoire, the influences, the people you collaborate with… So, I went to Zurich first and then I joined American Ballet Theatre where I stayed. The ideal thing about being at ABT is that the structure of it, the approach, and the setup allowed me the opportunity to guest, like dance with the Royal Ballet for several years, or Australian Ballet or go to the Mariinsky. Probably that was one of the reasons why then I got the invitation to make Center Stage. I would say that I have a curiosity, not a restlessness. I’ve had a constant thirst for evolution and development for myself personally and as an artist. I didn’t always take the easy path and I felt inspired to challenge myself to get to the next place. This career is short for obvious reasons, so I wanted to make sure that I had full and diverse experiences because you never know how long you have the privilege to practice the career. I suppose that was also what took me around, to New Zealand, for example. I’m interested in dance obviously, but I’m also just interested in people and different places. How lucky I am to travel through what I enjoy doing!
With most opera singers, for instance, if they’re singing a heavier repertoire, it works to focus on those kinds of roles and then take a break to calibrate the voice for lighter roles, although some can switch back and forth with no difficulty. Can you move from ballet to modern dance instantly or do you need time in between?
Great question! One of the things I’m proud of in my career is that I wasn’t in one canon of repertoire. I could move well between the classical—that’s my base—and modern, contemporary. I’m not the only one to do it or have done it, but there’s not that many. Maybe that’s why I had four knee operations. I did go for it all, full immersion in each experience. That’s how I perform. You want to be fully in the moment and generous, and in order to be generous you have to be vulnerable and vice versa. Some people only want to do ballet or modern, which is great, but I was after a kind of rich variety of experience.
Aldeir Monteiro and Ryoko Tanaka in Caili Quan’s Circadia – Photo Rosalie O’Connor
How does a dancer know when to retire?
Hindsight being 20/20, now I would say that I could have performed a couple more years. But I also wanted to finish performing while I felt physically in a place where I was still delivering. I mean, I was managing a 39-year-old body. I felt like I was doing some of the best dancing of my career at that time, so I wanted to leave it in that way. My wife, on the other hand, is still performing and she’s in her early 40s. It’s different for everybody. I also had another creative outlet: when I retired, I was in my first year of directing in New Zealand. If I didn’t have that, I don’t know if I would have retired. That allowed me to have a somewhat elegant transition, so it wasn’t over the next day and I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life. At the same time, though, I think it gave me a prolonged mourning because I didn’t confront it like it was over, I just went into the next thing. I’ve found myself in moments where I’m watching something and I realize I really miss it.
Annie Johnson and Andrea Marini in Claire Davison’s Time within a Time – Photo Rosalie O’Connor
You also mentor and teach young dancers. What does this mean for you?
It all comes full circle. When you can see the dancers really invested and committed and making such progress, there’s nothing better! They’re doing it and I can enjoy having a part to play in that progress. That’s what I love the most, and also choreographing to figure out new and different ways to unlock or to help someone grow in their talent. And by saying that, I’m also talking about myself. I always teach at least once a week in the company. In the spring I’m going to make a new ballet to Brahms Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, the Murray Perahia recording, one of my absolute favorites; that’s going to be our premiere in June. One of the things that also attracted me here was having the chance at least once a year to make a dance. I really enjoy it and they seem to enjoy our collaborative creative experience, which hopefully also feeds a real sense of community in collaboration.
What would you tell a young person who wants to become a ballet dancer?
Why not? Everyone’s experience will be different; it depends on how you want to spend your time and what you want to say with your voice while you’re here on the planet. I met my wife doing this. It’s a challenging art form but worth it. My career, even to this day, can be at times filled with doubts and insecurities, but also complete inspiration and elation. Even though the sacrifice and the commitment are great, there’s also immense reward and fulfillment.
Ethan Stiefel with Elizabeth Hubbard and Peter Gallagher in Center Stage (Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures)
Tell us about the “Center Stage” experience and acting on camera.
This film was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I got a note from Laurence Mark Productions to call them. Laurence Mark made great films like Jerry Maguire and Dreamgirls, and he told me they were looking to make a ballet film. The director was Nicholas Hytner, genius theatrical and film director! It was a huge opportunity for me to be an ambassador for my art form. Yes, it was an immense chance for myself to grow, but at the same time I always carried this in my heart: You’re a ballet dancer, this is what you started when you were eight so take this opportunity to the best of your ability as Ethan to put down ballet on film. In terms of the acting, I had a lot of help and Nick Hytner was a great director, he knew who he was working with, definitely not Gary Oldman or Meryl Streep! It was a young cast and obviously a lot of dancers kind of muddling their way, at least in my case, through acting. Then, Amanda Schull and Zoë Saldana went on to have incredible careers. I wanted my participation in the film to be as good as possible, but I always felt I had a responsibility toward the art form. It’s every 20 years that a ballet movie happens so, yeah, no pressure!
Ethan Stiefel with Amanda Schull and Sascha Radetsky in Center Stage (Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures)
You’ve said that Mikhail Baryshnikov was one of your idols, and you’ve studied and worked with him. What made him so amazing and what did he impart to you?
He is an incredible dancer, and personality, and persona, also extremely intriguing. How he worked really spoke to me. He was a wonderful and generous teacher, and I felt that he really respected me. My respect and admiration for him as an artist are immense. When I was a kid, there was no social media, but I knew of him. He was making films; he was on specials. He’s always going to be someone that you watch and go, wow, I can always learn something and be inspired. It’s been nice that, at certain points, we worked together and he passed on advice and knowledge. I’m always happy to see him, and I think he generally likes to see me.
Do you still practice these days?
After I retired, I kept taking class, not as religiously, but just keeping it going, and then for various reasons I didn’t, and I had another knee procedure. When I’m teaching or creating, I start moving and find what’s doable. So, I still move in that sense but I’m a shadow of my former dancing self. I can pull out a moment here and there, but otherwise it’s faded.
You love motorcycles. What thrills you most when riding a motorcycle?
The best way I can probably sum it up is: generally, I put the bike away for the winter and it’s like that first ride of the season where I ask myself, what are you doing? This is insane, you’re propelling yourself down the road inches above the pavement! At the same time, there’s this sensation I love; it’s something special being on two wheels in the movement and the motion. With a motorcycle you still have to be quite active physically but also mechanically. I drove a friend’s Tesla the other day and it’s wild, you don’t use the brake, you just use one pedal. There’s a real activation in motorcycling that is something unique unto itself. So, this kind of sums up Ethan Stiefel: I’m like, oh my God, what are you doing and at the same time thinking, this is amazing, I love it! I could die but I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
New York City has meant a lot for your career…
I really grew up in New York. All of a sudden, at sixteen, I was living in an apartment in Hell’s Kitchen in the 80s! So, I do have this sense of New York being a home for me, certainly artistically. My son was born in New York. ARB has been there before, and I am so proud to be associated with these dancers and this program. I had very little to do with it except bring people together, but it really does feel like the right moment, the right program, and the right people to show this is what we’re doing, this is what we’re about. It’s an encapsulation of where we are and an indication of where we want to go from here. I always look forward to coming to work and seeing these faces; it’s a very special bunch to me, and we’re all excited to bring this program to New York.
Where do you see ARB headed in the next ten years?
Being much more present on the dancing scene because we are doing special work unique to this company. I really believe that if we keep doing that, then the rest will take care of itself. Yes, I also have to raise money and find spaces, and so on. ARB is essentially a ballet company looking to set trends and at the same time present progressive classicism so the art form continues. In ten years, we’ll have evolved within that idea of our own unique identity and culture in what we present and produce. I’d like to create something distinct for Central Jersey and then expand from there. The work will speak for itself.
Info & tickets to Movin’ + Groovin’ on March 25 @ 7:30pm, Hunter College’s Kaye Playhouse
Top photo: Ethan Stiefel and dancers of ARB – Photo courtesy of ARB